Throughout Nintendo's history as one of the world's most popular videogame companies, a few ingredients have been key to its success. At the top of that list, is revered game designer, Shigeru Miyamoto, whose imagination reinvigorated the industry years ago and continues to be a pioneering force of innovation and creativity today. Not far behind Miyamoto on that list would have to be UK-based, second-party game developer, Rare. Miyamoto may be the soul of Nintendo that has kept them vital, but Rare is the heart that has kept the company pumping with a string of successful titles that date back to the first 8-bit NES console.
In those early days, spanning from the mid- to late 80s, Rare was producing hits like R.C. ProAm and Battletoads. And at the end of the SNES's life-cycle in the mid 90s—when 16-bit was on its way out for 32-bit systems—Rare kept the platform alive much longer than expected with massive sales from blockbuster smashes like Killer Instinct and Donkey Kong Country. The relationship between these two companies proved to be even more fruitful in the late 90's when Rare produced one of the finest videogames ever made, GoldenEye 007, for Nintendo's latest system, the Nintendo 64. Not only did the title receive unanimous critical acclaim from the media (scoring the highest possible 10 rating from this critic); it also solidified Rares status, in the mind's of the gaming public, as one of the industries top developers. So it should come as no surprise that as history begins to repeat itself (like its predecessor, the Nintendo 64 is now facing extinction from technologically superior systems), Nintendo has once again called upon Rare to breathe new life into their system, which already has one foot in the grave. That lifeline arrives in the form of Perfect Dark, a first-person shooter that is the spiritual sequel to GoldenEye 007.
From the earliest announcements of the game's development to its completion, Perfect Dark has generated buzz of almost "Daikatanian" proportions. The game has been sacked with numerous productions delays, missed release dates, rumors of poor technical performance, and a highly touted 'import-your-own-face' feature via the Game Boy camera that was ultimately dropped amidst controversy and conflicting reasons. The game has been several years in the making and final results are interesting because they highlight some of Rare's greatest strengths and weaknesses as developers.
There are two major weaknesses that have plagued recent Rare titles—like Jet Force Gemini and Donkey Kong 64—that also rear their heads in Perfect Dark. They all suffer from uninspired character designs. In the case of GoldenEye 007, Rare was able to dodge the bullet because they had the benefit of using super spy icon, James Bond, along with all the other colorful characters from the movie. Unfortunately, the new cast of characters created for Perfect Dark is grossly inadequate when compared to the ones from GoldenEye. The lead player-controlled protagonist, Joanna Dark, exhibits few emotions beyond being clueless and bland. The only sparse signs of individuality lay in her Lara Croft-like English accent and different outfits she sports from mission to mission. The supporting cast gets a similarly shallow, nothing-below-the-surface treatment. Joanna's boss, Daniel Carrington, and her arch nemesis, Cassandra De Vries, seem no more interesting than stuffy corporate executives; also with English accents. There are other characters like the enigmatic hitman, Mr. Blonde, and the President (why is it that we can only get African American presidents in fantasy sci-fi?), who simply reek of genericism.
What's even worse are the non-human characters. The uncleverly named, Elvis (how many times have we heard that one before) —who looks like your average bulb-headed aliens with big eyes—is supposed to be serve as sort of a running gag and sidekick-style comic relief, but really comes off dull as dirt. The remaining non-human characters like the hovering mini-robot, Dr. Carroll, and the insect-like alien enemies all seem lifted right out of Jet Force Gemini. The developers at Rare must have seen the movie Starship Troopers one too many times because starting with Jet Force Gemini, all the enemy alien races they've created have always been insect-like. Couldn't they have come up with a more imaginative alien species that hasn't already been over-saturated in pop-culture?
The second major weakness that seems to befall Rares efforts including Perfect Dark is the storyline. Again, this problem wasn't an issue with GoldenEye because its plot benefited from the backing of a Hollywood screenplay. The results were much more consistent and progressive. As for the story cooked up for Perfect Dark, not only is the alien/assassination/conspiracy plot unoriginal and muddled, its also poorly integrated into the one-player missions. Most stages shift dramatically from one location to the next and the cut-scenes, coupled with plain-text mission briefings, are barely adequate for fleshing out the rather complex storyline details in-between stages. By the latter-third of the game, I wasn't even sure if the stages made sense in the context of the overall story. I simply went about accomplishing my goals per stage and didn't really care too much about the final outcome.
As for the major strengths that Perfect Dark exhibits, they prove to be characteristic of other recent Rare titles. First is the one-player level/mission design. Despite being motivated poorly by the storyline and being occasionally convoluted, the multiple objective-based missions are wonderfully well thought out with a nice mix of timed, patterned, and random events that makes playing through them different and refreshing each time. A wide variety of different weapons and items per stage also keep things exciting (the X-ray-shoot-through-walls, alien Far Sight weapon must be seen to be believed). And like its predecessor, GoldenEye, each stage in Perfect Dark can also be played on three difficulty levels; each progressively harder than the next with more mission objectives and improved enemy abilities. At its most difficult setting, missions boast an extremely complex list of objectives and the gameplay is tough to a dizzying pace. But by the same token, there are few gaming experiences that are as addictive and satisfying as conquering these difficult stages. The level of pain and joy involved with beating the game at its near-impossible setting is best described as cathartic (anyone who's ever gotten the invincibility code by beating the second stage of GoldenEye under the two-minute five second mark knows what I'm talking about).
