Darkest of Days


posted 9/30/2009 by Dave Gamble
other articles by Dave Gamble

We’ve all had them, haven’t we? At one time or another, we’ve all pondered the idea of time travel and what uses we would make of it. Some would decide on an altruistic use, wondering what a world without Adolf Hitler or Al Gore would be like. Others take a more pecuniary route, planning a stock portfolio populated with thousands of shares of Microsoft, Google, and Enron stock. Hey, even time travelers can make a few mistakes, right?

Some take a middle, more pragmatic approach. Those folks realize that if one person has the ability to travel through time, others are quite likely to have it as well. To them, this presents an unacceptably high risk that someone will go back and change something that alters the course of time such that we are no longer able to purchase a Barack Obama Chia Pet in the year 2009. Oh, the horror! These poor, tortured souls envision something more akin to a law enforcement role for themselves, whereby they travel through time either preventing others from making changes in the first place, or repairing the delicate fabric of time after the fact.

Which, at long last, brings us to Darkest of Days, brought to you by the awesomely named 8monkey Labs. For anyone concerned by the name of the development studio, rest assured that no chimpanzees or rhesus monkeys were harmed in the creation of this game, or so they say.  Pursuant to the time travel discussion above, Darkest of Days inserts you, as a character named Alexander Morris, into a story revolving around an organization named KronoteK whose stated purpose is to prevent and repair damage to the timeline. Morris is essentially drafted into KronoteK after being rescued from a near certain demise during the Battle of Little Big Horn. After a brief training period, Morris and his trainer/mentor/partner Dexter are assigned missions by a sultry-voiced super computer and transported to and from different eras by means of a large, liquid sphere. Yeah, that’s a bit odd, but given that none of us really know what a time travel apparatus would look like, we have no basis to argue against its realism. 

The stated purpose of the missions is to find and rescue individuals that are critical to maintaining the continuity of the timeline, but have found themselves somehow misplaced from where they should be. Unfortunately for Dexter and Morris, these two people have gotten themselves misplaced into some very dangerous places. One is facing an untimely (so to speak) end in the Civil War, and the other is facing stiff odds against survival in WWI. Or, as I like to call it, The War Before Call of Duty. Finding and rescuing these wayward soldiers requires Dexter and Morris to insert themselves squarely into the middle of large scale battles, survive those battles, and track down a single person in all of the ensuing mess. Sure, it helps that the person in question is surrounded by a bright orange aura, but still… there is quite bit of real estate to cover in the quest.

For those players weaned on any of the plethora of WWII or more modern war games, it will be fun for them to find themselves fighting in bloody battles using musket loaders and single shot carbines. As with most shooters, the enemy guns will more than likely be better than the archaic weapons provided by your side. This is certainly the case in the battles where a dead enemy can be found clutching a Henry Repeating Rifle in his cold, dead hands. Having to depend on slow firing, slow loading firearms presents a somewhat new challenge to players used to machine guns, plasma rifles, and the BFG. It’s actually a shame that the designers didn’t restrict the game to that model. Unfortunately, it isn’t long before you find yourself toting around a post-modern, futuristic machine gun or repeating shot gun. Hey, there’s even an ultra-cool bomblet tossing thingy that you can use to hammer the Kaiser’s finest.

Frankly, it was at this point that I began to lose interest. One of my biggest issues with time travel stories is the inherent and inevitable logical incongruities and inconsistencies. So here I was, drafted into a service whose sole goal was ostensibly to protect the delicate timeline from influence from the future, blasting away at hundreds of Germans with a 22nd century gun. And no one fighting alongside me noticed? One would have expected at least a few questions along the lines of “Just what in the hell is that??” But no, it’s as if the guy fighting next to you using a vastly superior and completely unimaginable weapon (and, by the way, not even offering to share) was the most normal thing on the planet. Still, the game just might have gotten away with it if not for….

If I could travel back in time and have a sit-down with 8monkeys, I’d use that opportunity to point out to them that not everyone (in fact, almost no one in relative terms) has a dedicated PhysX board. Are the graphics in Darkest of Days pretty? Well, yes, although not to the levels seen in Call of Duty and the like, in my opinion. Sure, the little wisp of smoke drifting from the rifle barrel after firing is pretty neat, but the overall hit to the frame rate on a non-PhysX machine is not worth it. My PC, which handles Call of Duty at maximum quality with aplomb, struggled with Darkest of Days, particularly so during the worst possible time: during battles.

That said, if you have the machine for it, the battles should have been extraordinary. They involve literally hundreds of AI controlled soldiers on both sides mixing it up in cornfields and mountainous areas. The problem, however, is that the AI is dumber than ocean krill. That doesn’t matter quite as much in the Civil War battles were troops just lined up in nice, tight groups (all the better to shoot at in the days prior to the introduction of the accuracy-enhancing rifled barrel) and shot at each other. It doesn’t take much AI (or, for that matter, real intelligence) to do that. But in the battles where troops could move more freely about the landscape, it was just mayhem. Without a doubt, a peace-loving beatnik would be impressed by two soldiers from opposing armies standing side-by-side shooting at their respective enemies, but for the rest of us? Not so much.

To top it off, the writers populated the voice scripts with plenty of F-bombs and other profanities. I'm no prude, and if you were to hear what I yell at the car radio every morning when NPR comes on the air with their version of "news," you'd probably call me a hypocrite. But when it comes to games that are more fun to play with the speakers turned way up high in order to adequately convey the sounds of a battlefield, I'd rather not have to explain to the wife and/or daughter why words you wouldn't utter in front of a drunken sailor are being screamed through the house.

At the end of the day, the convoluted plot and weak AI serves to label Darkest of Days as pretty much nothing more than a test bed/prolonged demo for PhysX. If you don’t have a dedicated PhysX board, well, Darkest of Days is more of a disappointing mess than it is a satisfying game. If only they had found a way to work Al Gore into the story…

A meandering plot and lackluster game play relegate Darkest of Days to the "save it for a snowy, can't-get-out-of-the-house day" shelf.