This week, Zero Punctuation reviews Darkest of Days.
Some of you are now asking yourself "What the hell is Darkest of Days?", or "Has Yahtzee been fucked over by release dates again?", or "Will alternative energy sources ever be sustainable?", or "What is the capital of Botswana?", or "Why do nice girls hate me?" To answer those questions in no particular order: No, self-esteem issues, a little bit, an independent first-person shooter available on Steam and Xbox 360, and Gabarone. As for why I'm reviewing Darkest of Days, well would you believe it's because it's the first shooter I've encountered in years whose premise alone made me intrigued enough to buy it rather than give me another reason to curse the existence of Halo and the ever-growing train of soporific bastard children that scamper about its legs, pistol whipping and fucking each other? I just thought it would be nice to play a current-gen FPS and actually be trying to like it for a change.
You begin the game as arrow fodder in General Custer's army at the Battle of Little Bighorn where you go through what is known as in RPG circles as a "supposed to lose" fight. But seconds before whoopy, arrow-filled death you are teleported to an agency in the far future which appears to consist of one room and about three guys. Apparently, you are now free to act as a time-travelling secret agent because the authorities of your time put you down as an M.I.A., and considering how every member of a given army in this game is totally identical, that's probably an easy mistake to make. Time travel is common in the future and as with virtually everything else in the world the tourists are spoiling it for every one else. You're informed that your new job is to clean up after time-altering miscreants by infiltrating the armies of various historical battles and ensuring that things happen the way they were supposed to happen. Like Timecop, but without the gratuitous naked bum scene. And your character's strangely okay with this for someone who's been freshly ripped from the 19th century, although he is a silent protagonist, so his new future bosses could just be mistaking compliance for absolute dumbfounded terror.
When you're dealing with time travel it's important to establish who's rules are in play. Is this 12 Monkeys rules where you can't change shit? Or Back to the Future rules where you can change shit, but the timeline is kind of easy-going about it? Or Terminator rules where you can change shit, but maybe you can't change shit and then you make a god-awful TV series and Christian Bale yells at someone? When history gets changed in Darkest of Days there's apparently enough leeway for you to pick it up on your future periscope and dispatch some armed agents to sort everything out with their magic time-fixing bullets. And even if they cock it up, they can sort it out with more violence further down the line; as long as the losers lose and the winners win it doesn't seem to matter. It's an appealingly slap-dash approach to time policing, like a plumber who works with duct tape and string.
At the start your colleague makes clear the importance of sticking to dodgy period weapons, but for reasons unclear to me he sometimes hands you an assault rifle and advises that history can probably survive you going peanut banana sandwich crazy for a few minutes. And if you honestly don't see the appeal of mowing down the entire Confederate army with an aim-assisted automatic space gun then you should probably take a long, hard look at what you're doing with your life.
The perplexingly named 8monkey Labs made a big thing of their obsessive historical accuracy and original graphics engine. The first one isn't my department, I guess the Civil War uniforms are accurate as far as I know, but they may have all been dressed up as Klingons and they would've been accurate as far as I know. I am fairly certain, however, that the Union army didn't consist entirely of clones who transform into goose-stepping paper cutouts if they get more than fifty yards away from you, which brings me to the graphics engine. It's like they took the kind of thing the Total War games used for its real-time battle things and dropped you right in the middle of it, with huge, open maps and massive numbers of NPCs all doing coordinated exercise routines with their seven hundred twin brothers. It is nice to see something like this used for fun rather than some dry RTS that appeals to middle managers who can no longer tell the difference between fun and Microsoft Access. It looks fine if you don't examine too closely and overlook the fact that moving over terrain feels like you're riding a fucking hoverboard.
The gameplay is a string of disappointments, lifting me up and knocking me down over and over again like it's playing Guess Who with my heart. It makes itself out as a Crysis style shooter where you can go anywhere on the map and pick your own method to meet the objective and for that reason it is going to hell for lying. Your objectives are always a strictly linear path, often with waypoints marked out in case you suffer panic attacks if you aren't being steered around by the fucking nose every second of the day. And any attempt to defy fate by fleeing over the hills of freedom (which I feel would be a quite appropriate act of role-play considering the circumstances) will be met by bouncing painfully off one of the many invisible walls that infest the terrain. I suppose a visible one would have been historically inaccurate, would it? And as for choosing your own method, your choices are pistol, or rifle, or turning off the game to punch yourself in the stomach. It's occasionally suggested that you use stealth, but there is none. It's the old FarCry problem of enemies instantly spotting you up a tree two miles away. Human beings had much keener vision the days before the Virtual Boy ruined everyone's eyesight, so I hope you like shooting because they certainly do!
I'm forced to admit that the only thing that sets "D-est of Ds" apart is that premise I liked so much, and it doesn't even handle that very well. From a promising starting point of having all history's battles to fight in, you just go back and forth between the American Civil War and the Russian front in World War I. I can think of some way darker days than that. The Dark Ages for a start. And taking on fully-armoured medieval knights with a microwave gun would've been a whole new kind of entertainment. The story is complex and intriguing, but stick with it to the ending and it'll all be fully explained by a single monologue from a guy standing in an empty room. That's it. And it's not even a denouement, because the old "To Be Continued" card gets pulled, which I'd usually jump all over with crampons and a backpack full of dumbbells, but since this is the studio's debut title, I guess if they want to ensure that they've still got a job next week, that's fair enough. And I would actually like to see it continued because there's a lot of potential on display. I'd like to see another one with more time periods to go to, better storytelling, more flexible objectives, and while I'm fantasizing I'd also like a flying cat that dispenses harps.
Visitor from a distant future: Ben "Yahtzee" Croshaw
I don't really think 8monkey Labs consists entirely of children, but given the name I wouldn't be surprised
I would settle for a cat on water skies that dispenses string