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Sunday, June 05, 2005
Video Games--- It seems like ages ago, but it was actually only a few years ago that an elitist attitude existed within the video game industry and among gamers themselves that if you wanted to play a top-notch game in the first-person shooter genre, you would have to do it on a PC. Playing a first-person shooter on a console system was deemed to be inferior and was looked down upon by legions of PC game fans with their noses up in the air.
In the fall of 2001, a little game called Halo for a new system called the Xbox changed that line of thinking forever. Halo showed that a console first-person shooter could do anything that a PC first-person shooter could do, and then some. It could be more playable and have more intuitive control than the PC's much-praised "mouse and keyboard" control set up, it could look better graphically, it could offer far more content, and it could have more balanced gameplay. Halo blew the lid off the whole "PC vs. Console" debate when it came to first-person shooters.
Halo 2 did the same thing three years later by showing that you could do all of the above AND do it online with an online gaming service (Xbox Live) that is far better than any PC online gaming service. In addition to taking the experience online, Halo 2 was just as good or better than Halo 1 from a gameplay standpoint while offering a fundamentally different gameplay experience than the original Halo (as opposed to a typical sequel re-hash).
What many people have forgotten in recent years is that even before Halo, there was another game that laid the groundwork for console first-person shooters to be just as good as their PC counterparts. I'm not referring to Goldeneye 007, which was released in 1997 and was an excellent game that still had its fair share of flaws. I'm referring to Goldeneye's non-licensed sequel, a game that was released during the Nintendo 64's dying days in May of 2000: Perfect Dark. As a precursor to my complete review of Perfect Dark from back in 2000, it's important to understand the significance of the game in hindsight.
At the time Perfect Dark came out, the game that first-person shooter fans around the world were playing was still Quake 2 for the PC, even though Quake 2 had been on the market for over two years by that point. Perfect Dark showed that console first-person shooters could hold their own up against any PC first-person shooter.
Perfect Dark was also years ahead of its time with the use of "Simulants" (not to be confused which "stimulants," which is what 90% of Major League Baseball players take before every game). In Perfect Dark, Simulants were computer-controlled opponents that you could go up against in multi-player games. You could do a "multi-player game" with just yourself and a bunch of Simulants, or you could add several Simulants on top of a genuine multi-player game with yourself and several friends. At that time, not a lot of first-person shooters had anything resembling Simulants, and those that did offered robotic opponents that were nothing like playing against a human.
It might be hard to imagine these days, now that online gameplay against thousands of possible opponents is just a fingertip away for anyone who owns Halo 2 and has an Xbox Live subscription, but it used to be that the only way you could play console first-person shooters in a multi-player setting was to go against friends on a split screen. If you wanted to play a multi-player game at 3:00 in the morning and your friends couldn't come over because they were all asleep, you were out of luck.
Perfect Dark's Simulants changed all of that, as now you could play against a variety of different Simulants at any time, day or night, to improve your skills or just get in a few games before going to bed. Even a year and a half later when the original Halo came out, it had no "Simulants" or any equivalent option for multi-player games. People played a lot of multi-player Halo from 2001 to 2004, but they could only do so when they had someone physically over at their house to play the game with them.
Even with the release of Halo 2 last year and its huge online gameplay component, it would be even better if it had Simulants to add on top of all its great offline and online multi-player options. Several first-person shooters have tried to include Simulant-like options in recent years, but none of them have ever come close to matching the variety and intelligence of Perfect Dark's Simulants. To this day, no first-person shooter offers the amount of multi-player game customization options as Perfect Dark, and that includes Halo 1 and 2.
Another thing that's interesting to point out is how the terminology has changed over the years. Nowadays, thanks to the complete dominance of the Halo series, the word "Slayer" in the context of a video game is known to any first-person shooter fan as a multi-player, free-for-all mode of gameplay... you know, the mode that used to be called a "deathmatch" before Halo arrived and redefined first-person shooters as we know them. Reading through my Perfect Dark review years later, I am reminded that back then, the "Slayer" was actually a weapon in Perfect Dark that was basically another name for the rocket launcher. It's strange to think that "Slayer" could have ever meant anything other than what it means now in the video game world, but sure enough, it meant "rocket launcher" five years ago.
