Wot I Think: Damnation

By John Walker on May 22nd, 2009 at 7:18 pm.

Daymmm.

Damnation is the first release from Blue Omega Entertainment, a game that began as an Unreal 3 mod, then spotted by Codemasters was given a proper budget and developed into a full scale game. But how good a game? With excitable press releases and promises of being “the first vertical shooter”, and quite a bit of attention given to the ludicrous costumes, it sure caught our attention. Having finished it this afternoon, here’s wot I think.

Damnation’s great promise was to create a game that played out vertically as well as horizontally. It delivers on this promise. The problem is, it delivers this in a way that’s no different from so many other action platformers, and puts it alongside clumsy Gears of War-ish combat, moronic AI, and presents it all in an atrociously buggy mess of a game.

The views are pretty.

While a game shouldn’t be judged on the promises made before its released, but rather on what it delivers when you play, it’s hard to completely dismiss the constant claims of a “shooter gone vertical” that have been shouted in all the promotion over the last year. Damnation is no more vertical than the Prince of Persia: Sands of Time trilogy, or any of the last three Tomb Raiders, and its platforming is a league behind both. As a shooter, it’s a peculiarly undynamic, intermittent, and just astonishingly repetitive affair, and the closest such gunplay ever gets to being vertical is aiming for the roof of a nearby building.

Hamilton Rourke, your cowboy-esque hero, lives in an alternative Earth in the early 20th century. He’s the goody. There’s then the evil Prescott, boss of Prescott Standard Industries, an evil corporation trying to take over the Earth using green goo-powered robots. He’s the baddy. Somewhere between the two is a story so completely nonsensical that I can’t even begin to fathom it. Rourke is surrounded by an ever-changing collection of NPC helpers, who switch in and out based on the events of cutscenes that last so long, and contain so little coherence, that I couldn’t tell you who’s who, which one was the other’s sister or brother, how they’re related to the psychic guy with glowing tattoos, or what anything has to do with anything else. It doesn’t change anything – you’re still tasked with finding the correct route to the next location, and shooting everything in your way.

What Damnation does well is scale. As you move through the chapters of the game, you traverse vast cities, generally aiming toward one particular building or location in the distance. And there’s no question that these sprawling vistas are impressive. Its finest achievement is to induce a sense of vertigo – because you climb the heights yourself, looking back down on them feels much more believable, and stopping Rourke with his toes over the edge of a cliff or roof edge can generate genuine “Woah!” moments. However, this sadly doesn’t translate to a wildly open and explorable world, as given away by the second sight power Rourke quickly receives.

My magic eye.

Part of the peculiar mysticism in this alternative steampunk cowboy world is a few people apparently possessing magical powers. Early on you’re given the ability to see the location of all enemies in the area. So long as he’s stood still with his hands free, Rourke can go into a focus mode where all the baddies show up as orange figures, seen through walls, rocks, etc. It’s a neat idea, letting you approach each combat section tactically, and lets you know when you’re safe to attempt the more platforming sequences. Or at least it would be if anything in the game worked properly.

The power reveals the reality of the game. While you may be able to see a long way, sections of the level don’t come to life until you trigger them. So you can search for enemies, see none, walk through a doorway and be attacked by twelve of them. It’s hopeless. When it works, it’s a decent feature. So if you’re in a wide area with enemies scattered in surrounding buildings, you can locate them and snipe out most of them before you get near.

Get near and it’s all over the place. You can carry three weapons at once, swapping them out for the eight or so the game features, but they’re only available to fire when you’re holding down a button. To actually fire them you hold down a second button. To change weapons another still, along with a fourth for reloading. It’s tempting to plug in a 360 controller, but to get the turning sensitivity high enough to move normally, aiming is madly impossible, with no auto-lock-on. Mouse and keyboard proves the more amenable solution, but the juggling of fingers just to fire a gun means surprise attacks are a giant pain in the arse. This is made a degree worse by an infuriating delay before the game will let you fire a weapon – have it in hand and it will still wait a full second before providing the reticule, by which point you’re half dead.

Aw, he looks sad.