The second area that Perfect Dark truly shines in and is representative of Rare's signature is the multiplayer modes. Whether you're talking about the two or four player modes, no other console game to date has as many modes and options. The sheer amount of features is simply exhaustive. For two players, all the single-player missions can be replayed cooperatively via split-screen (the second player assumes the role of Joanna's sister Velvet Dark). There's also the Counter Operative mode, which follows the same split-screen format with the exception that the two players are pitted against one another. The experience is sort of like playing as Agent Smith in The Matrix. The counter operative player inhabits one of the ordinarily computer-controlled enemies and tries to actively stop the other player from completing the mission. Once the counter operative character is killed (the life-bar scales are tipped considerably against the counter operative), he or she immediately subsumes another character and continues the hunt. Both modes are very interesting and open whole new dimensions of gameplay. So it's rather unfortunate that in both modes, the frame rates suffer tremendously and the severely choppy animation mars what are, otherwise, two innovative options.
Where Perfect Dark will not be denied (at least not by this critic) is in the Combat Simulator mode. This is the mode where up to four humans can participate in different kinds of multiplayer-style games that can be reconfigured to near countless possibilities. There's the usual free-for-all type of deathmatches of the Combat and Hold the Briefcase variety, but where Perfect Dark really starts to come out from the shadow of GoldenEye is the in the team-oriented modes. Most online gamers will be familiar with options like Capture the Case/Flag and King of the Hill, but my personal favorite is Hacker Central. In this mode, players or teams compete to first locate a hand-held datalink device and then use it to hack into a stationary laptop located elsewhere. Each successful hack tallies up more points. What really turns the heat up in this mode is that hacking into the laptop is a frantically slow process that leaves you defenseless against your opponents for close to 30 seconds. It's an amazing mode that requires good defensive team work and is probably the most intense of the other modes.
Including these multiplayer modes was impressive enough, but Rare goes beyond the call of duty and adds another feature, computer bot opponents dubbed Simulants. What's remarkable about the Simulants is that not only can their difficulty levels be adjusted, they can also be assigned several distinct personality types that range from cowardly to kamikaze. Yet, battling with these Simulants isn't always fun and can get old quick for a number of reasons. First, the discrepancy in ability between the Easy Sim and the Normal Sim was too great. Easy Sims are, for the most part, inept and perform in a semi-intelligent manner. Normal Sims, on the other hand, are extremely deadly. Boasting cat-like reflexes, a deadly aim, and an unmistakable ability to spot human opponents instantly (while you struggle along in your tiny window), these anything but "normal" Sims can become frustrating rather quickly. And don't even get me started on how annoying the always in-your-face, disarming Fist Sims are.
So actually, it's not the inclusion of the Simulant personalities that blows the roof off the game. What makes Perfect Dark a big winner is the option to mix and match up to eight Simulants and four human players (for a grand total of 12) into multiple teams for any one of the multiplayer modes. So rather than repetitively going at it head-to-head with four buddies in free-for-alls or limited two-on-two style match-ups, players can setup all kinds of different teams. Possibilities range from six teams of two to two teams of six. Although putting in all eight Simulants with all four human players at once would wreak total havoc on the frame-rates (to the point where matches would be nearly unplayable), anything less than the maximum (factoring in also the human to computer ratio) usually proved to be pretty decent and playable. Almost all the level designs are fantastic and playing any one of the multiplayer modes with a variety of different teams is a surefire way to get any gamers competitive spirit going. Perfect Dark is easily the most advance, elaborate, and entertaining multiplayer gaming experience on any home console and I can personally attest to how fun this game is.
The only remaining elements left to address are the game's audio-video presentations and control. The game may be on an aging platform and the updated GoldenEye engine used may start to look worse due to wear (especially when frame-rates drop in situations with complex architecture), but the overall presentation still holds up pretty well even against some of today's more cutting-edge games. The game manages to keep up with the Jones by compensating in a couple of ways. For example, in the sound department, Perfect Dark kicks things up a notch by supporting Dolby Surround sound. The surround sound effects aren't as readily apparent as I would have liked, but most sound effects and character voices are crisp and convincing. In terms of visuals, Perfect Dark compensates with diverse textures and some inventive special effects that revolve around the different X-ray, infrared, and night-vision modes. Throw in life-like animation with the same complex hit-detection found in GoldenEye (enemies react very vividly to being shot in particular appendages), furthered by the rock-solid feel of the controls, and you have a game that plays great regardless of time and space.
It's been a long wait for Perfect Dark and I can't help to feel slightly disappointed that Perfect Dark isn't, well— "perfect." Like most of Rare's other recent releases, weak characters and an unoriginal storyline hurt the game most. Luckily for Perfect Dark, the damage was not irreparable. Good level designs coupled with an extraordinary amount of high-quality multiplayer modes and features raise the bar considerably and keep the game ahead of the pack. Perfect Dark may not attain the same level of artistry and represent the same kind of milestone that GoldenEye achieved in its heyday, but the game is still a blast.