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.
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