Perfect Dark is the spiritual sequel to Goldeneye 007, the 1997 game beloved of a generation of console-only gamers who — when it came to the FPS genre — didn’t know better. In place of James Bond we have Joanna Dark, and in place of a modern day espionage theme we have a sci-fi theme, but in most other aspects Perfect Dark is distinctly faithful to the Bond game.
It runs on a modified version of the Goldeneye engine, and feels just as clunky to control, with aiming while stationary essential for shooting with a satisfying degree of accuracy. Jumping is once again conspicuous by its absence, but there is now at least the ability to drop from ledges. Level design is equally familiar, with 17 objective-based missions, each no more than 5-10 minutes in length. Objectives typically have to be completed in a set order, and even when this is not strictly necessary it tends to be inconvenient to do otherwise, given the mostly linear level layouts. Missions scale in complexity with the difficulty, so the lower difficulty levels are like abridged versions of the game, with only Perfect Agent (the highest difficulty level) offering the complete experience. The game can be quite unforgiving on this difficulty, with no health pick-ups or shields, and no frames of invulnerability after you are hit. As the game progresses, enemy reaction speed, accuracy and damage all steadily increase, such that by the second half of the game, death is only ever a couple of errors away. This increasing difficulty determines the style of the combat: you can run and gun your way through earlier levels, but a cautious and (where possible) stealthy approach soon becomes essential for success.
It is refreshing to feel somewhat vulnerable in an FPS, but there is a sense in which this is merely an attempt to compensate for the meagre AI. Upon spotting you, too many enemies either stay rooted to their position or else mindlessly chase after you. With the chasers, you can simply retreat to a more convenient spot and then pick them off once they run into your sights (a tactic made even more efficient by the inability of most enemies to shoot at you from long range). The stationary enemies pose more of a problem, but those with submachine guns or assault rifles (which is most of them) are undone by their predictable shooting patterns. As soon as they see you they seem to unload an entire clip, regardless of whether or not you remain in their sights. The obvious trick with them is to lean out from a corner just enough to get their attention, quickly retreat back around the corner as they start shooting, then pop back out to shoot them once the barrage of gunfire stops and they reload. The level design, with its abundance of short, narrow corridors, provides plenty of opportunities for such cheap kills.
The AI can at least boast one positive in the fact that enemies will punch and disarm you if you get too close (in Goldeneye they were amusingly ineffective at very close range), but aside from this it is every bit as exploitable as it is in Goldeneye — underwhelming for a game that launched some two years after Half-Life had shown how to do aggressive AI that kept the player on their toes. Even just copying the propensity that Half-Life’s marines had to throw grenades would have made the combat a whole lot more interesting; I must have only had to deal with two or three grenades in my entire playthrough.
Enemies may not be clever, but they at least feel somewhat lifelike thanks to some good animation. Goldeneye’s impressive location-sensitive hit reactions have been refined and added to: enemies clutch their wounds, limp when they’re shot in the leg, and dramatically tumble or slump to the ground in their death throes. You can even shoot the guns out of their hands, in which event they either draw a second weapon out, scurry after the gun to pick it up, or raise their hands to surrender. The first-person character animation is no less impressive. Get up close to an enemy with a pistol and you tilt it sideways, gangster style. Then there are the guns. Goldeneye skimped on this aspect, with every single weapon pathetically dipping below your vision as you reloaded. As if to make up for it, Perfect Dark features some beautifully smooth and intricate gun animations. The Laptop Gun unfolds itself as you take it out, while reloading sees you rest a tiny silver clip in place before forcefully slotting it in. There’s also a superbly animated shotgun, but best of all is the Cyclone, a submachine gun with a very high fire rate. It’s reloaded by feeding a large gold clip right the way through a slot at the base of the weapon, the gun stripping the cartridges from the clip as it glides through and is ejected out the other side.
As these descriptions suggest, Perfect Dark has a very unique weapon set — the sci-fi theme allowing the developers the freedom to throw in pretty much anything cool they could conceive of. A submachine gun with a cloaking device that runs off ammo? Sure. An alien rail gun with an x-ray sight that lets you shoot through walls? Why not? Each weapon has a secondary function, so even an otherwise conventional weapon like the Dragon (the basic assault rifle) doubles up as a proximity explosive, while the aforementioned Laptop Gun can be deployed as a sentry gun. If you’re the kind of person to be bothered about a weapon set being balanced then this is a game to exasperate you. That x-ray gun that can fire through walls also kills in one shot, and its secondary function is a target locator that scans the level for targets and then tracks them, allowing you to easily pick off enemies from several rooms away. Admittedly you’re only given the pleasure of using this gun for one level, but its inclusion in the game at all is indicative of the developers’ indifference to seeing that your little starting pistol can match up to all the powerful and remarkable weapons you come to acquire. The game is all the better for this, for the pleasure in using the thunderous K7 Avenger or the Phoenix with its deadly explosive shells derives precisely from that gulf in power between them and the weaker weapons, and they are not so plentiful as to render the weaker ones completely redundant.
