Review: Darkest of Days (Microsoft Xbox 360)

DoD_XBox_Face_RGB-noscaleName: Darkest of Days
Developer: 8Monkeys
Publisher: Valcon Games (360 version)
Genre: First Person Shooter
Release Date: 09/08/2009

In the realm of Science Fiction, one of the biggest concepts around is time travel. Whether you are hopping in a suped up Delorean to make sure your parents get together or sling-shotting around the sun to get some whales, traveling to a different era has a firm hold on our psyche. Going hand-in-hand with that concept is the question of, “What would happen if I had a rocket launcher or assault rifle in World War One?” To answer this, 8Monkeys has brought Darkest of Days to our attention. Let’s see if it is worth putting in a time capsule, or if you should take a quantum leap away from it.

1. Story/Modes
Darkest of Days begins its story right on the field of battle in one of America’s greatest military blunders: the battle of Little Big Horn. Seems General Customer underestimated some Native Americans and is in the process of getting his ass handed to him on a butt-shaped platter. As your position is being overrun, you take an arrow to the stomach and fall down. Just as you are about to get a tomahawk haircut, a shimmering blue sphere pops up and a man in a-for lack of a better term-space suit pulls you through. You wake up sometime in the world of tomorrow, where a giant computer screen with eyes, going by the name Mother, welcomes you. After a painfully brief, “You have become unhinged from time” speech, you get a tutorial in shooting weapons and chucking grenades, and set off to make sure that time happens the way it should, all in the service of time travel corporation Kronotek.

After your indoctrination, you are presented with a choice for a pair of missions. Save a Russian (wouldn’t it be Soviet? Just saying…) soldier during World War One, or rescue a Yankee during the American Civil War. After a few checkpoints, it is back to Mother for some much-needed upgrades and recap. Accompanying you on these missions is your handy Drill Instructor/lifesaver, Dexter. I’m going to come back to him later, because 8Monkeys does something I’m still trying to decide on.

Anyway, you tend to get stuck with period-accurate weaponry for most of the game, with the occasional, awesome change of pace to future tech that you want. Along the way, an opposing team of time travelers show up and pick devastating fights with you. There is a rival faction, as it happens, and they want you to work for them too. Who knew some schmuck who should have died was could be in such demand? What follows from this is the standard, “We’re right/No, we are the correct ones” that these types of games usually have. However, I have to say that the developers took a lot of time to make sure that the concept of Time Travel is respected. Except for that one thing I’m going to be talking about later. You are reminded constantly about the need to keep time inviolate. There is even a reward/penalty system in place to keep you from killing everything you see. Certain characters will be highlighted in blue, and you don’t want to kill them. You can think that they are the great-grandfather of the inventor of TV or something, but it adds a nice touch. People looking for something besides just the basic story are going to be sorely disappointed, however. There is only the campaign to play through.

Story/Modes Rating: Good

2. Graphics
With such a wide variety of times and locales, you might think the graphics engine would have problems turning out different things. Well, time travel is rife with paradox. Darkest of Days manages to follow that trend. When I first started playing, things looked…in need of help. Textures were flat, weapons were boring, and the animations were a bit hokey and disjointed. I held that opinion through most of the first two maps, and then found myself on a hill overlooking a series of Russian trenches being attacked by a wave of German soldiers. I was stunned by how good it looked. Was I playing the same game, or did someone make a movie about the Battle of Tannenburg? I fired a few artillery rounds into the German forces and kept playing, and then realized what the difference was-Scale. This game is a pretty poor looking game inside of 20 or so feet. But from twenty or more yards out, it’s not too shabby.

What is driving that issue? 8Monkey built a new engine for this game from the ground up. They call it Marmoset, and it lets them put a lot of soldiers on screen. In most of the battles, they aren’t really moving, but they are still there. This lets you actually take part in infantry charges, and there were a few times when I came into a clearing and found myself facing a firing line of a few dozen soldiers. I don’t care that they only had muskets, that’s still a lot of incoming lead.

Sadly, the engine just doesn’t do close up nearly as well as it should. Add to that the fact that there is a lot of pop-in for grasses and trees, and that you do a lot of your shooting through scoped weapons, and Darkest of Days just doesn’t present itself as a graphical showpiece. There are some really nice touches though, like the wisps of smoke that drift out of a just-fired rifle and slowly dissipate. When that firing line all shoots at once, they are obscured almost completely by that smoke effect too. Again, nice touch, but it doesn’t fix the issue of how bland everything else looks.

Graphics Rating: Above Average

3. Sound
This is another category that is a huge reach for a game like this. Pretty much every FPS on the market has a different sound for each of their guns, and all of them have been getting more and more realistic over the years. Darkest of Days presents you with a huge variety of guns to use. From the venerable Colt revolver that tamed the west to a shoulder-mounted artillery cannon, 8Monkey has a lot to work with. They took an interesting approach for the most part. The sounds for the rifles are all very similar, except for the reload. You’ll be spending a lot of time with a Springfield Musket. This one-shot rifle needs to be tamped down every time you load it, with appropriate metal-scraping sounds. It’s completely different than the cartridge firing rifle. The firing effects are all suitably impressive, except for turret weapons. You’ll be manning a couple of emplaced things, heavy machine guns and even antique cannons. They are quieter than the main guns. That’s really too bad, as I wanted a heavy, roaring blast, not a cough.