Fortunately the enemies rarely put up much of a fight. So utterly bonkers is the AI that they’re equally likely to jump through a window in the opposite direction as fire their weapons toward you. One zombie creature I encountered was running into a wall, his forehead pressed against it, until I shot him and he magically fell into the bricks and vanished. Another was revealed crouched on a hillside by my second sight, but crouched inside a rock, preserved for future archaeologists to discover. My favourite was the enemy soldier who was running around in tight circles next to a giant cannon, who appeared each time I reloaded, and indeed in a colleague’s copy of the game – he’d apparently been programmed to do that. More often they’ll just stand still while you chip bits of their heads off, or ignore the deaths of all their nearby friends then go into a mad frenzy the moment you turn your attention on them. More problematically, they also fail to register when they’re being hit, so you’ve no idea if your bullets are making contact until they keel over.

Oddly you can often sit back and let the combat take care of itself. Damnation can be played in co-op, letting another player jump in at any point in the game and take control of one of the NPCs that accompany you everywhere. I played this game pre-release, so perhaps certain important computers weren’t switched on, but all attempts to set up a co-op game ended in failure. However, two people not enjoying playing a bad game at the same time probably wasn’t going to bring it to life. This does mean, of course, that you’ve always got at least one buddy controlled by the machine.

Traditionally the larger problems with NPC AI are incompetence. Peculiarly in Damnation, it’s quite the opposite. They’re far too damned good at the game, and end up spoiling any glimmers of fun available. Where Damnation is reasonably entertaining is in the platforming exploration. Much as with Tomb Raider or Prince of Persia, you need to spot the correct route to ascend or descend the level’s features, looking out for ledges, ladders and ropes that will let you acrobatically progress. The fun comes from trying to spot the correct route – a feat made slightly easier when the NPC runs ahead of you and completes it first. Nearly every single time.

It's all the gang, aww.

However, there’s problems with the acrobatics too. Unlike either of the aforementioned action-adventure series, Rourke’s moves are anything but fluid. You can’t string his moves together into balletic displays because he’s so determined to finish the current animation that the next one has to wait. Climbing becomes sluggish, and jumping is mostly farcical. Even if he doesn’t quite make the distance for a jump, he’ll often jolt the extra couple of inches forward to catch the ledge, then swing frustratingly before he’ll pull himself up. (Oh, and to pull yourself up, you don’t press forward and jump. That makes you go sideways.) By far my favourite control issue is shown in the following screenshot – it’s just the game getting confused over what a mouse thumb button is, but it’s still splendid and appeared every time I approached a lever:

Maybe this is part of the co-op.

This is nothing compared to the AI buddies’ techniques. Get in front of them to stop them revealing the route and they’ll just teleport ahead of you. Get into a lift before they arrive and their disembodied voice will talk to you on the ride, before they materialise at the exit. Jump on a motorbike and race ahead of them as fast as you can to get away from the buggers and PING! they appear on the back anyway.

The bikes. Another touted feature, shown off riding vertically along the walls, they seemed like an excellent inclusion. They aren’t. They make the motorbikes in Tomb Raider games seem realistic. Steering appears to cause the back end to swing out, rather than the front wheel to turn, and there’s no sense of traction whatsoever. You can indeed ride along walls, and brilliantly you can do it hilariously slowly, sticking a finger up at Newton as you crawl along a ceiling.

Magical boobs!

The other gravity-defying aspect is your some-time buddy Yakecon, and her incredible floating boobies. Apparently there’s a great shortage of material for lady’s clothing in this alternate history, as every woman in the game (who might all be sisters, I could never quite follow) has an enormous rack on display, presumably to distract from the plastic-sheen of their mannequin dead-eyed faces.

So much is so very disappointing. The promise that you can jump through any window is a whopping great lie, with the world’s most reinforced glass appearing throughout. There’s the incessant voice of Prescott, shouting the same six or seven lines over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over through the ubiquitous tannoy system (half the game is spent hunting for the damn speakers so you can blow them up, and you’ll gladly waste valuable sniper bullets taking them out if you spot them in advance). Fall off a ledge and you’ll mysteriously die in midair (complete with death animation), then fall through the ground below. Checkpoints are idiotically placed, inevitably before cutscenes, or unskippable dialogue, generally a tedious run away from the potential danger. There’s only one puzzle in the entire game, and it’s almost exactly the light beam redirecting puzzle from Sands of Time, this time with improbable jets of water. And it’s just riddled with clipping issues, leaving you, your NPCs, corpses or your bikes stuck all over the place.

