Review: Darkest of Days [Halflife2.net]


First Person Shooting is a crowded pastime, and in such a genre the breathing room for innovation seems to get narrower with every passing year. Sluicing through the killing floor comes Darkest of Days, a FPS that lets you rip into the space-time-continuum, treading the poorly beaten path travelled by Daikatana.

That's probably not a good sign.

Briefly under General Custer's command at the Battle of the Little Bighorn, the player steps into the silent shoes of Alexander Morris, a man whisked away from a pin-cushiony death and employed by a time-governing NGO named Kronotek. Your saviours offer you the chance to shoot conscripts of famous historical conflicts if you do some temporal house-keeping at the same time. It's an unusual premise and it's clearly the unique selling point of the title, perhaps to the extent where it's easy to imagine it being specifically thought up in a room where the phrase 'target demographic' was wielded with nefarious intent.

Darkest of Days cornfield musket battle

It's an impressive undertaking, but then I'd describe you sprinting the first quarter of a cross-country race as 'impressive' even after I pass your glucose deficient corpse at a walking pace at the halfway point. Executing a FPS set in large open levels is difficult. Executing a decent story involving time-travel is even harder. Darkest of Days attempts both at the same time and it's barely surprising to find it first from the blocks but last over the line.

With all of time to choose from, Darkest of Days spends the majority of its time in the American Civil War and on the Russian front of the First World War. Both are appropriate enough choices considering the mandate of open-plan, large scale battles, though as the game also ducks into at least four other periods, and only for brief missions, little is saved on resources. In these supposedly open maps, you're bread-crumbed through labyrinths of glass-walled corridors towards objectives that don't stray nearly far enough from 'kill the enemy', 'blow up the objective' and 'hold this position'. Coupled with shooting that's passable but never quite right, you'll be inclined (but too ashamed) to compare the time-travelling plot to a journey through FPS history.

The game's proprietary engine puts a brave face on it all, with a smattering of decent effects and plenty of variably impressive vegetation making for above functional visual flair. However, even on its highest settings, the engine makes very noticeable compromises to maintain a decent framerate. Whilst expansive, the terrain isn't exactly high-poly, a fact covered up ineptly by the aforementioned plant-life which frequently pops up at a short-distance detail horizon also shared by already poorly articulated enemy models. Advanced filtering features send the framerate (and mouse responsiveness) plummeting, even on a respectable gaming PC. The end result is a game running on quite similar settings to PC carnivore Crysis and... well, this sentence doesn't end favourably.

Screenshot of Darkest of Days where player is told to Break the Confederate defense

Taking visual design rather than a more technical perspective, there are labours of love worth mentioning. Despite their rigid animation, the soldiers of each historical time period carry off the appearance of authenticity, even if beyond my hunch that neither side in the American Civil War had a clone-army programme, I'm hardly an authority. This authenticity carries over to the weapons, which - if nothing else - are strangely entertaining to reload. Ducking behind a rock to stoke your musket-rifle before popping up to shoot a Confederate cavalryman from his horse is a genuinely memorable gaming vignette. It's just that standing in-front of a soldier nonchalantly reloading the same rifle as you mow him and his twelve oblivious colleagues down is the rest of the vineyard.

To occasionally mix things up, the game throws glowing-blue enemies at you who must be wounded rather than killed, but a leg shot has never felt so terribly different from a headshot to me. Failing to wound these soldiers docks points from a simple RPG system that can be used to upgrade attributes of your historical arsenal. Larger-scale army pruning is facilitated by an assortment of automatic pistols, machine-guns and incendiary devices, handed out 'for the hell of it'. Lacking the historical dimension, they're rather standard weapons used to engage in some Doom-era carnage. It's not exactly cerebral shooting, but variety doesn't hurt and the weapons become more relevant as encounters with sci-fi agents of the antagonistic 'opposition' start shooting at you.

A time-travelling action game from a first-time developer was always three-strikes certified to have a pretty appalling story, but Darkest of Days delivers it all so strangely that it still finds a level to disappoint on. The majority of the story is told in an empty chamber with dimensional properties that make you feel like you're no higher than four feet tall. In this room you talk with the massive projected eyes of 'Mother' and a gruff cliché spouting ex-fireman named Dexter. Amusingly, as the one flesh-and-blood bodied member of this expositionary duo, Dexter gets to be both the gruff drill-sergeant father surrogate and your Barney Calhoun buddy go-to.

Darkest of Days World War I Goosesteping

'Mother' meanwhile chiefly welcomes you home and nags you for making a mess of the timestream. It'd be half-clever detail if the script wasn't delivered like an Ikea flatpack. To compound matters, the story is largely back-loaded: you'll spend the first three thirds of the game chasing the same two men in the same two periods of history and only after this does the game explain who the mystery antagonists are before shuffling you into a couple of new time periods. And then the curtain suddenly falls on a clumsy final scene which sets up a sequel on the back of a conflict you've already forgotten.

I can't help but feel mean spirited turning on Darkest of Days. There are flashes of genuine inspiration here and there: a fixed-turret mission on the underside of a Zeppelin; a formation infantry advance through a cornfield; a long-distance sniper mission where you aim for 'wind-corrected' targets. At one point, unarmed and behind the barbed wire of a POW camp, you even see how the developers can create reasonably atmospheric story-telling sequences, and it's a refreshing change from the nonchalant treatment of the mass butchering of the history you're rather sinisterly helping to create.

So let's leave it on this high-note: Darkest of Days is probably the best time-travelling FPS title beginning with 'D' ever created. So yeah...

Darkest of Days

Verdict

4 / 10

Platform and review information

Available on PC (Windows, Mac) and Xbox 360.

Game was played on platform in bold, materials were provided by PR contact.

This review was originally posted at Halflife2.net (now Valvetime.net) on December 9 2009

Elements from an earlier draft have been included and other general changes have since been made.

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