Review: Damnation (Microsoft Xbox 360)

Damnation
Genre: Third-Person Shooter
Developer: Blue Omega
Publisher: Codemasters
Release Date: 05/26/09


As we move further into the future of gaming, the possibility of seeing more games that attempt to take well-established genres and “innovate” them by placing them in new and different locales is becoming more likely. It’s not a hard concept to understand. Everyone likes, say, Half-Life 2, so if someone could create a product that they can dub “Half-Life 2… IN ANCIENT CHINA!” Well hey, it works for movies, right? All it takes is a really interesting (or, barring that, a really weird) idea and an established genre, and next thing you know, you’ll have “Half-Life meets Blade Runner!” (Deus Ex), or “Tekken with swords!” (Soul Calibur) or “Tomb Raider in a steampunk Civil War!”, which is an apt description for Damnation. In essence, Damnation takes the elements of games like Tomb Raider and dresses them up in a design that’s one part Prey and one part steampunk, with a dash of multiplayer thrown in for good measure. In theory, this sounds like it could be a good time, but Damnation doesn’t quite know what to do with itself, which is unfortunate, as it comes off less like an awesome cross-concept experiment and more like a confused mess of incompatible ideas that never quite mesh together in a way that isn’t disappointing.

So, you take on the role of Rourke, leader of an unnamed group of freedom fighters looking to save humanity from the reign of the PSI (Pounds per square inch… er, Prescott Standard Industries). It seems that their leader, Prescott, has discovered a chemical that, when introduced to the human body, allows people to ignore physical injury and improves their abilities… at the cost of their humanity. Prescott has taken to using this chemical to build an army of super-soldiers and tireless miners, with the intention of taking over the US. PSI has also kidnapped Rourke’s fiancée and one of his friends, forcing Rourke into action along with his ragtag group of allies. The story is told in an alternate past steampunk setting, so you’ll be dealing with a story set roughly around the time period of the Civil War , but with machine guns and motorcycles and stuff. The concept is pretty awesome, but the story has no idea how to do anything interesting with it, instead choosing to rehash the worst plot elements of Prey and Gears of War into a plot that’s generally uninspiring and stereotypical in most standard respects with corny and stiff dialogue to match. If this were a B-movie it’d probably be fun to laugh at, but as a game plotline, it’s kind of painful.

Visually, Damnation is fairly weak. The environments are large and expansive, the special effects are mostly solid, the steampunk aesthetic is mostly spot-on across the game, and the character animations are mostly quite solid. However, the textures are generally low quality, the character models are unimpressive or, in the case of Yakecan and her generous amount of underboob, stupid, and there’s pop-up in more than a few stages. The average presentation also continues into the audio, unfortunately. The music is fine, if uninspired, and the sound effects are generally fitting and pop when they need to. The voice acting, unfortunately, is kind of unpleasant, as most of the voice actors are “competent” in the best cases. The only really GOOD voice actor is that of Prescott, but because of the fact that you’ll constantly hear him giving propaganda speeches while in PSI county, his voice work gets old in a hurry because they’re the same ten second loops repeated ad infinitum (Yes, I understand that this is how propaganda works, but THAT IS NOT THE POINT.). The voice acting of your compatriots, on the other hand, is mostly mediocre save for the voice of Yakecan, who has no idea how to emote and generally sounds bored whenever she’s talking, which is unfortunately often.

Since we’ve described Damnation as being a good bit like Tomb Raider, you might assume it also plays like Tomb Raider, which is true in spirit, but not in actual execution. Most of the game is spent either giving everyone you meet lead poisoning or jumping around like a circus acrobat, but the controls might be a little different from what you’d expect. You’ll move around with the left stick and look around with the right stick, you can jump and duck with a press of the face buttons, and most of the controls are laid out in a fashion that’s fairly easy to understand… except that reloading is performed by pressing in the left stick, which isn’t specifically good or bad so much as it’s just weird. You hold the left trigger to enter into shooting mode, which brings your gun to bear and allows you to aim with the right stick while still being able to move around. Clicking in the right stick zooms the aim in a bit for most weapons, though those with a scope can be zoomed in multiple times with each click of the stick. The left trigger fires the chosen weapon at whatever you’re aiming at, and the Y button tosses or plants grenades, which are proximity sensitive and can be detonated remotely. You can also dodge around and duck to avoid enemy fire by hiding behind obstacles, though there’s no specific cover mechanic in place here. In an interesting addition, your characters can also aim and fire while hanging from something, meaning that you can hang from a ledge and fire up at the enemy on it instead of having to pull yourself up first, which is not a bad idea at all. It’s honestly kind of surprising more games don’t do something similar, as it’s a useful mechanic that seems like such a small thing upon consideration.

