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In Memory
Sean Pettibone

Perfect Dark Zero (Xbox 360)


By Michael Palisano

Perfect Dark Zero is easily one of the most-anticipated games of the past few years and has finally arrived in time for the Xbox 360's launch. The game's balance of shooting and stealth is excellent in most respects. There's an excellent array of weapons including a number of slick gadgets that allow players to perform tasks such as breaking locks in interesting ways. From a visual standpoint, the game's lavishly detailed environments are impressive and showcase the Xbox 360 hardware effectively The single player game is immersive and exciting complimented by an excellent multiplayer mode that's also highly polished and quite addictive. While this isn't the Halo-killer many had hoped for, Rare's glossy shooter is a solidly entertaining game that delivers some exciting and innovative features.

Perfect Dark Zero represents the resurrection of a long-dormant series that first appeared nearly a decade ago on the Nintendo 64. While the basic premise remains familiar, most elements of the execution have changed radically. The game once again stars secret agent Joanna Dark, but this time is set before her adventures in the original title. As a new agent, it's up to Joanna to fight the evil forces of the Datadyne Corporation and prove herself so she can become a Dark Agent in her organization. As such, she's armed to the teeth with a variety of weapons and gadgets to help her during missions. Most of the weapons are fairly standard and include sniper rifles, machine guns, pistols and other weapons. She begins each level with a standard set of weapons and ammo to use. Many of these weapons are quite accurate, but she can increase her odds by zooming in, making head-shots and kills much easier to accomplish. During each mission, she'll face off against a variety of enemies, and she can pick up their weapons and collect additional ammo when she kills them. While there's no jump command in the game, she can use evasive rolls to get out of the way of enemy fire, since they can't track her while she's rolling around. She can also crouch down and hide behind crates, and can use this ability to crawl through tight spaces as well. Another key defensive aspect of the game is her ability to fire while under cover. Accomplishing this is fairly simple, you need only press the A button and she automatically hides behind a wall. She can then move the cross hairs of her weapon to locate and fire upon enemies safely. It's almost inevitable that she'll take damage during her mission, but Joanna's suit can rejuvenate her health automatically by waiting. The health bar at the top of the screen shows how much damage she's taken, and how much she can get back. This approach makes the game much easier to play, since you can hide and regain health during the middle of a firefight, but it also makes the game a bit too easy, since it also tends to reduce the challenge somewhat.

During the course of the missions, Joanna will be in contact with her commanders in the field, who will give her instructions and occasionally map out the best route for her to take. These are usually indicated by flashing blue arrows that appear on the ground. Most of the missions emphasize combat and gunfights, with the player frequently surrounded by multiple enemies. Most of these characters can be killed with a few hits, though others will take more effort to kill. Players can also wipe out nearby enemies by shooting out any nearby gas cans, which explode and cause much collateral damage. Perfect Dark Zero's mission structure follows a traditional pattern for the most part, with standard areas punctuated by boss battles, which can become quite intense at points. Each of the missions offers a variety of primary and secondary objectives to complete, and are broken down into different portions where you have to, for example, disable a power generator, find and rescue a scientist and then escape the level with your life. Most of the tasks in the game are easy to accomplish, but Joanna also has a variety of special gadgets that she can use to pick locks, break into computers or cause explosions. Most gadgets can be accessed by using the d-pad, which automatically puts them to use. Some of these require you to solve a simple puzzle, such as lining up circuits or cycling the d-pad in circles to find the one spot where it vibrates, in order to implement their action.

While PDZ's gameplay seems fairly straightforward at first, Rare has implemented a number of cool twists that keep things fresh. For example, there's one level where you have to cover you partner by killing opponents with a sniper rifle far above the city streets, while avoiding and killing any enemies you come across. Another area has you facing off against a mad scientists daughter in a maddening virtual reality battle while dodging attacks from statues of ancient Chinese soldiers come to life. The gameplay also offers a varied number of tasks, such as gliding over zip lines, locating intelligence and blowing up enemy weapons depots which helps to break things up to a large degree, making for a more enjoyable game. Each mission takes place in a different location, with different enemy types and characters to confront. Making all of this work together seamlessly are the controls which are intuitive and responsive. The standard Xbox configuration applies, with shooting, aiming movement and special weapons where you'd expect them to be. You use the triggers to fire, while the analog stick is used for movement and aiming. Performing many of the special tasks such as zip-line swinging only requires you to press a single button, while the gadgets are nicely designed to. Implementing a consistent interface makes PDZ fairly easy to get into with a very slight learning curve flattened by the first level which acts as a training mission. The biggest problem most players are likely to encounter is lies in the cover system, which is a bit awkward initially. Once you get the hang of using cover, this system works very well and is surprisingly effective, particularly when you enter an open area crawling with snipers.

