How the Perfect have Fallen
If you go to the settings screen when you play the updated port of Rare's seminal N64 shooter, you'll be "treated" to the smallest, most tepid of jokes and references. There are three different control styles to choose from the menu. The first option, called "Classic", attempts to recreate the button configuration as found on the N64 controller. The other two control settings are called "Spartan" and "Duty Calls". Even a game player only peripherally aware of important shooters will realize that those additional control settings are a reference to the two most important FPS games of the last decade: Halo and Call of Duty 4. It barely even qualifies as a joke, but the names of the additional control settings symbolize the point of this rerelease: that Perfect Dark is one of the greatest and most important games ever made, paving the way for first person shooters to become on of the dominant console genres. It's historical importance cannot be overstated, but it's relevance to modern gaming is practically nonexistent. Perfect Dark is a terrific port of a video game that's been rendered totally obsolete by the passage of time.
While the game has been cleaned up visually and spruced with extra features, this is still the same game as it's N64 incarnation: you play as agent Joanna Dark, an operative for The Carrington Institute sent to try and take down rival corporation Datadyne. Along the way, Dark will discover that the battle between these two organizations is a cover for an even greater battle between rival alien forces. You'll team up with the good aliens to take down the bad ones over the course of Perfect Dark's long single player campaign. That's easily the best part of Perfect Dark: the density of content. Perfect Dark ships with it's single player campaign, a co-op campaign playable online, a counter-op capaign (that tasks one player with finishing the objectives of a single player campaign against another player trying to stop them), and an online multiplayer mode with standard game types and tons of maps. With it's enormous arsenal of guns, plentiful levels, various solo, competitive, and cooperative modes, and difficulty settings that change the activities you do on each level, Perfect Dark is rich with content. For sheer value, the $10 price point is a steal.
Unfortunately, the enormity of content in the game doesn't alleviate Perfect Dark's biggest flaw: it's game play simply hasn't stood the test of time like other classic shooters (Doom and Duke Nukem 3D). Perfect Dark is a standard first person shooter with closer ties to Halo than Call of Duty (with the exception of zooming in for accuracy, the game doesn't prioritize looking down the gun sights). You'll run around facilities, city streets, Mayan temples, and spaceships at ridiculous speeds (the game's movement speed is much faster than most contemporary releases). When you encounter an enemy, you wait for the game's generous auto aim to snap your reticule to their torso, and fire away. That's the only reasonable way to dispose of enemies, because any desire you may have to be more precise in your shooting(like, say, delivering a head shot) forces you to deal with THE WORST aiming mode in the history of gaming.
By holding the left trigger, Joanna Dark will plant her feet and enter an aiming mode, similar to Resident Evil 4. From here, ostensibly, the player could more easily take foes out from a distance and hit foes in the head. The aiming system, however, makes the act of getting a headshot or a distant kill such a hassle that you will never want to do it. While in the aiming mode, you can move your cursor around the whole screen (like an FPS for the Wii), but if you ever stop moving the cursor, it will snap back to the center of the screen. It feels like you're gun is bound to your head by rubber bands that will pull the gun back to your eyes if you loosen your grip on the gun. This leads to plenty of moments where you can't seem to get your cross hair onto an enemy, when all the while he's shooting at you senseless. it actually takes less time to simply strafe back and forth wildly and fire at the enemies chest with the auto aim enables than to attempt for any kind of precision with the autoaim. This is a game play decision that may have made sense back in 2000, but 10 years later, it couldn't be more frustrating.
It seems the reason the aiming mechanics are designed in this way is to keep a player from putting the camera in a position where it couldn't be easily reset, which could leave the player starring at the ceiling while enemies mow them down. The aiming system was designed not to "solve" the problems FPS games had on consoles in the late 90's, but to circumvent them entirely with gameplay mechanics. Like Lock-On Targeting, it was a gameplay mechanic that would latter be replaced with smarter design decisions: current designers have been make FPS games on consoles for so long that they've designed their way out of this problem. That's exactly with Perfect Dark feels like: a series of game play mechanics that solved the problems that no longer exist in FPS games.
It's almost unfair to compare the game to modern releases, since the game seems to be for N64 diehards aching for nostalgic kicks, and Perfect Dark soundly delivers. Developer 4J used higher resolution skins and textures for the 360 release, as well as bumped up the resolution to boot and made the game run at a solid 60 frames per second. If you remember playing games on the N64, than 4J's work will astound you: the game looks incredible, the best looking N64 game you've ever seen. Of course, N64 games don't really hold a candle to modern graphics, but even then Perfect Dark delivers some nice visuals, mostly in terms of style. The game has an incredibly clean, sleek look to every part of it's design, in stark contrast to the Grey, dirty games of today...especially funny, considering that Perfect Dark was designed to be a dirty, gritty game, set in a crummy looking future. Technology has come a long way in making a game look "grimy", and Perfect Dark's visuals can't even compare. Still, the clean visuals work for the game, and 4J's graphical work is to be commended
On the other hand, the online modes aren't nearly as polished and clean as the visuals. Developer 4J added online play to the game, giving fans the chance to relive their cardboard-box-on-the-T.V days of splitscreen multiplayer. Unfortunately, all the online modes are a hassle. Matchmaking and game setup take too long, and the actual online games are plagued with lag. The game also doesn't do anything if the host quits the match, so be prepared to be dumped unceremoniously back to the menu.
Even if the lag and matchmaking were improved, it's hard to imagine anyone exposed to modern multiplayer games to be satisfied with Perfect Dark's gameplay. Players will spend multiplayer matches desperately trying to find a gun on the ground trying to find a player, and then pulling the trigger as fast as they can. If you don't have a gun, you will almost certainly die. The gameplay simply doesn't seem built to deal with human players and, as a result, most multiplayer matches will bring into stock relief the frustration of aiming a gun at fast moving targets. It's also worth mentioning that, by contrast to the game's single player levels, the multiplayer maps in PD look terrible: a series of flat hallways and corridors with textures slapped onto walls and virtually no other geometry in the level. For anyone whose played modern games, Perfect Dark's multiplayer will seem embarrassingly archaic.
Anyone who goes into Perfect Dark knows that the game is old, but do those problems still matter when the game if filled to bursting with content and is only $10? Speaking as a devoted N64 fan, I say, with a heavy heart, that those problems DO still matter. The very mechanics that assured Perfect Dark's place in gaming history are too old and too simplistic for a modern player. It's more valuable as a history lesson on how far shooters have come than as a fun game to play. As a result, only the N64 fans with nostalgic memories of the good old days should consider picking the game up. For all of it's content, Perfect Dark is a game that simply doesn't have enough to offer.