Going native.

The extraordinary banality of the experience makes it almost meditative to plough through, jolted out of the somnambulistic calm every couple of minutes by another bug or irritation. The dialogue is quite, quite mad, rarely making a lick of sense, and sometimes proving extremely funny. My favourite line by a stretch appears in a cutscene after I’d reached a gate for which I’d earlier been given a novelty sized key, the length of a human arm.

“Now, let’s see if we can figure out how to use this key,” says the woman with me at the time, credulously. The camera pans to the gate’s large lock. “Got it!” returns Rourke’s triumphant cry.

It all ends in the dampest squib of a bossfight I’ve ever seen, which seems appropriate enough, ensuring the theme is constant throughout the game. There’s not a single thing that works well, that’s fluent, that can genuinely be described as good. It’s all utterly inoffensive – beyond the egregiously poor checkpointing, there’s little that will make you exclaim in horror. It’s just consistently not very good, sometimes in an entertaining way. For reasons inexplicable, I end with a haiku.

Jumping through windows
Gives temporary solace
During duller scenes

, , , .

60 Comments »

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  1. Radiant says:

    Walker’s writing is brilliant.
    When he dislikes a game he doesn’t fill the page with vitriol; you just get the feeling he is disappointed in it.
    Like it could have been so much more when it was a child but grew up to steal bicycles.

  2. Linfosoma says:

    Kinda sad, I wasn’t interested in this game really, but seeing a mod team going retail fail this way is kinda sad.

    Also, lol at the bottom of the page:
    “Children eaten by DRM today: 8019

    Amount of comments not about piracy: 1.076%”

  3. Fumarole says:

    So, another game whose quality is inversely proportional to the amount of clothing worn by the women in it?

  4. Fumarole says:

    Of course that should be proportional, not at all inverse.

  5. DigitalSignalX says:

    Interesting, it sounds like a must-pass. Not even a ‘Prince of Persia with guns’? The lure of half-naked NPC’s evidently can’t outshine horrid AI and controls.

    The press first to use, press 2nd to fire is exactly why I never got more then 30 minutes into Gears of War let alone the sequel(s).

    From your description, their concepts have a lot of merit to make a uniquely superb shooter in terms of potential, but they needed perhaps 6 more months of play testing to actually flesh out the code right once the assets and plot are in place.

    Cue debate on publishers pushing crap out the door to be patched etc etc.

  6. Radiant says:

    Another game that had an interesting spin on the western genre but was actually very good was Oddworld: Stranger’s Wrath.
    You played a man who was also a horse set in a fantastically realised alternative world where you could shoot furry animals that chased after the person you were aiming at.
    A brilliant game RIP whatever studio made that.

  7. Radiant says:

    I seem to have broken RPS…

  8. Radiant says:

    *takes off pants*

  9. Premium User Badge

    Dolphan says:

    Radiant – Oddworld Inhabitants, they still exist, though no-one seems to know exactly what they’re up to. They were apparently making a film, but that was a while ago.

  10. ...hmm... says:

    sounds good ill buy it oddworld was really really awesome but only came out on the olden xbox :(

  11. Premium User Badge

    solipsistnation says:

    If you were to peel the vest from the lady parts, you would see that it is lined with hooks.

    Ouch.

  12. qrter says:

    While a game shouldn’t be judged on the promises made before its released, but rather on what it delivers when you play

    Why not? These promises are used to sell a game, why shouldn’t what a game delivers be compared to what was promised?

  13. Heliocentric says:

    @fumarole so female characters in hijab?

  14. John Walker says:

    Cos, qrter, what if the promises under-sell it? Or what if it’s great independently of the claims? If Damnation had been fantastic, but not a vertical shooter, I don’t think it should be condemned or said to have failed.

