The Light in the Dark: In Defense of Perfect Dark Zero

Last week I was sitting in a good friend’s basement with nothing to do. There were four of us and we started chatting about what upcoming games we had plans to pick up. God of War 3, Alan Wake and Crackdown 2 all got mentions and then it hit me: Perfect Dark is getting an Xbox Live Arcade remake. Not only that, it was less than a week away from release.

We have all been friends for more than a decade now and have fond memories of split-screen multiplayer sessions that stretched long into the night. Matches of Fists/Psychosis Gun only, proximity mines everywhere and trying (usually futilely) to take down an army of Dark Bots.

Out of the blue, one of my more eccentric buddies suggested we dig out a copy of Perfect Dark Zero. The now five-year old Xbox 360 launch title hadn’t been touched in a very long time. We popped the disc in, not expecting to find a single server open. Much to our surprise, not only did we find one server, we found several. It seems that some very dedicated gamers had been keeping Rare’s last first-person shooter on life support.

When the game was released it was impossible to live up to the massive amount of hype focused on the title. Perfect Dark for the Nintendo 64 was Rare’s follow-up to their already fantastic shooter GoldenEye. Rare proved that the FPS genre could work on home consoles with GoldenEye and Perfect Dark was their attempt to refine a brilliant formula even further. The UK developer succeeded in every sense, delivering what is often viewed as one of the greatest games ever made.

Perfect Dark Zero was received quite differently. Despite garnering a respectable 81% review aggregate on GameRankings.com, the title was almost universally panned by fans. Complaints ranged from major (the cover system ruined the game’s pacing) to the niggling (Joanna looks completely different/Doesn’t have a British accent!)

The game has largely been forgotten and those who look back on it often do so in disgust. However, I find myself on the other side of the spectrum. When the game came out I found myself devouring the multiplayer and blasting through the campaign in co-op numerous times. There had to be something there that other people were missing. After revisiting the game a few days ago, I find myself still convinced that most gamers didn’t give Perfect Dark Zero a fair shake. On the day after the original masterpiece was re-released, it’s time to look back at its prequel and see what many gamers missed.


Peek-a-Boo

Long before Killzone 2 had console-FPS players peeking out from corners, Perfect Dark Zero had a versatile and useful cover system. In the single-player campaign the system was integral to scoping out enemy positions. The game was brutally difficult on the Dark Agent setting and the cover system was your savior. Unlike Killzone 2, Rare chose to implement the cover system in the game’s multiplayer component as well. This choice made the online matches completely different from everything else on the market. Players who were close to death could snap to a wall and blind-fire while recovering some health. It added a defensive component that most shooters are missing.



That Wasn’t Here Before…

Perfect Dark Zero supports up to 32 people or bots in its online matches. Many games have certain maps for large-scale battles and another set of maps for smaller conflicts. Rare went a completely different route for Perfect Dark Zero. Each map could be played with any number of people but depending on that number, different sections of the map would be open or closed. Playing with 50 people on Desert? All four bases and the massive amount of connecting territory is yours to play with. Only have a few friends and don’t want to play with bots? The map can be set to only open the main base. This variation allowed every map to be included in rotation, no matter the number of players.

In addition to these size modifiers players could plant explosive charges at set points around the maps. By completing a quick Pipe Dream-esq mini-game a brand new passageway can be opening up, further modifying the maps.


This is How I Roll

In the trailer for Halo: Reach‘s multiplayer beta Bungie showed off a brand-new play mechanic. Throughout the trailer players can be seen dodge-rolling their way out of danger. This evasive move will allow players to get away from grenades and other dangers with the press of button. The edition of dodge-rolling will definitely change how Halo plays and will be revolutionary for console shooters.

Well, it would be revolutionary if Perfect Dark Zero hadn’t done it five years ago. By tapping the left bumper players could roll and get a quick, third-person view of the action. Some players complained that it turned matches into a mob of people rolling around instead of fighting. In reality it was no different from a player strafing or backing away from a firefight. The dodge-roll just gave players another way to take control of the battlefield.


That Gun Does What?!

