I have a rare opportunity today. I have several all-time favorites that I’d love to analyze and review, but they are almost all before my time as a game critic. Simply put, Perfect Dark still holds up remarkably well and there’s a reason why it has aged so well: it was audaciously ambitious for its time, doing things in 2000 that wouldn’t be mainstream in first person shooters until a few years later. It had a decent-sized solo campaign with full voice acting, in-game cutscenes and motion-captured animation for nearly everything. This campaign could be played through in co-op, or in the innovative counter-operative, which let a friend take command of the level’s constantly respawning enemies in an effort to kill their buddy. The deathmatch mode was packed with options, bots, modes and maps, allowing a level of multiplayer customization as-yet unheard of in a console shooter. The whole package was wrapped in top-of-the-line production values, sporting the best textures, geometry, effects and music the N64 could muster.
Unfortunately Perfect Dark was a little too ambitious for its own good. The frame rate ranged from manageable to horribly choppy and got especially bad in the multiplayer modes. The limitations of the N64 kept this masterpiece from reaching its true potential; if there was ever a game that deserved a new lease on life, it’s Perfect Dark. Thankfully, Rare and 4J studios have given it just that.
If you were a fan of the original like me, you’ll get a strange sense of deja-vous playing through the solo missions again. 4J has left the level geometry the same, but given a huge polygonal upgrade to everything else—all character, world item and gun models are much more detailed, and while they aren’t quite up to the most modern standards they look much better than the original stuff. Also, every texture has been redone in glorious hi-res for the HD generation.
It’s great to see the game looking so clean and crisp, and for the most part I like the new look of the levels, guns and characters. However I’m not too enamored with some of the stylistic changes. The extra detail on the weapons can be hit or miss. Some, like the Cyclone, are a huge improvement and look incredibly cool. Others, like the alien Maian weapons have too many spidery veins and other details on them. In the original game they had a clean, shiny liquid metal appearance, while they are more organic in the remake.
As for the characters, they all look great but I had some reservations with a couple. Elvis the alien is a little too wrinkly and gaunt for my liking. Joanna Dark herself is a brunette again (thank goodness), but they’ve made her features more conventionally attractive. I kind of liked that in the original game she just wasn’t that remarkable; not unattractive but just kind of plain and athletic, the way you’d expect a corporate spy to look. It made her an oddly believable and grounded character in the game’s world of government conspiracies and space aliens. She was a character that the average player could relate to and a more realistic female game protagonist, something that’s still rare in today’s games. In the remake she’s much better styled than the tweeny rave-party tramp she was in Perfect Dark Zero, but she’s still noticeably prettier than in the N64 original. Of course, most of this is just down to my personal preference, so rest assured Perfect Dark HD is easy on the eyes even in today’s normal-mapped phong-shaded market.
Like the graphics the controls have also been brought up to speed. Playing FPS games with the single-analog N64 controller could be charitably called an art form and honestly called a pain in the ass. The N64 pad was a bizarre transitional step in the evolution of analog control and that made half the challenge of Perfect Dark fighting the controls. The dual analog setup in the XBLA release makes the game much more comfortable to play. There are three schemes: classic, Spartan and Duty Calls. Classic has a button layout as faithful as you can get to the N64 on a 360 pad, while the N64's yellow C buttons have been mapped straight to the directions on the right stick--it's completely digital directional control despite being on an analog stick, just like it was back on the N64. Duty Calls and Spartan do incorporate true dual analog control, which I actually found to be more comfortable, with button mappings that mimic Call of Duty and Halo. I preferred Duty Calls to classic and I hated Spartan, but I’ve always disliked Halo’s controls anyway. There aren’t any southpaw options right now but that will be coming shortly in an update. In any case it’s much easier to play the game with all three new schemes than it ever was on an N64 pad.