That’s the guns covered, what else? Well, the music is pretty generic, and at least doesn’t interrupt much. Mother and Dexter are decently voiced, although Dexter cusses like a sailor and throws some pretty strange sayings at you. The others? Well, again…paradox. The Confederate troops must have had a Buford in every platoon, because they tell him to flank you or watch out in every single fight. There’s not a lot of variety. The Germans? The Russians? Happily, I couldn’t understand a word they said. How many games have you played where the other side speaks accented English? Too many. If you’re some soldier from the 1800’s, I really doubt you’d speak German, Russian, or Latin. Great touch.

Sound Rating: Good

4. Control/Gameplay
As Darkest of Days is an amalgam of historical conflicts, so too is it an amalgam of game effects. It plays ultimately like your standard FPS, but borrows a few things here and there to keep in interesting. The most common thing you’ll notice is the active reload system. I’m glad to see it brought out of its native Gears of War setting, but it isn’t as smooth. For most of your older weapons, there is a lengthy animation to go through. Hitting the active reload just right doesn’t finish off the animation, it just speeds it up a bit and prevents jamming. Not helping matters is that as you upgrade your reload speed, the progress circle moves faster. It also borrows overneating the turrets from Gears,, meaning you can’t just hose down your enemies. A regenerating health bar with blood covered screen to indicate damage rounds out the package. Most aggravating though is what it takes from Half-Life. Your character, Morris, speaks just as much as Gordon Freeman. Not. One. Bit.
POWAssasination
The period-specific weapons all play appropriately, and it was kind of a cool thing to see a forced reload after every shot. Accuracy and power tended to suffer on the antique items as well, which was either accurate or aggravating, or both. It is entertainingly different to shoot off the old weapons for a while, but then you start longing for newer tech. For the most part, the game provides. Most of the future-tech weapons are based on what we have now-combat shotguns, assault rifles, scoped rifles, automatic pistols, you get the idea. But the rocket launcher was quite a lot of fun. It fires a burst of five rounds, which arc towards their target and then blast skyward. At first I was confused, and shot off a few more bursts with the same effect. Just as I was starting to wonder if there was a bug, the first shots I fired started falling back to earth. The rocket launcher is more of an artillery cannon. The incoming rounds look like meteors as they come back down. Using this gun erased a lot of the boredom of having to shoot one round at a time for so long.

Anyway, the other game that gets some nods here is Operation: Flashpoint. Probably 90% of the game is spent in huge, open spaces with you running from checkpoint to checkpoint and dodging bullets the whole way. This would be great if it wasn’t for the presence of invisible walls everywhere. Between that aggravation and the appalingly common “un-climable, 25 degree hill,” there isn’t nearly as much freedom of battle as you might otherwise expect. That extends to the default-and pretty much locked in-control scheme. You have to hold down the stick to crouch, you can’t toggle. The basic look speed is way, way to slow also, and you need to bump it up as soon as possible. I keep going back to this, but it’s good thing/bad thing all over. Most of the time, your movement is normal, but if you pile up enough corpses, you slow down as you cross them. That’s a really dark, cool effect, but it doesn’t make up for other shortcomings.

Control/Gameplay Rating: Mediocre

5. Replayability
As I mentioned before, the game really only has the one mode. Once you get past the storyline, there’s not a lot of reason to go back through the game at all. Even the achievements are pretty poor. Most of them are built around just completing the series of missions in a certain time period. The few that aren’t tied to completion are hardly worth mentioning. I’m really saddened by that because there is so many options to play back through. Since the campaign mode tends to stick you with two period-appropriate weapons at the start, it would have been cool to see the ability to mix and match. Why not take the Colt revolver into World War Two? Or start the Civil War maps with the artillery cannon and a scoped assault rifle? The lack of multiplayer is completely awful too. It could have been a blast to be given a squad of five or six soldiers each for a Deathmatch or Capture the Flag gametypes.

Replayability Rating: Bad

6. Balance
pompeii05It would be easy to assume that a game that gives you vastly superior technology and knowledge of how the battles play out would be a cakewalk when it comes to shooting your way through the game. That’s a fatal mistake. Even on the easiest of difficulty, Darkest of Days takes an obscene glee in killing you, over and over again. I blame the engine. It seems at times that once the designers realized they could throw a few hundred enemies at you at once, they decided to do it as much as possible. Patrols will find you and then suddenly triple in size, spawning the reinforcements all around you. This wouldn’t be so terrible if there was a way to avoid them or even take cove from their attacks. Darkest of Days doesn’t have a cover system past “go hide behind a house.” There were plenty of moments when I found myself hiding behind a giant boulder but still taking hits from magic bullets. Apparently you don’t need to be seen to be shot either, because there were times when I couldn’t see anyone but I was attracting every bullet fired. The lack of a serious stealth component also hurts the game. The times when I should have been sneaking just meant I was getting shot while crouched. Maybe they could smell the future on me, because they shouldn’t have been able to see me.