One footnote to add to my Perfect Dark review is that the developer of the game, a British company called Rare, had been owned by Nintendo and developed games exclusively for Nintendo systems for many years, but that's no longer the case. After a series of quarrels between Nintendo and Rare, Nintendo decided to sell Rare to the highest bidder in 2002, and that high bidder was none other than Microsoft, which also happens to be the publisher of the Halo series. Rare will now make games exclusively for Microsoft's next-generation video game system, the Xbox 360. Rare's first big game for the Xbox 360 is due out this fall and is a sequel to an old Rare hit. The name of the game is Perfect Dark Zero.
Without further ado, here is my review of Perfect Dark for the Nintendo 64 from way back in 2000.
Perfect Dark Review
Originally Published in June 2000 on Master Gamer
"It's even better than Goldeneye," said the hordes of preview-writers and PR representatives. It seems like people say that about every first-person shooter for any console these days, but in this case it's actually true. Not only is it better than Goldeneye, but it's also better than Quake 2 and every other first-person shooter ever made.
Like most first-person shooters, the heart and soul of Perfect Dark is the multi-player game. Sure, the single-player game is well put together with a decent story and unique mission objectives. Plus, the co-op mode adds to the replay value of the game significantly, as does the innovative Counter-Operative Mode. Despite all of this, though, it's the Combat Simulator modes that really make Perfect Dark a classic.
Notice I said "Combat Simulator," not "multi-player modes." No matter how many friends you have, there will still always be plenty of times where you're all alone and you crave an intense deathmatch experience. On these occasions, you can play a multi-player-style game by yourself with up to eight computer-controlled players, or Simulants.
The Simulants range in difficulty from the almost helpless MeatSim to the almost invincible PerfectSim. Unlike the computer-controlled players in other first-person shooters, Perfect Dark's Simulants actually behave a lot like real humans rather than robots. Even the EasySims are far from easy when you're first starting out with the game. Rather than just having their accuracy stats boosted like the sims in Turok: Rage Wars, each increase in difficulty level causes the Simulants in Perfect Dark to get significantly smarter.
In addition to changing the difficulty level of the Simulants, you can also make them a specific kind of Sim. Besides the obvious things like TurtleSims that are very slow but have high armor, there are also innovative things like VengeSims, which go out of their way to hunt down the last player who killed them. It's also fun to play with PreySims, which go out of their way to hunt down the player or players who have the lowest health or fewest weapons (and the JudgeSims, whose sole purpose in life is to kill PreySims).
Perfect Dark's graphics won't amaze you like a Dreamcast or PS2 game, but they're still impressive in their own right. There is a surprisingly large amount of blood present for a game published by Nintendo, and the squeamish can still turn off the blood completely in the options menu.
The game looks better if you have an N64 Expansion Pak, which you'll need anyway unless you don't mind missing out on the three-player, four-player, and main single-player games. If you play the game with the Expansion Pak, you have the option of turning on Hi-Res Mode, but it's actually better to leave this mode off. The Hi-Res Mode doesn't really make the game look better at all, but it does lower the frame rate considerably.
You can tell when the frame rate drops in three or four-player games with lots of Simulants because there is some noticeable slowdown. However, this doesn't happen very often and even when it does happen, it's very minor and it's equally distributed across all players. The frame rate goes down intentionally when you're punched by an enemy, with an annoying motion-blur effect that can prevent you from seeing much of anything at all if you're punched repeatedly.
Perfect Dark's sound gives me the impression that Rare correctly identified the flaws in Goldeneye's sound and worked hard to fix them. Goldeneye's music could be more than a little annoying at times, while Perfect Dark's music is actually quite catchy. Whether you're listening to one of the game's better music tracks or not, the music is always much less obtrusive than it was in Goldeneye, making it much easier to tune out if you want to.
Goldeneye's weapon sound effects were mostly generic with only a few exceptions, while Perfect Dark's sound effects actually make the game more entertaining. For example, when you hear the high-pitched sound of a rocket being fired from a Slayer, you might not know who fired it or where they are, but you do know that you better run like hell or fight back quickly if you want to survive. The same goes for the distinctive sounds of the FarSight, Reaper, and so on.
The amount of options at your disposal in the multi-player game alone is mind-boggling. There are lots of pre-set scenarios with different groups of weapons in them, but you can also have the game randomly select the weapons, or customize a pre-set group to your liking, or put it on random and then customize what comes up, and the list goes on and on. Not only can you decide which weapons show up in any game, but you can even rank their availability from one to six, with one being the most common and six being the least common.
You can also change the body and head of your character and the computer players, choosing from a seemingly endless list of heads and bodies. All of these can be mixed and matched, so you can play with the head of my friend Andy Reiner from Game Informer Magazine and put him in a dress, or any other combination you can think of. The only thing you can't do is put your own head into the game through the use of the Game Boy Camera (this feature was taken out of the game for political reasons).