On top of the cool weapons and animation, there are also great sound effects that punch through the mix, as well as some subtle gore effects, with gunshots projecting enemies’ blood on to nearby walls and objects. The overall effect is that every shot you fire feels powerful, making the basic act of shooting people every bit as satisfying as it should be. It’s not quite as satisfying in the case of alien enemies, since they have fewer hit reaction animations, but you’re only fighting them for 3 of the 17 levels, so it’s not much of an issue.
The main problem with Perfect Dark is that while it has this great weapon set with all these cool secondary functions, they are seriously underutilised in the level design. The missions rarely ever demand that you do anything but shoot as normal, with few incentives and opportunities to make creative use of the weapons. It is not hard to imagine, for example, a scenario in which a clever placement of a Laptop Gun as a sentry gun was vital for repelling a horde of enemies, or a stealth mission that gave you an RC-P120 (the gun with the cloaking device) with limited ammo and demanded expert timing in the use of the cloaking function. Moments of this kind are altogether too rare, suggesting a lack of imagination on the level designers’ part, or else a fragmented design process in which the specific weapon mechanics were something of an afterthought in the level design. As things are, there is too little variety in the combat situations, which only serves to emphasise the deficiencies in AI — deficiencies that might have been more easily overlooked had the secondary weapon functions been central to the design and the combat more complex and interesting as a result.
Aesthetically, Perfect Dark is a mixed bag. Character design is poor, not least the protagonist herself, who has a bland face that seems to be even less detailed than some enemies. The voice over work doesn’t do her any favours, either — for a secret agent she sounds about as threatening as Mary Poppins. The environments are more impressive, taking in everything from Area 51 to Air Force One, although there is a noticeable decline in quality towards the end of the game as the cyberpunk theme of the first half gives way to alien settings. Textures are remarkably detailed and sharp for the N64, and with the exception of a few later levels there is a decent variety of them too. There is also dynamic lighting, with lights that can be switched off or shot out, and a cool motion-blur effect to simulate dizziness when you’re punched or tranquilised. All of this unfortunately comes at the expense of the frame rate, which stutters along at 20-25fps, sometimes even less (more on this when I discuss the 360 remake).
The story is a rather average sci-fi yarn, involving a conspiracy between a sinister arms corporation and a malevolent alien race. It’s not played entirely straight, with some awkward humour courtesy of Elvis, an alien ally who is kind of like the Jar Jar Binks of this game. The humour is fairly dissonant with the semi-realistic violence and the tense, pulsating soundtrack, giving the game an uneven tone overall. I’d have preferred something more in keeping with the title and the cyberpunk theme of the earlier levels.
There are the makings of a great game in Perfect Dark: the game that could have been made had the developers realised what a good thing they had in their weapon mechanics and designed the levels accordingly. Instead, they appear to have been too wedded to the Goldeneye formula, with its straightforward combat and level design. What we’re left with is a competent FPS with some fun moments and neat touches, but not one to speak about in the same breath as other famous sci-fi shooters of the era. To answer the question everyone posed at its release: yes, Perfect Dark is better than Goldeneye, but for an FPS in 2000, that’s really the least that should have been expected.
A Note on the Xbox 360 Remake
The 360 remake is a mostly cosmetic upgrade, with new textures and remodelled characters and weapons, but no significant changes to the level geometry or the mechanics. The new textures are more detailed and colourful, without straying far from the overall look of the originals. There is more of a departure with the character models, most noticeably with Joanna herself, whose new character design isn’t anything brilliant, but is nonetheless a marked improvement over the bland, blurry original.
As you’d expect, the dual analog set up improves the controls considerably. We’re not talking Halo levels of precision, but it is at least a hell of a lot easier to aim than it was with those awkward C-buttons. The game runs at 1080p and at a steady 60fps. I found the original’s stuttering frame rate just about tolerable back in 2000, but it makes it almost unplayable now, so the higher frame rate is probably the most welcome improvement.
Overall, while the new visuals are decent, it’s the superior controls and frame rate that really make this the version to play.