Perfect Dark Zero arrived alongside the Xbox 360 launch line-Up, bringing with it a considerable amount of heritage. Having spawned from the GoldenEye 007 phenomenon, Perfect Dark was the half-blood sequel to Bond’s videogaming masterpiece. Perfect Dark Zero was a prequel that failed to live-up to the hype. With another Perfect Dark title set for release this year, it seems appropriate that we revisit the first effort under the Xbox banner.

Rare as a studio has been developing games for some time. Originally known as Ultimate: Play The Game, the studio’s biggest titles include Battletoads in BattleManiacs on the Super Nintendo Entertainment System (SNES), Super RC Pro AM on the Game Boy and, of course, the inspirational Nintendo 64 line-up. The likes of Blast CorpsDiddy Kong RacingBanjo-Kazooie and Conker’s Bad Fur Day to name a few. As impressive as this line-up is, just one generation later Rare produced just two titles throughout the entire of the Xbox’s lifecycle. And yet at the same time, the studio put out three for the Game Boy Advance!

Perfect Dark Zero screenshot

A Perfect Start

Perfect Dark was accredited, by the industry at least, as one of the best games ever produced. An extensive list of features and level design that, over 20 years years later, is widely considered the pinnacle of single-player FPS design. Perfect Dark Zero was announced shortly after production on the first title had finished. The game was always a prequel and originally thought to be part of the GameCube’s launch line-up. Of course, that would all change following Microsoft’s acquisition of Rare.

Perfect Dark Zero slipped away from the GameCube, and away from Nintendo altogether. This was along with Rare’s other big project of the time; an adventure game built using the engine from Nintendo’s own The Legend Of Zelda: Ocarina Of Time and inspired by work on StarFox Adventures: Dinosaur Planet (which later surfaced as a GameCube launch window title) – Kameo: Elements Of Power was now set to appear on Microsoft’s new powerhouse entry into the market, the Xbox.

Well, that was all over 20 years ago. Fast-forward to 2005, and Microsoft are back with another console, the Xbox 360. Rare’s two projects originally intended for the GameCube, five years since their first showing, are only now surfacing. Through the company’s past performance a lot was demanded of these titles. However, with the story of the Perfect Dark saga having been very much in the public-eye, it was certainly hard to persuade a begrudging audience that Perfect Dark Zero would be a worthy successor.

Perfect Dark Zero screenshot

Perfect Dark Zero – An Unusual FPS from Start to Finish

Perfect Dark Zero doesn’t following the traditional FPS template. The title is built entirely around distancing the player from tradition. Anyone looking for a Quake 4 or Shadow Warrior blast-everything-on-the-screen title should realise that they’ve made the wrong decision before the title screen makes it’s exit. The story hinges on the origins of Joanna Dark’s relationship with Daniel Carrington and his institute, creating a backstory and a personality for Jo quite distant from the prim-and-proper, stiff-upper-lip girl you experienced in the original title.

The title presents itself as an open-ended experience within the first few levels, disillusioning the player. Later in the the non-linear gameplay loop disappears entirely. The levels expand and contract throughout the player’s progression, but there’s far more misses than hits. The player’s interaction within levels has been minimised. There’s a distinct withdrawal from the involving experience of the first Perfect Dark. It’s hard to criticise Perfect Dark Zero for attempting to experiment with an entirely new way of immersing the player in the action, however there are far too many occasions when simply creating a large map would’ve provided a much less linear experience than what’s here. The vast majority of levels revolve around a very open central area with a mess of winding corridors leading to and from. Much of the design is predictable and stale.

Perfect Dark Zero screenshot

Perfect Friends

In addition to the single-player campaign there is the option of cooperative play. It seems that, on many occasions, much of the game has actually been designed around two players. The inventiveness of the enemy placement is far more evident when tactically assaulting each area with a blaze of joint-gunfire. The weapon variety is pleasing, although disturbingly samey when compared to either the first title. Although Perfect Dark Zero is set some years earlier, very few attempts to offer an alternative to either the Far-Sight or the RCP-120 are included. The title does feature a prototype of the RCP-90, but it only retains the Primary Function of the later model.