I can't be held accountable for my actions if I hear one more person who doesn't own an N64 say that Perfect Dark can't be that good because it doesn't have the PC's almighty mouse-and-keyboard set-up. You can customize Perfect Dark's control set-up any way you want on the N64's controller, but the default setting is just about flawless.
You can quickly activate each weapon's secondary function by holding down the B button. Also, you can now switch to a particular weapon quickly and effortlessly (even if you have six of them) by simply holding the A button to bring up a little menu. Other than these two changes, the default control set-up is identical to Goldeneye's, which is just fine with me. I have spent a lot of time using both this button lay-out and the PC's mouse-and-keyboard lay-out, and I think they're both about equally effective and intuitive. The much-heralded "mouselook" feature of the PC (which lets you look around using the mouse) is easily duplicated by the N64's analog joystick.
Also, when compared to any first-person shooter on the PC, winning and losing in Perfect Dark has a lot more to do with skill and a lot less to do with the speed of your Internet connection. Don't get me wrong, I'm not saying that there's no skill involved in doing well in a PC first-person shooter, but the lag factor is always there to give some players an advantage and other players a disadvantage. In a console shooter, lag isn't a factor and players win or lose based solely on their own skill.
Many people complain that the Quake games are based too much on running around finding items, and that it would be better if everyone had the same weapons at all times. I don't agree with this method of thinking as it relates to the weapons, do I find that Perfect Dark is more skill-based as a result of its lack of health power-ups. With no health power-ups to be found, how long you can survive in the game is actually dependent on how much damage you have taken, not how many health power-ups you have managed to stumble across.
It's important for any multi-player first-person shooter to have good level design, and Perfect Dark comes through in this area. While there are certainly some arenas that you won't enjoy as much as others, none of the arenas just plain suck, and most of them are excellent. The arenas have multiple elevations while still not having any safe sniping spots, and they're also spread out nicely while still having rooms that always seem to be crowded. Three arenas from Goldeneye (Complex, Temple, and Facility) are also playable in Perfect Dark, and they have been slightly re-designed to increase their playability even further.
Perfect Dark's biggest problem from a balance standpoint is that the weapons with splash damage, essentially the rocket launchers and grenade launchers, are just a little bit too effective. The problem lies in the fact that even if you don't actually connect with your target, the explosion from the rocket or grenade still has a good chance of killing the target. Even if you're one of those people who think weapons that can kill you with one shot are cheap, the fact of the matter is that you have to aim at your target with precision accuracy and connect with them. With Perfect Dark's splash damage weapons, you just have to connect with the general area around your target.
The splash damage weapons can be particularly frustrating when you're playing with Simulants. At the first few difficulty levels, the Simulants aren't very good at hitting you with their weapons dead-on, but they don't fire wildly and shoot their weapons so that they don't come anywhere near you. So, they don't hit you directly, but they come close to hitting you directly, and that's all you have to do in order to kill someone with any of the splash damage weapons. Despite all of this griping about the splash damage weapons, they are still balanced somewhat by the fact that it's very easy to accidentally kill yourself with one of them, and the Simulants accidentally kill themselves fairly often.
Other than the splash damage issues, Perfect Dark is almost flawlessly balanced in every possible way. The last several months of Perfect Dark's development were spent balancing the game to perfection. This hard work and patience paid off, making Perfect Dark one of the few Nintendo-published games that's actually worth the long wait. Perfect Dark has a huge variety of weapons, and almost every single one of them can be devastating if used to its fullest potential. Herein lies the beauty of the game: Almost every weapon has something about it that makes you think it's one of the coolest weapons you've ever seen, but it also has something about it that prevents it from being too powerful for the sake of the game's balance.
Take the FarSight, for example. The FarSight in its simplest form is basically a rail gun, and it also has an extremely cool Target Locator that goes through walls to scan the level for enemies, which you can then fire at by pressing the Z button. To balance things out, the scanning cursor moves very slowly, making it easy to kill a stationary target but hard to kill a moving one. And of course, the whole time you're using the Target Locator, your character is standing in one place on the level, completely defenseless to any attack.
If you don't already own a Nintendo 64, it will be worth every penny to buy one along with Perfect Dark and an Expansion Pak. Not only does this game not get old as you play it more, but I actually seem to develop a greater appreciation for it with each passing hour, day, and week. I have no doubt that I'll still be playing Perfect Dark months and possibly even years from now.
Labels: Video Games