Perfect Dark

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Perfect Dark (2000)

Things have calmed down quite a bit in recent years, but there was a time in and around the height of Call of Duty 17 and Battlefield Minus One that seemingly every popular game out there was a first-person shooter. If you were a developer and you decided you wanted to release a 3D platformer or something, a proper game for the ages, then you could forget it.

If it wasn’t shooty-shooty-bam-bam time and there weren’t 12-year-olds online in an over 18s game, it wasn’t worth your while. It wouldn’t sell, and you would be branded an unbankable developer, with emphasis on ‘leper’, and you’d be beat back down to mobile games with icons of shouty bearded cartoon men. Why couldn’t you just have done the necessary for your now-starving family and made something like Perfect Dark instead?

Released in the summer of 2000, which I’d call glorious if I could remember it, Perfect Dark can be thought of as the swansong for Rareware. It wasn’t their last game of course, since you had the mad Conker’s Bad Fur Day and the even madder Star Fox Adventures after this. In fact, apparently they’re still in business today.

But it can be pretty much agreed upon that Perfect Dark represented the last hurrah for a golden generation of developers for Nintendo systems. The caviar has to run out someday, and so it was that Perfect Dark gave us one last helping of toast before the end.

Either way, the first and foremost thing to mention is Perfect Dark’s status as a spiritual successor to Goldeneye N64. Nobody in the late 90s knew what a spiritual successor meant, but now the term is ubiquitous. Goldeneye, a game whose knackered old age I will never acknowledge, did have its own share of limitations. Little to no voice-acting, similar reload animations for every gun, some shocking draw distances, a multiplayer which although vastly acclaimed was really quite limited, and some enemy AI that bordered on childish.

Perfect Dark addressed all of these shortcomings and more, the way a proper sequel should. Keen to avoid overexposure to the hazardous James Bond licence, the boys and girls at Rareware decided to give their next shooter a completely independent setting. You are Joanna Dark, a Carrington Institute agent about to embark on her first mission having achieved impossible scores in the training assignments.

No, seriously, she achieved grades of A++, beating the previous chump’s score of merely A+ so comprehensively that they had to give her her own grade. I can’t even remember the last time I got an A, or a First as it was in college, and here’s Joanna inventing entirely new blood groups and putting them between us. That’s how good she is.

And this is at the age of 23, naturally. Have you noticed that the average age of a professional sportsman (sportsperson) seems to be about 12 now? I’m four years older than Joanna and she’s already made me feel like a useless sack before I’ve ever got going – thanks ever so much, Jo.

The plot is a bit wild, and actually has some twists and turns so I won’t spoil this 18-year-old game for you, but there’s aliens, good aliens and bad aliens, and a lot of British accents – and some terrible American ones. Yes, it’s voice-acting in a Nintendo 64 game, and decent quality at that. A far cry from Lylat Wars, let’s say, and the sample quality there is actually even worse in the Japanese version, Star Foxxu 64.

I’m not talking about a Metal Gear Solid level of acting volume here in PD, but enemy guards have all kinds of different soundbites when you eviscerate them with one of the game’s many weapons. They even call you a female dog, or another word for it anyway, which cuts me deep. I mean, I’m a male slob and she’s… not, but that level of disrespect is simply too much.

FBI agents talk about the ideal bullet spread, two in the chest and one in the head. In recognition of Joanna’s unique training feat however I like to take the RC-P120 (120 bullets in the clip) and write ‘A++’ in every smack-talking enemy’s body instead.

I can’t play around with these guys for too long though, especially on the harder difficulties, because my God will they murder you in a hurry. One seemingly minor but absolutely key difference in the way the game works is that there is not even a single frame of mercy invincibility. In Goldeneye, provided you had a fair few wedges left in your healthbar, you could just run right through a salvo of gunfire, one eyebrow raised at the enemies Roger Moore style. You’d get annoyingly buffeted back with every piece of lead that hit you, but Bond could eventually get down the hall, spitting out slugs as he went.

In Perfect Dark, one rip of gunfire can finish you in less than a second. It’s kind of cruel and callous really. I mean, I know this is absolutely downright sexist, but Jo’s a petite wee woman. You shouldn’t be tearing her apart with machine gun fire like that, it ain’t right. Maybe push her, or something. That’s what I was told to do instead of hitting girls.

Get onto the hardest difficulty, Perfect Agent, and you’ll very quickly learn to fear the terrifying K7 Avenger weapon. Its gunshots sound like a barking dog trapped underneath an upturned metal bucket that’s being played like a bongo by Andre the Giant. And if you hear it and aren’t expecting it, you are probably already dead.

Fully completing this game on Perfect Agent ranks alongside 100%ing F-Zero GX as probably the hardest and craziest thing I’ve ever done, or at least it’s right up there with the three-minute mile I once did when the last Nitelink (an infamous Dublin night bus) for the night was about to pull away and a hefty taxi fare was at stake. It requires a kind of Zen connection between you and the console, and best of luck with that when that connection between you is the bonkers N64 controller.

But the biggest improvement of all comes in the multiplayer. Goldeneye’s multiplayer became world famous, but it was Perfect Dark’s Combat SImulator that saw it age into the finest of wines. I’m not an FPS man generally, as you may know. But the sheer customisation available here lets you fully edit the available guns on offer, the appearance of characters, and the AI of the enemies.

We spoke about how even Goldeneye’s top tier baddies would struggle badly to see you over a two foot chasm. If you’re still scoffing at them, then go up against a DarkSim in Perfect Dark and see how you get on – you’ll be chiefed in ten seconds every time before you’ve barely got a shot away, and although you knew what you were signing up for and although the game even outright called this AI bot unfair, you’ll still be hopping and spluttering with fury. Sounds brilliant.

The one bugbear that people will always have about the game, and one that ain’t getting any better with time, is the framerate. Play the Combat Simulator with three other wags and the action can slow down to sub-glacial pace, and God help you if any explosions come into the equation. The necessary Expansion Pak adds blur capabilities to the game, quite a high-tech advancement I’m sure you’ll agree, and you’re left with a infernally slow, blurry colourful mess to try to look at.

Even the initial Designer of the game, Martin Hollis, described Perfect Dark as “dog slow”. He’s not wrong, but having the Xbox versions helps this out immensely and gives you, the frame-rate snob, no excuse not to play it. Not many games give me cause to envy Xbox owners, if I’m being honest, but Perfect Dark’s presence on the Xbox Live Arcade and on the Rare Replay compilation almost gets me going green.

A first-person-shooter where there’s no checkpoints, no autosaving, no cover system and no automatic health regeneration, it probably all seems unbearable and indeed unplayable to those gamers weaned on Call of Duty and Battlefield. But it sounds just about Perfect to me. If we leave aside the prettied-up Xbox remakes that aren’t presented in slow-motion Puke-o-Vision, the N64 may make Perfect Dark look like a game saddled with limitations that couldn’t possibly hold up.

And when I first played it, having already played Goldeneye to death, I was initially thinking just that and didn’t see any kind of appeal. A bit of time to get acquainted with the game and I did a full 180. The game’s credits sequence is right – Perfect Dark is forever.

23 November 2018

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