The enemy AI is quite a sore-point. The first title is a benchmark in the history of AI development. In all honesty, Perfect Dark Zero doesn’t appear to have progressed in this field at all. In fact, in many cases, it often appears to have regressed. The multiplayer option reveals bots that provide a good argument for the opposite, but the campaign-based enemies often provide little more “human” instincts than those seen in the likes of TimeSplitters 2 or Medal Of Honour: Frontline. With the power of the Xbox 360, this is clearly quite ridiculous.

The multiplayer functions of the title create a rather distant argument from the campaign. With two-to-four players on split-screen, System Link and Xbox Live catering for thirty-two players, automatically the title qualifies for at least a quick look. However, any quick look will no doubt end in a four-hour killing-spree. The customisation options of the split-screen are fantastic. Players can compete against up to 16 bots at a user-defined difficulty. A large variety of maps and settings are available across numerous play modes.

Every option of each match is totally customisable – down to each and every weapon and the availability of vehicles. Dark Ops is an alternative multiplayer mode allowing for a variety of scenarios. These include the usual king-of-the-hill and flag-based modes, as well as inventive new offerings such as ‘Eradication’. Here, players are divided into teams and allotted an amount of cash with which to buy upgraded weaponry. Using this weaponry, the teams play until only one remains. In-turn, they receive additional funding depending on their final placement to spend in the next round.

Perfect Dark Zero has Many Issues…

The freedom of movement is somewhat hindered by the development team not feeling the necessity to add a jump function. Perfect Dark purists will probably be screaming right now, but in the campaign, it’s not been included simply because it isn’t necessary. However, in multiplayer, not including such a basic function greatly restricts many common tactics for deathmatching.

As stated above, the AI is far better for the bots than for the enemies in campaign. Whether or not this was a purposeful decision is unclear at best. However, for all the worth it adds to the multiplayer, it strips the campaign of much of its would-be charm. With the deathmatching options being so varied, it’s highly unlikely that any Xbox 360 gamer won’t be able to gather a small group of friends and keep them entertained for an evening. The multiplayer in Perfect Dark Zero makes all the right moves and breaks-through many of the boundaries the campaign seems to stumble upon.

Perfect Dark Zero screenshot

…But Audio-Visual Design it Not One of Them

The title manages to keep Rare’s reputation of impeccable graphical prowess in good form. Perfect Dark Zero is easily the best looking title in the Xbox 360’s launch line-up. The game features some very tasty dynamic and real-time lighting. The animation however, is not without its flaws, and some of the aforementioned lighting often finds conflict with other near-by light sources. It’s a complement to the Xbox 360 that Rare have managed to top the competing PC-ported FPS’ alongside Perfect Dark ZeroQuake 4 and Call Of Duty 2. However, it’s also clear that the launch line-up doesn’t perform as well as titles that arrived just a few months later.

The sound quality however, is impeccable. Despite being altogether stingy with character soundbites, the soundtrack follows Rare’s FPS traditions of flowing with the gameplay. Picking-up the pace when the heat is on and creating a smooth and relaxed atmosphere whilst sneaking through the under-growth. Despite its vast array of bugs and shortcomings, there’s no denying that Perfect Dark Zero was the most technically achieved title available for Xbox 360 at launch.

A Perfect Ending

Perfect Dark Zero is clearly one of the better early titles for the Xbox 360. However, it also clearly failed to expand upon its predecessor. While the campaign leaves far too much to be desired, the multiplayer is one of the finest examples of FPS Deathmatching on any 2000s system. Surely, Rare created a mixed-bag, and caused quite a conundrum amongst their very vocal fanbase. Perfect Dark devotees were disappointed, as were many expecting the prequel to follow the same influential patterns of it’s predecessor. However, Perfect Dark Zero remains an enjoyable FPS nearly 20 years later. While it may not have lived up to the expectations of breaking new ground, being fun is surely enough?

Categories: Games