Retro Video Game Review: Perfect Dark (N64)

by on October 28th, 2010
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Overall Score: 5/5 Stars

The Nintendo 64 was fairly often insulted and derided in its time, for being a cartridge console in an age of disk systems, for its explicitly polygonal graphics with lack of cinemative cutscenes or sound, and for being the “kid’s toy” machine to some people.

But that unit did produce some masterpieces, a few of which occurred when then-legendary developer Rare was at the helm. Beginning with their work on Goldeneye, which may have not only been the best license game of all time but also showed that a first-person shooter could viably be played on consoles rather than solely PCs, Rare took the successful Goldeneye FPS formula, tweaked it, and in the year 2000 produced a magnificent video game called Perfect Dark.

Gameplay

The storyline of Perfect Dark revolves around special agent Joanna Dark and her covert work in the near future to ward off an alien invasion. The plot is science-fiction schlock all-around, sporting artificial intelligence, hovering vehicles, laster-blasting weaponry, and other familiar touches. Much like Goldeneye, it is handled a mission at a time, and each available in three different difficulty levels.

The solo mode, alone, is worthy of notable consideration; however, it is the other modes that warrant the dropping of jaws and the distribution of proper accolades. Not only does Perfect Dark have a two-player co-op mode, but it even has a two-player “counter-operative” mode, where a second player gets to be one of the enemy characters trying to thwart the protagonist, Joanna, and even respawns as a different baddie with each death.

Yet these, perhaps, are merely a taste of the true quality gaming that is to be found in the multi-player. Up to four human players could play; but, in a startling contrast to the limits of Goldeneye, up to eight different computer characters could be added as well, and were even customizable as to their personality type, difficulty level, and appearance. This, along with being able to choose up to six different weapons slots, of which had dozens upon dozens of choices; options for slow-motion, radar, map sequencing; play options, like Hold The Briefcase, Hacker Central, and Pop A Cap; teams, even choosing their names per color; and, maybe best yet, deep stat-tracking that saved setting and plater profiles, including their distance walked, rounds used, medals won, games won, lost, headshots, etc. The multi-player mode had an incredible, mind-numbing amount of replay value.

The play control mimics Goldeneye, and thus is tightly honed, familiar to some already, and as good as possible for console gameplay. If the player exits the title menu screen, they control Joanna Dark wandering around the Carrington Institute, complete with training simulations for movement, actions, and the firing range. The A.I. is exceptional, especially for its time, with computer characters that grab the part of their body that gets shot, utilize basic tactics in groups, and even use verbal quips and swear. The entirety of Perfect Dark plays as though it was the best game that could have possibly been made.

Graphics

In hindsight, the game looks a bit pixelated, with smeary artwork plastered onto crudely rendered polygon frames. Then again, perhaps that is just the result of how the Nintendo 64 has become in general. In the big picture, that is Perfect Dark’s lowlight: It has not aged well.

There are some highlights, though, and even within the frame of context. This game does 64-bit smoke effects well, from the lingering explosions to the nuaned sparks emitted from the cleaning bot you can shoot at in a particular level. There is some slowdown with too many explosions going on, and with the “woozy” effect as well; that, being the effect of being punched or hit with a tranquilizer, as the screen becomes a bit fuzzier. This, in itself, is an impressively graphical effect.

The backgrounds and environments span an impressive array, from the clinical future-chic of the Carrington Institute offices to the dusty underground secrets at Area 51, from the rain-soaked streets of future Chicago to the tight confines of Air Force One, and from the tropical air of a certain villa to the arcane interior of an extraterrestrial craft. Well, Chicago feels a bit cramped actually, but it looks dang good.

Sound

If Perfect Dark’s visuals can be picked on, its audio department may make up for any deficit there. The guns bang and boom with variety and punch, the explosions rock the screen, and the voice effects are great, if not comical at times. Even the little sci-fi touches, from invisibility cloaks activating to key card beeps, are all executed with aplomb. Then there is the score, which does not leave many stones unturned, as the techno-orchestral tracks hit the gamut from adrenaline-pumping synth rock to the violin whines of an ancient bygone planetary landscape. In short: Game sounds good.

Originality

Rare pulled off a remarkable feat in creating an entire, original new mythos for Perfect Dark, setting enough into motion for eventual sequels. The original follows a plot that, admittedly, seems to jump around a bit, but does offer the player rewarding gameplay variety in that respect. The world feels distinctive while sticking to genre tropes, with shades of Blade Runner meshing well with Independence Day.

At final judgment, it is the mechanics, the controls, the stages, the challenge, the guns, the options, and the utter fun involved that make Perfect Dark so great. Compared to its peers, even Goldeneye, Perfect Dark stands head and shoulders above. It it a sad fact that it managed to go somewhat underappreciated. Nonetheless, it earns the highest mark, a perfect five stars out of five. The words of this review hardly do justice to its masterful replay enjoyment.


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