  15. chesh says:

    A pity this isn’t actually any good as it looked quite interesting, and a pity Stranger’s Wrath was never released for PC. Jerks.

  16. Okami says:

    Stranger’s Wrath was an excellent game though the experience of playing it was marred by two things for me: 1) the german voice acting was atrocious and 2) the used copy I bought of gamestop had some kind of problem and would always freeze at the exactly same spot in the game, thus preventing me from ever seeing more of the game than the second town.

    I’m wondering if the game would have done better sales-wise if it had been released for the PC as well as for the XboxOlde.. A game as peculiar as Stranger’s Wrath might have found a more accepting audience in the users of the IBM Compatible.

  17. rocketman71 says:

    A pity.

    What about the multiplayer?. Anything salvageable apart from the boobies?

  18. Linfosoma says:

    I heard the rumor that they might, just might port all Xbox Oddworld titles to the PC.
    That would be sweet.

    Source:
    http://forums.steampowered.com/forums/showthread.php?t=720859

    And yeah, sorry to hijack this coment page.

  19. Serondal says:

    I love the screen shot with the insane button combo required to pull the lever ! That should go down in history as a classic screen shot if nothing else. also I must admit being a addict to this sort of thing, I like the females clothing.

  20. Gnarl says:

    Another sterling example of this site’s over enthusiasm and inability to put out anything even slightly negative.

  21. Serondal says:

    I’d say the above review was pretty negative about the game.

  22. ZIGS says:

    I’m pretty sure Gnarl was being sarcastic… he was, right >_>

  23. Howard says:

    Gotta agree totally, mate. I’m about halfway through and I honestly don’t think I have the strength to continue. The sheer idiocy of it all is just overwhelming.

    Then again it is a Codemasters game so I am in no way surprised that all their hype was nothing but bullshit…

  24. Flappybat says:

    I’m holding out for Dark Void to cover my vertical shooter needs.

  25. Mad Doc MacRae says:

    So, not a sort-of-spiritual-successor to Armed and Dangerous? :(

  26. apnea says:

    Now we can all see that negative coverage can be fun, right? Or why not even discordant coverage, say another RPS head-cheese fully enjoyed Damnation and wants to vigorously disagree with John’s tittophobia? Now that would be something to get bothered about.

    Great stimulation born of disagreement lads.

  27. LionsPhil says:

    Shame. Steampunk Western was an awesome setting (for starters, it’s not World War II!), and I remember the UT2004 (not even UT3!) mod being quite a good blast.

    At least shrunken-jacket lass gets pants in this game. There were also somewhat short of fabric in the mod. “Oh no, everyone can see my bum”, as Yahtzee might say.

  28. Kommissar Nicko says:

    While the article is awesome, I don’t necessarily agree with Mr. Walker’s opinion that a game shouldn’t be judged by the pre-game hype. It seems to me that as a reviewer, addressing the pre-game hype is part of how you structure the review, especially if the game his wretched and doesn’t have a lot of positive talking points. Besides, the hype is what a reader has to refer to as far as the experience is concerned. If a game is under-hyped, or for the wrong reasons, or not at all, it’s totally understandable to address that as well.

    But, a finely crafted review; that screenshot of the buttons is definitely saved for later enjoyment. Don’t read into it.

  29. cjlr says:

    Vertical shooter, huh? That only makes me think about Tyrian or Gradius or something, which, I suspect, is not the connotation they would want.

    If you’re going to add dimensions to a shooter why not just go all the way with it? Like Descent. Hot damn I loved that game. Six degrees of freedom? Hell yeah. Why has nobody ever made anything similar?

  30. Taill4f4r says:

    Yeah, but if they claimed “This game is terrible. Full of horrendous AI, hilariously bad bugs and big boobs.”. You can’t really mark it up for being accurate.

  31. (.Y.) says:

    Mmmmm….undercleavage…

  32. Markoff Chaney says:

    Mediocrity. It seems such a small concept, and one that’s really not so bad, except in relation to better things. I think that’s a lot where the hype / delivery on hype is so important as well. It comes back to expectations and the feeling that something should be greater than it should – whether we were told by developers, or PR people or flying saucers beaming hopes and dreams into our heads, it’s the expectations that can make or break something.