One thing I’m glad they didn’t mess with was the sound design. I played the original religiously so every sound effect and note of music is etched into my cerebral cortex, and it was wonderful to hear it all preserved. The distinctive twitter of the CMP150, the crisp low-pitched report of the Falcon 2, the solid alien punch of the Farsight—it’s all there, usually accompanied by the (sometimes humorous) yelps and death screams of the guards. It’s actually kind of funny that the enemies all have new faces scanned from the 4J dev team, but still talk and scream in the voices of the Rare developers of a decade ago. As to the music, it’s probably the aspect that held up best. The original score by Grant Kirkhope, Graeme Norgate and David Clynick was an intoxicating blend of cyberpunk techno and artfully used N64 synth, and it still fits the scifi-noir setting like a glove.
It’s one of the few N64 soundtracks that still sound great today because it matched the game’s setting and pace so well; it was supposed to sound artificial and creepy, unlike the still beautiful but dated Ocarina of Time soundtrack which valiantly mimicked an orchestral sound. I even dug out the old soundtrack CD I bought back in the day and listened to it while writing this review. If you’re a fan of the original like me, don’t be surprised to catch yourself humming the music to yourself again after all these years—it’s been retouched and remixed slightly but is otherwise identical.
Aside from the new graphics and controls the solo campaign is virtually unchanged. The levels are short and sweet, the AI is pretty dumb by today’s standards, the physics and animations are still mo-capped and the story is pure Rare camp and British wit. It’s an interesting artifact of turn-of-the-millennium gaming, and that said it’s still a lot of fun. As Joanna Dark you visit a wide array of exotic locales, rescuing aliens and the president along the way. The plot moves just far enough into cheesy scifi while still staying realistic and violent enough to be believable, in a conspiracy movie sort of way. The only way I can describe it is a Philip K. Dick movie written by the Hot Fuzz guys. The story mode will run you a couple hours, and while the enemies are dim it’s still challenging on the hardest difficulty. You take a lot of damage from sustained fire, and with no checkpoints, health kits or even shields, Perfect Agent mode is an exercise in caution, white-knuckle skill and health conservation.
Of course half of the fun comes from experimenting with Perfect Dark’s eccentric gun collection. The varied and eclectic arsenal doesn’t have the slavish fixation on real-world accuracy you find in modern military shooters. This is a list of guns culled from the dev team’s favorite scifi movies, from Aliens to Robocop to Eraser and everything in-between. A few are based on real weapons but all of them have hi-tech secondary functions, notably the x-ray scoped Farsight that lets you see and shoot through walls. In addition to this you get 8 classic guns from GoldenEye 007—a nice inclusion from the original game and possibly a remnant from the canceled GoldenEye remake 4J were working on a couple years back.
The exotic guns, wide level variety and challenge make what was a groundbreaking story mode in 2000 still entertaining and undeniably well crafted a decade later. Then again, it’s really only half the package—Perfect Dark’s multiplayer has stood the test of time and has gotten a huge shot in the arm from Xbox Live. If you want old-school multiplayer at its best you’ve come to the right place, and veteran players will fall in love all over again.
There are 16 maps in all, including 3 from GoldenEye. A couple are duds but most of them are well organized, with several designed specifically around team play and capture the flag. The map versatility is impressive considering the amount of variables and customizable options. The five main scenarios range from fairly standard like CTF and king of the hill, to creative like the bounty hunter pop-a-cap and the point defense hacker central. A lot of the modes now standard in console FPS were watersheds in Perfect Dark, so you have a very solid foundation to play with in the multiplayer.
What was so remarkable at the time, however, was the sheer volume of customizability. Perfect Dark’s multiplayer has more tweaks and options than most modern shooters, outside of a level editor that is. This was in the days before multiplayer leveling up and perks. It was all about planning a great match and playing it, rather than living in an evolving one. You have full access to dozens of weapon sets or you can make your own; options for team placement, consistency and names are all available; you can even fiddle with character and item highlights.
Then there are the simulants. Perfect Dark’s multiplayer allows for up to eight bots in a level, and you can get pretty creative assigning them difficulty levels and personalities. Squaring off against a full team of revenge-minded, deadly accurate Darksims really gets the adrenaline going. The game also has a series of 30 preset challenges that get you acclimated to the maps, weapons and AI behavior. The challenges get incredibly hard toward the end but you only need to play the first dozen or so to unlock all of the multiplayer features.
