Damnation is one of the best bad games I've ever played. It has style galore, a plot to die for, over-the-top dialogue that mostly works, crazy characters, crazy characters in crazy costumes, and an absolutely outlandish plot, even for a video game. I could go on quite a bit, you know.
The game's universe is set in an undated alternate history, probably sometime after the American Civil War has torn apart the nation, leaving the American West a shambles called Damnation. An industrial tycoon who has styled himself Lord Prescott really, really wants to rule the loosely allied states of that dangerous wasteland. If this sounds familiar, it's because several years back, an Unreal Tournament 2004 mod of a similar name — Damnation: Hell Breaks Loose — took second prize in Epic Games' Make Something Unreal contest. For novelty and strength of design, it deserved the award, too; but the years have not been particularly kind to something I'd like to have seen as a full-fledged commercial product only shortly after its contest-winning bid.
Taking the good first, as mentioned, the universe is an alternate history and should probably be assumed as no more than that. A lot of folks will argue that it's a Steampunk tale, while the developers at Blue Omega will insist it's merely inspired by Steampunk. I'll take the developers' side: Blue Omega did not confine themselves to fanatics' Byzantine constructs of contemporary Steampunk literature to make this game.
Don't worry: Steampunk as a self-supporting genre works just fine. In fact, it's created a significant following for quite a few sci-fi authors. But parts Damnation have much in common with a Neal Stephenson epic as it does "The Golden Compass." Blue Omega sensed the opportunity to throw everything and the kitchen sink into this game, and to a great extent, they did. They're all here: super-stretch monster motorcycles, massive air haulers called Corsairs, and nimble little flyers suited like gliders for personal use. In general, Damnation's weaponry follows the sort of chronological development you'd expect if you started with a boilerplate American West arsenal.
Our Lord Prescott — in his zeal to own — industrialize and mine everything, is up to no good all over the place, but the best thing he ever did was set up hundreds of propaganda-blaring loudspeakers in the towns he's attempting to recruit. This is the best in-game propaganda writing ever, bar none. There's been a lot of good in-game propaganda along the way, for games tend to lend themselves well to dystopian angst. Now, I don't mean the silliest or most ridiculously inane writing in this part of Damnation. I mean, really, the best. Witness: Your valuables will be taken from you and stored in a safe place. As citizens of New America, it is your right to visit your valuables at any time you choose. It gets better! One free ration of water is provided for every shift working in the mines. My personal fave is the one about the weak and infirm being the last evacuated to New America — as the message claims, to protect the health and safety of those poor, debilitated folks. Damnation comes about $10 off being worth the price of admission just for those propaganda reels. The writer outdid himself, so I doff to him my 19th-century headgear.
Next in Damnation's win column is the whole vertical environment shtick. Really, at first blush, it comes off as a total gimmick, but the controls work quite well, character movement is fluid, and it's no Uncharted, but it's at least one of the best climbing/swinging apparatuses I've come across in a while — especially for a game billed as a shooter. The vertical environment shtick starts to wear off as a total gimmick, and the up/down hijinks go on far, far, far too long. It takes forever to get anywhere even when you're in a hurry, and there's nothing much to find on your way, save a handful of dead, boring collectibles. (There are weapons and ammo scattered about, too, but I always had plenty of what I need; and just before an enemy encounter, the game throws even more of it at me.)
It's at this point, wayfinding becomes a real problem. I don't mind an open-world exploration kind of arrangement in the least, but all the great — even all the merely decent — open-world games provide some sort of navigation system for when you're ready to get on — even if it's just a hackneyed radar display grafted onto the lower right corner. But in Damnation, you hunt to hell and back. When one of Hamilton Rourke's comrades-at-arms, Zagato, enters a new area, two out of three times, he'll announce, "Why can't things ever be easy? I'll cover, you explore." Oh the dear, dear joy of wondering all over the damn place hoping to trip over something useful. If Damnation were half as long, it would likely hang together far better. Blue Omega would have been well advised to cut the whole experience down by half and add in that radar.
Damnation's graphics are not outstanding. They're not awful, either, but I've become enough accustomed to B-list games and movie tie-in titles, I can tolerate a lot in graphical glitches, jaggies, low-resolution textures and other visual gunk as long as the game has a fair bit to recommend it. And Damnation does, in spots, have that special "something" that most of us look for in games. I'd be a stone liar if I said I wasn't glad I played this game because there are elements of Damnation that are a lot of fun. It's weird how quality design sometimes shines through the muck: If you die by enemy, you're back all the way at a somewhat unforgiving checkpoint. But if you die because you fell off something or jumped to a ledge where there was indeed no ledge, the game sticks you right back where you were before you slipped on that banana peel. You're reward for challenging within the environment, if not within the combat system. There are also paths and routes one can discover without what seems too much effort, with what seems intentional, clean design — and you feel good when you're sussing them out, or just trip over them. Still, I'd be as much a fabulist if I didn't declare straight, but I sure wish I hadn't played Damnation quite so long.
