September 21, 2009

Darkest of Days Review

Dale Culp says When I first came across Darkest of Days, I thought it looked really interesting. Even if it turned out to be a mediocre shooter, at least the story seemed promising. I had no idea I was about to step straight into the most appalling dung heap of a game imaginable.

Things go wrong for this game immediately. The start menu, alone, looks like it would be an embarrassment to even the most amateur of video game producers. A few flat buttons, a logo and a picture of an old rifle set against a black background; if that's the best 8Monkey Labs can muster for even such a tiny detail, than it's hard to hold out hope for the rest of the game. And yet, as much as I refuse to judge this game by its cover and look for something better inside, sadly, things don't pick up very much, at all.

The game begins at Little Big Horn, where a man named Alexander Morris is about to meet his fate. It's Custer's Last Stand, and Morris isn't playing on the winning team. This is the one thing 8Monkey Labs gets absolutely right – you are thrust right into the action without warning. No time is wasted as the game starts off with a huge bang. You get very little explanation of what's going on aside from your only orders from a fellow soldier: “shoot as many injuns as you can.” Your heart is already racing and the game has only just begun!

As the battle climaxes, you are mortally wounded and left sitting on the ground. Unable to move, all you can do is fire your pistol into the onslaught of... Native Americans, if you will. Suddenly, atop the hill, the stark image of a man's silhouette standing against the bright sun stumbles and falls. General Custer is dead, and you're about to join him when a flash of light draws your attention away from the battle. Standing in front of you, a man in futuristic battle armor tells you to follow him. You step through the time portal and that's when the game begins proper. If a journey of a thousand miles must begin with a single step, this was a great step to start on.

Essentially, what's happened is that you've been culled from the battlefield only moments from death to be recruited by the agents of KronoteK. Back in your time, your papers were lost and no one knows you were at the Battle of Little Big Horn. History lists you as M.I.A. - just another unsolved mystery. Thanks to KronoteK, you've been given a second chance at life. The price for this second chance, however, is that it's now your job to go back and fix other problems that have been cropping up in history. These problems include soldiers, generals and other people getting killed before their time, winding up in battles they should have never been fighting in the first place. For the first few missions, you escort some of the characters away from the battlefield, to safety. In other missions, you simply protect and guide leaders so that they win their particular battle. In some cases, it doesn't always go as planned; in other cases, you learn that a rogue team of time agents have been messing with the timeline on purpose. Ah! The plot thickens. The fact that Morris is completely cool with this entire situation, however, kinda skews the whole thing into absurdity. Time travel? Computers? Advanced weaponry and electronics? Oh, I'm sure this was all par for the course for your average Union soldier who, only moments ago, was about to meet his maker. Nothing more to see here; move along.

Now, one of the more tricky things about time travel is that you can't predict the outcome of your actions – kill the wrong person and you might radically change the future. How, then, do you present this as a challenge in a video game? The answer is simple: you paint the characters who must be saved in a blue “aura.” It adds an interesting twist to the gameplay because the people who must be saved are on the side of the force you're trying to stop. Meanwhile, the guy painted in blue and all of his friends are shooting at you. And not only do you have to avoid killing them, you also have to keep your comrades from killing them, as well. You can either knock them out by hitting them with the butt of your rifle or use a special, futuristic weapon that knocks them out remotely. Your reward for saving these individuals are points you can put towards upgrading your weapons. The argument is that, the less you screw up time, the more time the agents have to work on your weapons instead of fixing the problems you caused in the timeline – and believe me, you want them to improve your weapons. An inaccurate, single shot musket that takes 30 seconds or more to load gets very, very annoying. Faster rates of fire, better accuracy and larger clips are just a few of the upgrades you can buy, and you'll want every one of them.

To further change the game up a bit, Dexter – the agent who saved you and has been helping you in these missions – shows up with some fancy bit of weaponry that gives you the ultimate advantage. At one point in the Battle of Antietam, he hands you a high-powered machine gun and tells you to “turn the tide.” It actually ends up being one of the most gratifying parts of the whole game. As droves of Confederate soldiers rush at you from out of the cornfield with single-shot muskets, you simply mow them down. For a moment, the gameplay in Darkest of Days actually approaches fun, but then quickly retreats and isn't seen again for a long, long time.

Among the most egregious flaws in this game is the incredibly stupid artificial intelligence. On the missions where Dexter accompanies you, he simply stands by as enemies ignore him to shoot you in the face. Then you have the weapons, which are all just terrible, but that's kind of the whole point of this game - to see what it was like to fight with ancient weapons. The voice acting is lousy, although Dexter's is passable - except that they give him some of the worst lines in the game. Lines so bad that you'd swear they were the result of poor translation if not for the fact that this game started in English. Speaking of which, I do appreciate the use of native languages. Rather than some lousy faux-Russian or German accent, they actually did the dialogue in those languages. But then you have the awful graphical glitches, low frame-rate, texture compression, poor animation and other problems that constantly come up and ruin every good idea this game ever had. Darkest of Days feels like a rushed, half-assed attempt to create a game for as little as possible. Based on the technical faults, alone, no one should ever pay money for this game. But then, it's just no fun, either. It's an endlessly frustrating experience that only gets worse as it goes on. This game should have never come out in the condition it's in.

Darkest of Days reeks of wasted potential. The story and the concept gave me the impression that 8Monkey Labs was going for something along the lines of Quantum Leap but ended up producing The Time Tunnel instead. (Look it up... Irwin Allen was the king of low-budget, campy science-fiction television.) The irony is, I actually like old, campy sci-fi flicks. In fact, during the first few hours of this game, I found myself laughing at all the problems. Like watching an old monster movie where you can see the zippers on the costumes and the strings holding up the UFOs, it was so bad it was good. But then it turned. It started getting really bad and added plot elements that made me wonder if this was a clumsy attempt at a history lesson or a very distasteful use of actual events. Combined with the technical flaws and the completely frustrating gameplay experience, I stopped laughing. To put it another way, it felt like watching Schindler's List as directed by Lloyd Kaufman. Serious history combined with bad taste and poor skill. I was not impressed. In short, do not buy this game. In fact, don't even waste your money renting or trading for it on Goozex - it's that bad.