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