Perfect Dark Zero differentiates itself from many FPS titles with its emphasis on stealth and strategy. You can choose to go through the missions with guns blazing, but you probably won't get very far into the game with this approach. It's important to listen to your radio for objectives and look around each area beforehand in order to figure out where enemies are, or to take out any cameras which might alert them to your location. Of course, there are many areas where the action intensifies into all out battles as well, making for some brutal firefights. Generally speaking, the pacing of the game offers and excellent balance between these types of gameplay, making the single player experience an engaging and mostly satisfying one. There are some points where it becomes difficult to find your way, especially later on which can become frustrating, but you generally just need to be patient and wait for the onscreen arrows to appear, which makes things much easier. This is especially true in the later levels, where objectives are spread out over wider areas, making patience and especially important commodity. Rare has done an excellent job with the level designs themselves, and the game offers a wide variety of locations which range from dark corridors to more open areas. These different types of areas present unique challenges that should keep your interest levels high throughout the single player missions. For the most part, playing through the game solo is an engaging and exciting experience that meets the high expectations but Rare has implemented a number of multiplayer modes that are just as exciting and intense as the single player game.

The first of these multiplayer modes is co-operative play, where you can choose to go through the single player missions with the aid of another player via the split screen mode. This mode is entertaining and there are additional enemies on each level as well to keep the missions from becoming routes. Co-op mode is fairly exciting, but the real thrill of the game lies in its true multiplayer modes which support both split screen and online modes of play. The most interesting of these modes is called DarkOps. The arena battles are fairly simple, but the twist here is that players need to buy weapons between rounds, which is somewhat similar to Counterstrike, and an interesting twist on the genre. The traditional modes like Deathmatch, Capture the Flag and Team Deathmatch are included, and work as you'd expect them to. Players can select the number of kills, time limits and weapons type before each match along with the map and can also set up bots as well. Each of these modes has other rules you can set as well, offering plenty of depth and challenge. The online maps are smartly designed, with large expansive environments that offer plenty of places to hide and secret locations where you can ambush opponents. This is one of the most enjoyable aspects of the game, and Rare deserves credit for putting so much thought into its implementation and execution.

Looking at Perfect Dark Zero from an aesthetic standpoint, the game impresses on a number of levels and makes an effective showcase for the Xbox 360's hardware. Its environments are large, richly detailed and quite well thought out. The game's futuristic approach is consistent and extends from the weapon design, to the characters' clothing and even the menus. There's an undercurrent of totalitarian paranoia that runs through the game, with omnipresent guards, cameras and spider-bots keeping an eye on everything. Most of the game takes place in sleek urban environments, which appear a bit cold and intimidating, yet are nicely done as well. However, the action also includes a number of natural settings such as rain forests and mountain temples which further help to showcase the engine's versatility with great rain and snow effects. PDZ's character models are impressive as well, with fluid animation and excellent movement throughout. The game implements a number of effects, such as reflective textures, elaborate light sourcing and incredibly robust lighting that gives each level a high gloss finish that is both imaginative and belieavable, keeping a consistent look and feel throughout. From a technical standpoint, the game's visuals move at a consistent frame rate that rarely drops. The level of detail is remarkable and represents a step forward for the genre. The one area where PDZ seems to fall a little flat are its voice-overs which aren't as effective as they could have been thanks to the pedantic dialogue and sub-par acting. The cut-scenes are generally disappointing, and do little to impress the player, they move the plot forward and little else. Still, these are comparatively minor problems that most players should be able to overlook while drooling at the game's otherwise robust visuals.

Perfect Dark Zero isn't perfect but it is a solid title that makes a good impression throughout. The gameplay is a bit slower than most FPS titles, but the balance of stealth and action makes for a more interesting game that challenges players to think a little bit more than usual. The selection of weapons is excellent, and a compliment of cool gadgets helps to give the game a unique feel and personality all its own. The levels and storyline unfold at a good pace that should keep your interest level high, despite some sub-par voice acting that hurts the otherwise smooth production values. On the downside, the levels are a bit linear at points and PDZ occasionally feels a bit too much like its on rails. From a visual standpoint, PDZ glossy production values and excellent lighting and texture effects show off the Xbox 360's hardware effectively without feeling gimmicky or excessive. Many elements of the game are innovative and sharp while others seem to fall a bit flat. However, on balance, these problems are comparatively minor. Perfect Dark Zero is a satisfying game that offers an excellent single player experience along with a surprisingly deep multiplayer mode that makes for one of the most impressive of Xbox 360's launch lineup and is thus strongly recommended for players who enjoy FPS titles.

Grade: B

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