    Something can be sold to you as the biggest hunk of crap and, if it’s actually a passable game and not pure excrement you will probably, in retrospect, think fondly on the title. If it’s super hyped best game EVAR and it’s the same passable game, then vitriol fueled anger and hatred will flash before your eyes every time you think about that game going forward.

    There’s a fine line to walk between promising the moon, and hoping for good initial sales or having lowered expectations from the start and possibly shooting your product in the foot from the get go as far as market awareness and hopefully have a cult hit on your hands. I’d think the latter is the better way to go, especially from a long term viability perspective, but corporate philosophy (including quarterly profit/loss statements, not long term brand recognition) and I tend to disagree.

    Phenomenal review by the way. Thanks for saving me some money this month. A pity too, since more steampunk does need to get made.

  33. Dorian Cornelius Jasper says:

    @apnea:

    You just had to use the word “stimulation.”

  34. malkav11 says:

    I less than three that control glitch screenshot.

  35. haircute says:

    I like how a lot of the comments are about an older, better game.

    This piece was definitely one of my favorites on the site. I knew this game would be a stinker but it was a thrill to see some one dissect it so entertainingly.

  36. Bogie says:

    So do the ladies get their boobies out at all. If they don’t then no point playing it!

  37. Chaz says:

    Ah great stuff. Even if the game was crap, your review gave me a few genuine laughs, cheers.

  38. IM19208 says:

    This goes right to my top ten of Worst games ever played.

  39. Tei says:

    “Checkpoints are idiotically placed, inevitably before cutscenes, or unskippable dialogue,”

    I am going to write a book for PC game devs, this book will contain only 2 lines:
    – Say NO to checkpoints
    – Make *all* video/cutscenes skipable

    I terribad how people can still make the games soo wrong. Is hard to make savegames with the Unreal engine?, one can think is a feature that the engine provide.

  40. LionsPhil says:

    Deus Ex did it. Unreal 2 did it. Hell, I think the original mod might have. Certainly Return to Na Pali, another mod for the original Unreal Tournament (you know, core game is multiplayer-only) had savegame support.

    If it’s cross-platform, I could perhaps see it as a storage thing (Unreal engine savegames seem to work by saving the entire map data of places around you, which results in unnecessarily huge saves), were it not for the fact that consoles have hard drives these days anyway, so presumably don’t have to keep all their permanent game state within 640K.

  41. Thirith says:

    @Tei: Checkpoints can be used intelligently as part of a game’s design. There are games where the main alternative – being able to save wherever, whenever – can take a lot of tension out of things, e.g. the original Aliens vs Predator. It is pretty difficult to use them as anything other than lazy design, though.

  42. FunkyB says:

    I’d just like the echo the first comment in saying that this was a very enjoyable read and seemed to me to be an excellently written piece.
    “When he dislikes a game he doesn’t fill the page with vitriol…”
    This is a very important point, and one that is often overlooked by reviewers. Yahtzee in Zero Punctuation fills his reviews with bile for the purpose of humour, but a serious review should not. I think you found the balance here very well John.

  43. Dominic White says:

    Checkpoints are an example of GOOD game design. A good developer knows exactly how to portion a game up into managable, self-contained vignettes, or pockets of action with lulls inbetween, that mean that when a player fails, they only have to go back as far as the start of their intial encounter.

    It’s a helluva lot better than forcing a player to rely less on skill, and more on a magic ‘undo’ button.

    Checkpoints can be misused, but that doesn’t make them a bad idea in the slightest. Checkpoints should always be placed at the start of any encounter (AFTER any dialogue/cutscenes have happened) and immediately afterwards, so as to protect the player from any dumb mistakes, like falling off cliffs or self-grenading. Encounters shouldn’t be overlong, or chained into one another without giving the player a few seconds to prepare themselves.

    Now, if you want to talk lazy design, look at the ‘golden age’ of PC gaming, where developers put notes like ‘Quicksave constantly, as death is always near’ in the manual, because they knew the game was unbalanced and that there were near-unavoidable deathtraps all over the place. They used that magic button as a way of bypassing the effort of correctly balancing and portioning up the game.