Darkest of Days also brags about “Advanced AI.” At this point in gaming, that phrase will elicit either groans or laughter from most gamers. Again, scale becomes the issue. When there are forty or fifty bad guys to fight, there isn’t much going on past a mob rush. Quantity has its own quality. Winnow them down to ten or so, and the game gets smart. Your enemies will gang up to fire all at once, and then duck behind rocks and trees for the tedious reloading. Whole armies will stand around while their compatriots get shot, but platoons will run for cover and away from your attacks.

Balance Rating: Mediocre

7. Originality
If you’ve been reading along, you know that Darkest of Days has borrowed a bunch of different ideas and stirred them together. The story scenes from the future scream Assassin’s Creed, while the need to fix or maintain history is pure Quantum Leap and Marvel’s Exiles. The handing over of futuristic weaponry is always a nice touch, but most of the time you have to get to a point to use it, you don’t start with it. I was pleased with the settings though. Even though WWII was included, Darkest of Days also used the Civil War and WWI. They even went with the Russian/German front, just to shake things up. That was a nice choice. Ultimately, too many things were too similar to other games, and not done with enough greatness to move things forward.

Originality Rating: Decent

8. Addictiveness
I’ve mentioned the paradox issue over and over again, and I think it’s time to put it to bed for this review. How can a bad game keep you interested? Darkest of Days answers this. There are a lot of questionable design decisions and badly outmatched fights, but for all that, you want to keep playing. A lot of that is the occasional set-piece battle that you fight through. Blowing up a bridge, repelling a charge with a cannon, stealing a zeppelin, that sort of thing. You might not have a great amount of freedom in all of the missions, but 8Monkeys paced the game very, very well. When you load up a mission knowing that it is going to be three parts grind to one part wow, you don’t mind loading up the next one just to see what that wow is going to be. Sometimes that means you get to obliterate forces with future weapons, sometimes it means you get to make a daring last stand inside a besieged fort. Almost every mission has that wow factor at the end, and that will keep you playing past the annoyances.

Addictiveness Rating: Great

9. Appeal Factor
For a game where time travel is such an integral factor, Darkest of Days made a major mistake in the release window. Launched just after Batman: Arkham Asylum, and two weeks prior to Halo: ODST, let alone the rest of the holiday crush, Darkest of Days has a lot to overcome to get noticed. While it doesn’t feel rushed, it clearly could have used three or four more months to polish and add features. There admittedly aren’t a lot of games on the market within the genre of multi-era historical shooter, but that doesn’t mean there is going to be a rush to find that game type either. With more time in development, maybe that multi-player element could have been added, or some more polish to the close in graphics. With just a bit more shine and maybe a January or February launch, this might have had sleeper hit written all over it. As it is, Darkest of Days has a lot of great ideas and a good story marred by a lack of refinement.

Appeal Factor Rating: Enjoyable

10. Miscellaneous
I mentioned back in the story section how there was a choice made for Dexter that I’m still trying to come to terms with. Quick bit of game background-the operatives for Kronotek are all chosen as history’s Missing In Action. You are part of the team because you died in battle before your transfer papers made it to Washington. Dexter, your comrade in arms, has a different story. He was a firefighter. He was pulled out of a collapsing building and brought into the future on September 11th, 2001. As much as it fits in with the theme of MIA’s from the past as operatives, it leaves a bad taste in my mouth. I know that gaming is eventually going to get around to exploring September 11th at some point, I just didn’t think it would be in this fashion. Coupled with the fact that Darkest of Days was released three days before the anniversary of the attacks just makes it harder to swallow. I also refuse to believe that, no matter how much Kronotek believes that time is inviolate, if you pulled a person out of that day’s events and gave them access to time altering technology, that day would have happened as it did. Especially for a firefighter. It feels like a cheap stunt played entirely for shock value, even if it does make sense internally.

Miscellaneous Rating: Bad

The Scores:
Story/Modes: Good
Graphics: Above Average
Sound: Good
Control/Gameplay: Mediocre
Replayability: Bad
Balance: Mediocre
Originality: Decent
Addictiveness: Great
Appeal Factor: Enjoyable
Miscellaneous: Bad
Final Score: Decent Game!

Short Attention Span Summary
Darkest of Days takes you through some of the worst battles in the worst conflicts in human history, and tasks you with making sure that they happened correctly. A brand new game engine puts a lot of enemies on the screen at once, but works much better at large battles than small fights. There’s nothing new here aside from being able to use guns from the future to turn the tide of battles in the past, and the enemies maintain inhuman levels of marksmanship even when they don’t know how to duck. Despite having some neat ideas and in-game moments, this time travel game needed more time in development and a couple of extra writers before it entered the timestream.

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