One particular note: Damnation is absolutely not a shooter's shooter. Take it as an adventure game with guns, if you make some allowances, but otherwise, no. For example, a dead, face-up headshot will pop an enemy's noodle cradle right open: boom, thunk, nothing but bone and brain matter. You can pull this off perhaps once out of four perfect shots. The other three times, you'll have to use your admittedly fancy sniper rifle to pop a handful of extra rounds right up the guy's nose before he'll drop. And, no, he's not wearing Lord Prescott's patent Nostril Armor. In a firefight, the other weapons are often equally inconsistent. Get used to it if you're going to play: New American weapons technology is not quite up to the standard to what we're accustomed.
Toting around weapons is handled by the now-familiar Gears of War d-pad method. The system didn't originate with the Epic title, but it is perhaps the best example. The down d-pad position is for pistols, including those of the machine and rapid-fire variety, and the left and right arrows are reserved for the bigger armaments; they're interchangeable, so in the heat of battle you'll have to remember what you put where. Upper d-pad, common for grenades, is unused, and explosives usable as grenades or trip-mines are instead placed on the Triangle button. Don't fret that it's not terribly convenient; they're mostly useless anyway. Finally, you can sometimes pick up dropped heavy weapons, like the Automan's gun. Similar to Gear of War 2's Mulcher, it's of rather limited use and hefting the thing greatly restricts your speed and agility on the ground; be advised that you can't climb up while hauling around the big gun. You get quite a few rounds with it when you pick it up, though.
Character movements are, as typical, controlled by the left and right sticks. Reviving downed comrades — who seem to get downed a lot, at the most inconvenient distances — is accomplished with R1, as are almost all other miscellaneous tasks, like mounting motorcycles and pulling levels. L1 initiates a flash of Rourke's extrasensory perception, allowing him to see, sort of like thermal vision, any enemies in a new region. Problem is, only a couple of them are ever outside — and it about takes the detonation of an atom bomb to get them outside where you can safely shoot them. You're probably going to have to charge in with the shotgun, anyway. L2 readies weapons, and R2 pulls triggers. As you'd expect, punch is R3 for tight aim/zoom (several steps for the sniper rifle). And here's a curio: In Damnation, oft-ignored L3 gets a duty assignment on manual reloads. That's so weird you'll probably only reload once or twice the whole game. Other parts of the control scheme may sound perverse, but they work fine. Especially in areas of vertical negotiation and leap-of-faith jumps, they work pretty damn fine. It's enemy AI, combat collision detection and the aiming system that really need the biggest overhaul.
Much to my dismay, Damnation includes an online multiplayer versus suite. Included are Deathmatch, Team Deathmatch and, drumroll please, a mode that just gives a whole new meaning to old standby King of the Hill of its vertical implication. If you're skeptical about how the whole vertical traversal thing works in a scripted campaign, imagine the same in an eight-player competitive version. If you can ever find other players online, maybe you can try it out it.
On the other hand, to my delight, Damnation includes both split-screen and online co-op modes. Again, for the online iteration, playing co-op is going to involve at least one other dedicated Damnation-owning buddy; but with the inclusion of split screen, at least you'll be able to get most the way through campaign playing co-op — if you so desire it enough to tolerate half a screen for many hours of, "I'll cover, you explore."
In complete honesty, I desperately wanted to love this game. I'm so biased to the subject matter, and I do love enough of the novel elements and when in Damnation, I favor enough to damage my critical credibility just this one time. Perhaps my final score reflects as much what I wanted as is actually supplied in the final package; but I'll stand by this mark for this game, but I do believe there's a lot in here that deserves positive attention. In fact, I may come back to this game in a couple of years, and I'll probably be one of the few who fondly remembers Damnation for its unique subject matter and bitter sense of humor — you just cannot beat those propaganda announcements. Damnation is not a good game by any stretch of the imagination, and gamers accustomed to the top thirty percent of contemporary titles may well be appalled with it. I can only recommend Damnation to anyone who has a very particular special interest in alternative history, especially concerned with the American Old West. Even then, rent it first. But the worst thing that could come out of Damnation is that its flaws prevent Blue Omega from applying their prodigious collective imagination to a better sophomore project: something primed for the spit and polish their work deserves.
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