  44. Mman says:

    “Certainly Return to Na Pali, another mod for the original Unreal Tournament”

    Are you mixed up with Operation Na Pali? RTNP is the expansion for Unreal 1.

    After the mod I’ve had some optimism for this game, but now pretty much every review and user impression of read says it’s not even just mediocre (where there could still be some enjoyment, as Tomb Raider and Prince of Persia style games are rare enough for it to still be a novelty) but outright bad. The odd thing it that is sounds like they removed some of the coolest features the mod had; I recall you could possess enemies and it was a central part of the game that was integrated enough to be more than a gimmick, yet I haven’t heard any mention of that in any reviews of the actual game.

    The keys pic is great.

  45. LionsPhil says:

    Mnam: Yeah, got the names mixed. Good catch. I do still mean the mod.

    Possibly posession went the way of Miss Shrunken Jacket’s standard Magical Native American stylings.

  46. rocketman71 says:

    Sorry, but I’m with the team that says checkpoints are just HORRIBLE.

    I may need to have to go to sleep. To work. To the bathroom. I may be an utter n00b that can’t just get past one section. And if I have to repeat several times a section for any of those reasons, I GUARANTEE you I’m not going to buy your next game.

    Do you believe checkpoints increase the tension of your game?. Ok, implement them then, but give me the option to save anywhere if I wish to. Make it an achievement, now that they are cool, you know?. “xxx finished the game without saving”. But let me save.

    Or die.

  47. JP says:

    Actually, I believe Damnation started life not as an “Unreal 3 mod” (what does that even mean?) but as a UT2004 mod. Its developer entered it in the “Make Something Unreal” contest and funded, out-of-(presumably quite deep!)-pocket, a bunch of contractors to make art assets. They won the contest, unsurprisingly beating out a bunch of spare-time teams that had zero budget, claimed the grand prize of a UE3 license, and the game we’re talking about here is the game they made with that license, having secured a publisher in Codemasters.

    I was pretty skeptical of the “vertical shooter” claim when it was first announced. There are some basic things about human cognition that mean that a game that is viewed from an implicitly human perspective (1st or character-centric 3rd person camera) is really battling uphill if it has more going on in the Z axis than in the X and Y. Our ancestors built up many brain adaptations that helped them survive on open fields with a horizon that was, obviously enough, horizontal. We can handle the third dimension just fine, but only with the context of the ground we’re walking on.

    Tall vistas are great and all – remember Jedi Knight’s first two levels? – but even well-done vertical levels for PC FPS (where it’s much easier to pitch up and down than with an analog stick) use the third axis pretty sparingly. It’s not a matter of L337 skillz, it’s just a pain to parse and manage detail in that dimension. In essence, a vertical 3PS is forcing your brain to use its elbows instead of its hands.

    It’s pretty obvious in retrospect that when Codemasters signed Damnation and the marketing department roared to life, they were scratching around for unique “hooks” for the game, and plucked out “vertical gameplay” as a buzzword, and pushed that as hard as they could, regardless of its substance as an actual design innovation.

    What I’d like to see less of in the future, no matter how good or bad the game is, is the press and gamers just accepting whatever positioning, or framing if you will, that a game’s marketing hands out, because often that conceals or confuses the reality of the game. The article seems to recognize this – the game isn’t really much more vertical than most other games of its style. Of course, the truth is often only evident in the final, playable game – at which point the marketing has probably served its purpose.

    I think I just used up my week’s supply of parentheses.

  48. Ian says:

    @ Radiant: He is disappointed. He actually records videos of himself doing the “disappointed dad” speech and sends it to the developers of poor games.

    They cry.

  49. bildo says:

    didnt lost coast pull off vertical FPS pretty well?

  50. Soulless One says:

    @bildo, true, the first part was quite vertical, you were taking fire from above (and sometimes below) as well as from both sides. very hectic, lots of fun.

    I miss Descent 2, I wish for a Descent IV. or just a Descent 2 remake (with new nice shiny graphics)