When not dodging and shooting, you’ll be spending a decent amount of time scaling buildings, walls and other fun things. Your character can pull himself up and down ladders and ropes, climb up and drop down from footholds, triangle jump off of walls, and shimmy along ledges with the best of them, and most of your agility-based movements can be done with little more than the A button and the sticks. Jumping from obstacles works by holding the right bumper to prep the jump, which works somewhat better than the normally used mechanic of holding the opposite direction you’re facing when the camera angle makes it impossible to know what that opposite direction is exactly. Here you simply hold a button to ready your character to jump, then jump off. The free-running mechanics are a pretty large part of the experience, so you’ll often find yourself taking down large swaths of foes only to have to navigate a long, involved jumping puzzle to get to the next group, which helps to diversify the action a bit. You’ll also spend some time screwing around with turrets, motorcycles and other weird steampunk vehicles as you play through Damnation in addition to the normal gameplay, and these vehicles generally play about as you’d expect.

You’ll also develop some special abilities, courtesy of a Native American mystic early on in the game, which allow you to turn on spirit vision to see enemies through walls and heal wounded allies at a distance. Pretty much all of the game sees you accompanied by one or more AI partners, who provide support to you in firefights and direct you where to go in some cases, and if they go down it’s game over. So being able to give them a quick boost from nearly anywhere is helpful, though doing so while under fire is also quite unwise since enemy attacks disrupt your Spirit Vision, so it’s not specifically “easier” than having to run up to them. In single player games, the reverse is not true, so if you bite it, it’s time to go back to the checkpoint. You can also play the game with a friend, either on or offline, and in this case, each of you can revive the other, making the experience less punishing with a friend. There’s also online multiplayer, which features the standard expected modes, including Deathmatch, Team Deathmatch, King of the Hill and Capture the Flag, if such a thing interests you. The core game run around eight hours, and offers multiple difficulties to plow through, giving you plenty of reason to come back to the game if what it does amuses you. There are also cheat codes to find and enter in along with collectibles to discover, again, if such a thing interests you.

Which, unfortunately, it won’t.

Damnation as a concept is very promising and on paper sounds quite cool, but Damnation in practice is a tedious, derivative, sloppy affair that is generally just not very enjoyable. The gunplay, though competent, lacks any kind of punch, the weapons are bland and unexciting, and the actual mechanics feel loose and not terribly responsive. It doesn’t help that the enemy AI is extremely dim, choosing in most cases to stand and fight out in the open instead of trying to employ any sort of intelligent tactics. Nor is it helpful that the game’s solution to this behavior is to make the enemies more resilient to damage, meaning you’ll have to pump several rounds into the weakest of grunts to take them down. In some cases, the game will present you with oddball foes who have hidden weak points in an attempt to liven things up a bit, but the game has no idea how to present these sections in an interesting manner either. So instead of fighting pitched battles against overpowered enemies, you’ll just have to get to high ground and shoot them in the back or what have you. This too, becomes boring in a hurry. The weapon selection is also rather meager and unimpressive. While the weapons are impressive in the context of the time period you’re playing in, they aren’t impressive if you’ve played any third person shooter in the past few years. It probably goes without saying at this point, but for the record, between the meager weapon selection and the general lack of punch in the combat. The multiplayer is also fairly boring and gets old fast, especially since there are several other multiplayer games available that are far more entertaining and better structured than Damnation, which probably explains why I was able to play exactly ONE online match out of six attempts.