Weapon selection can make or break a shooter. Would Gears of War be as memorable without the Lancer or Hammer of Dawn? Perfect Dark Zero has a huge selection of unique weapons, all of which had secondary functions and many of which had tertiary functions. The powerful Super Dragon assault rifle didn’t just fire bouncing grenades, it also gave you night-vision. The Uzi could be thrown on the ground as an explosive trap for your foes. The MAG-SEC had full magazines that could be thrown and would fire off bullets like a roman-candle. And let’s not forget the Laptop Gun. A slick looking rifle that could be transformed into a sentry gun and thrown on walls. These weapons are just the tip of the creative iceberg. I could spend an entire article talking about the bullet deflecting swords, x-ray sniper rifles and all of the other fun ways to slay your enemies in Perfect Dark Zero.


JETPACKS!

As you may already know, I love jetpacks; it’s one of the reasons why I’m excited for Halo: Reach. In Perfect Dark Zero, players could climb aboard mini-mechs that walked along the ground and mowed enemies down with a machine gun. With a press of a button the mechs deployed wings and took to the sky, leading to frantic aerial battles. It was always fun to fly around raining down metal as you dodged enemy rockets. The added mobility made traversing the game’s large maps easier and frankly, more fun.


Haha, You Can’t Hit Me!

Spawn killing is the despicable act of a coward. Slaughtering helpless men and women as they magically appear on a map shows that you don’t have the skill to score in an even fight. Many shooters have been seriously handicapped by terrible spawn systems (I’m looking at you, Modern Warfare 2). Rare chose to alleviate this problem by creating dedicated spawn rooms for both teams. Players would appear in these safe-rooms after their death and be were able to pick up basic weapons before returning to battle. A time limit was in place to ensure losing teams wouldn’t hide out in the spawn rooms to save their lives.

Players even had several exits to choose from. Scattered about each map were data terminals that acted as spawn room exits. By approaching the terminal players could slowly hack them, claiming the point for their team. The more terminals you hacked the more points you could make appear on the map, a feature adopted by Killzone 2 almost five years later. This battle for control of the map added another layer of complexity to the current gametype.


I, For One, Welcome Our New Robot Overlords

Not everyone has friends to play video games with. They might not like gaming or you could just be unlikeable; I’m not here to judge you. With Perfect Dark Zero, everyone had friends. Of course, they were murderous artificial-intelligence constructs hell-bent on your death. Rare’s inclusion of Bots (also called Simulants in the original game) made it so that no match was ever empty. Even offline games could be filled with bots to give Xbox Live-less players that sweet online game feel, minus the racial and homophobic slurs. For a regular match most gamers used the default ‘Vanilla’ Bots. Gamers looking for a little more variety could choose from a list of personalities that drastically changed how matches played out. There was the ‘Kamakazi’ Bot who would attack no matter how it was armed or how much health it had. Then there was the villainous ‘Prey’ Bot who hunted down the player with the lowest health and armor. My personal favorite was the ‘Venge’ Bot, an unstoppable force who would track down the last player who killed it and exacted terrible revenge. Its Terminator-like vigilance often made it not worth killing as you knew that it would come for you when you least expected it.


Put ‘Em Up!

Running out of bullets is usually a death-sentence in shooters. Melee can play an important role when combined with projectiles or when it’s a one-hit kill like in Modern Warfare. Rare went a different route by give players defensive melee options. In addition to punching independently with each hand via the left and right triggers, players could disarm their enemies with a secondary attack. Turning the tides on an attacker by stealing their powerful rifle never got old.


She May Be Old, But She’s A Looker

One that thing really surprised me when I revisited Perfect Dark Zero is that the game still looks good after five progress-filled years. Console launch titles rarely stand the graphical test of time. Compare Devil May Cry to God of War II and you’ll see how far the Playstation 2 evolved over its lifespan. While Perfect Dark Zero can’t compare to the likes of God of War III or Uncharted 2, it still holds its own against a lot of current titles. The environments are detailed and the lighting, despite it’s overly heavy use of HDR, still provides a nice sense of atmosphere. The gun textures are shiny or gritty when appropriate and the explosions they cause are nice and fiery.

The only things that don’t really hold up are the character models. They looked like horrifying mutant Barbie dolls come to life when the game was released and they still do now.

Despite all of these features and more, gamers didn’t fall in love with Perfect Dark Zero. Its pubic reception shows what hype can do to an otherwise good title. Fable, Grand Theft Auto IV and countless other titles have fallen victim to this phenomenon.

Perfect Dark Zero is not as bad as you remember. And maybe, just maybe, this look back on a sorely unappreciated game has prompted you to give it another chance.