All of this content was available in the original game, but the remake lets it meet its true potential online. On Xbox Live you can play with up to eight human players with a full complement of bots, making the multiplayer far more chaotic than it was ever intended to be but somehow more awesome at the same time. The gigantic maps finally feel balanced and lively; the smooth frame rate lets the game look great and play silky smooth. It’s the experience fans have always dreamed of and now they can have it.
There will be a learning curve for newer gamers unfamiliar with older deathmatch. Perfect Dark’s multiplayer is a strange mixture of old conventions and the then-new concepts that it was breaking into. Many modes require that you use strategies found in modern shooters like Team Fortress 2, but there’s still no way to begin the match with a gun, leading to a scramble for weapons right after spawning. For people who have been playing FPS for decades, Perfect Dark multiplayer has idiosyncrasies that will feel delightfully retro, but for players raised on the baby’s-first-FPS of Halo, these artifacts may seem strange and unnecessary.
The multiplayer challenges feel rather unbalanced. The early ones are painfully easy, but the difficulty curve shoots straight up a cliff about halfway through. The bots in the later challenges are horribly cheap, forcing you to rely on tricks that fool their AI rather than pure FPS skill. In terms of combat against other humans, the lack of handicaps and balances from the Modern Warfare series might discourage newbies who don’t have the chops to jump right in.
Perfect Dark is very much a classic shooter—it’s a test of raw skill, reflexes and accuracy. Most of the tricks come from using the weapons and their secondary features creatively, like dropping a laptop turrent as a delaying action, using the time-slowing combat boost tactically, or placing the deviously disguised assault rifle proxy mine on a weapon spawn point. Perfect Dark is undeniably still a legacy FPS; 4J have left it immaculate and only enhanced it with online play and a cosmetic overhaul. But if you can get behind its old school nature it’s one of the best examples of the genre and still incredibly addictive a decade later.
The other multiplayer modes, co-op and counter-op, finally come into their own. Both were robust features in the original game but were badly hobbled by the frame rate. Now with unfettered fluidity they are both a joy to play. Breaking up objectives and double-teaming enemy squads and using new tactics adds a flow to the solo missions that makes them a whole new experience. Conversely the fiendishly innovative counter-op gets to shine for the first time. You may have mastered the solo missions on Perfect Agent, but having a respawning sentient opponent gunning for your single life bar really shakes things up. I suggest playing counter-op on the medium Special Agent difficulty, at least at first—Perfect Agent is hard enough without a human opponent stalking you! Regardless both modes are a blast—co-op and counter-op on consoles were only being experimented with in 2000, Perfect Dark being one of the first console FPS’s to try them, and it’s surprising just how well the modes have held up.
In many respects Perfect Dark is a little outdated. It isn’t as fast as Halo or as streamlined as Call of Duty, simply because it was one the first games to try the things those series perfected years later. It is however one of the few remakes that is better than the original. Perfect Dark flows gracefully into the modern arena, carrying its endearing retro elements with aplomb but also adapting remarkably well to new conventions like online play, simply because it was so ahead of its time. It’s a game packed with content and at only $10, one of the best deals on Xbox Live Arcade. Old fans of the game should buy it without hesitation, and newcomers have a piece of history to experience and at an absolute steal of a price. In any case I can’t wait to see the multiplayer light up like never before.
To end on that note, I’d like to mention that 4J made a comment about DLC, specifically new maps and weapons. I say go for it, and maybe even include a map maker, bringing Perfect Dark up to the standards of its spiritual successors in the Timesplitters series. For me, however, the Holy Grail would be the face mapping feature. Rare planned to let you scan a picture of your face onto your multiplayer character in the original game, but in light of the tragic Columbine shooting in 1999, the feature was scrapped for obvious reasons.
Now that it’s been ten years, and a similar feature has been included in the Rainbow Six Vegas series, I’d love to see 4J resurrect face mapping via DLC. 4J similarly revived the mythical Stop N’ Swap connectivity feature in the XBLA ports of the Banjo Kazooie games, so it’s certainly feasible. Now that Perfect Dark is on XBLA, the sky’s the limit—long fettered by technical limitations, Perfect Dark is now the masterpiece it was always supposed to be and has the potential to get even better.