The free-running Tomb Raider mechanics aren’t much better. In fairness, these sections are certainly playable, and they’re more fun than the shooting sections, but they’re generally contrived in structure and flat in design. After smiting every enemy you see, you’ll just run around looking for something to grab onto that takes you where you want to go, more often than not inside of a hulked out building that looks like it should’ve fallen over ages ago. You’ll then spend a whole lot of time climbing up, down, across and over the landscape trying to get to your next objective, and while these segments are tolerable, they’re not specifically “fun” because they’re all pretty much the same thing over and over again. It also doesn’t help that the triangle jump, which is needed more often than not to initiate a lot of these climbing segments, doesn’t work terribly well and fifty percent of the time ends up with you falling off of whatever you just jumped on or smacking your face into the wall because you didn’t build up enough momentum to MAKE the jump. The game is also horrid about pointing out where you need to go in these segments, meaning you’ll spend about five minutes looking for something to jump on before you finally find it, which is fine SOMETIMES, but not ALMOST ALL THE TIME.

The game is also plagued with little problems that do nothing but hurt an already uninteresting game. The frame rate dips on more than one occasion, there are collision detection issues that, on more than one occasion, will leave you stuck in a wall, and characters and enemies can and will teleport for no adequately explained reason. The game looks like the developers came to the conclusion that “steampunk = brown and lots of pipes”, because a sizable portion of the game is EXACTLY THAT. Loading screens will pop up in the middle of sections WHILE YOU’RE PLAYING, and these screens often take up to thirty seconds to complete… whatever it is they’re doing, leaving you wondering why the developers couldn’t have broken up these segments with an actual scene transition or something. Cutscenes stall and glitch on occasion, leaving you to wonder WHY, since it’s not because the system is having a problem keeping up with the “awesome” visuals. Frankly, though, Damnation is boring. Playing the game is a chore simply because it’s neither good enough to be enjoyable nor bad enough to be perversely entertaining, leaving the experience as one long, bland, boring mess.

Damnation is actually kind of a shame, all in all, because the concept is interesting, the gameplay mechanics sound like they’d work well together, and the whole thing sounds fantastic on paper, but in actual execution, nothing works and the whole experience is unenjoyable and bland. The only nice things one can say about the finished product are that it’s nice to see steampunk games, and the game is certainly playable enough that if one wanted to, one could eventually complete it and maybe even have a little fun here and there. That said, the story is bland and boring, the visuals are low resolution and unimpressive, the music is bland, the voice acting is mostly bad, and the overall presentation is flat and cheesy. The shooting sections are unimpressive, the weapons are weak, the AI is stupid, and the play mechanics, save for the Spirit Vision healing and the ability to shoot while hanging, are basic and unimpressive. The platforming sections are tolerable, but the format is contrived and the controls don’t respond as well as they should. Virtually no one is playing the game online, and even if they were, the gameplay in this mode is no better or more varied than it is in single player. As a budget title Damnation would still be unimpressive and uninteresting, but as a full-priced release it’s just a very sad and unimpressive piece of work that manages to do almost nothing right. It’s bland, unexciting, unimpressive, and incredibly disappointing considering how great it actually sounds, and frankly, it’s not worth your time.

The Scores:
Story: BAD
Graphics: MEDIOCRE
Sound: MEDIOCRE
Control/Gameplay: MEDIOCRE
Replayability: BAD
Balance: MEDIOCRE
Originality: DREADFUL
Addictiveness: DREADFUL
Appeal: POOR
Miscellaneous: DREADFUL
FINAL SCORE: PRETTY POOR GAME.

Short Attention Span Summary:
Damnation is a sad case of a game sounding awesome but being awful. The idea of a steampunk Tomb Raider-meets-Gears of War game sounds really awesome, but Damnation never delivers on that promise, instead choosing to be a boring, underdeveloped experience that borrows heavily from better games. It also fails to do anything original with the borrowed elements, and can’t even implement the borrowed elements properly. The shooting sections are bland and rife with AI problems, and the weapons you get to play with are boring and feel weak. The platforming sections, though they play a little better, are contrived and the controls don’t always work as intended. There’s no reason to play through the game to completion because it does almost nothing you haven’t seen before (and plenty of things you wouldn’t want to see again), and the multiplayer elements are just as bland as they are in single player, only less populated. As an experiment in how to drop the ball while developing a conceptually solid product, Damnation is worth checking out, but as a game, it’s not even worth renting.

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