Retrospective: Perfect Dark

Retrospective: Perfect Dark

For a classic multiplayer game, Perfect Dark suffers from a fairly major fault. It’s nigh-on unplayable. Those sleek offices and twisting tunnels have morphed into poorly textured geometric mazes. The explosions and effects, brilliant in memory, are muted. Most of all, the always-suspect framerate is now a convicted murderer. None of these reasons justify a return.

But what Perfect Dark does have, beyond GoldenEye and most other FPSes, is imagination.

It’s an ideas game, as concerned with its own genre’s existence and limits as it is with targets. If Rare had revolutionised what a console FPS could be, Perfect Dark was its belated manifesto. Sequels, even spiritual sequels, have governing rules, neatly encapsulated by Cliff Bleszinski’s “bigger, better, more badass” tubthumping for Gears Of War 2.

Perfect Dark can do excess, but let’s shoot the elephant in the room first. GoldenEye. It’s impossible to avoid GoldenEye, or the misconception that Rare couldn’t continue with the Bond licence: it rejected the opportunity to make the tie-in to Tomorrow Never Dies, perhaps feeling that 007’s world offered little more than a retread of the Kalashnikovs, missile sites and gadgets it had already perfected.

Its ideas had married perfectly with that world once, but a second Hollywood tie-in would see diminishing creative returns. The lack of a licence brought freedom and yet, in this context, choosing to make an FPS with a secret agent may not seem the most original move. Rare couldn’t abandon the espionage angle that dovetailed with its design talents: double-helix levels with spiralling objectives, enemy positions perfect for the stealthy, patient player, and the glorious gadgets.

Nor was Perfect Dark free of cinematic influence: its grimy hi-tech vision of the future is pure Blade Runner, down to the shine of the office buildings and the LA noir of its Chicago streets. There’s the complexes to infiltrate, computers to hack, hoverbikes to ride. And the lady herself. If Bond set pulses racing, in his absence what would Joanna Dark do to young male Nintendo fans?

The problem is that she’s voiced by Mary Poppins. “Cute, very cute,” she quips when looking at a crate bomb. “I was ready half an hour ago, it’s you that’s making us late” goes another as she enters in an evening dress. They’re fairly banal lines, clichéd even, but typical of a heroine who manages to combine Pierce Brosnan and Julie Andrews yet still lacks charm.

The writing isn’t inspirational, making Joanna Dark not so much a character in search of an author as a cipher in search of a magazine cover. This extends to the supporting cast, most of whom can be found in the Carrington Institute, a brilliantly realised hub for the game that doubles up as one of the finest singleplayer levels.

Wandering around its rooms means meeting a succession of hideously camp British types who coo things such as “Welcome to hacker centrahl”, just falling short of saying “darling”.

Despite attempting to inject personality via a comedy sidekick (Elvis, an alien with a fondness for sticking his bulbous cranium into your firing line) and sardonic remarks from Joanna, Perfect Dark is otherwise po-faced, illustrating the duality at the game’s heart.

There’s order, in the form of the game’s story and mission structure, and the chaos of its interactions and weapon sets. So ignore the Carrington Institute and dataDyne, the groany story and the whole thing’s ponderously portentous name and typeface. Perfect Dark, as a game, is hilarious. It’s about drugging big-headed aliens until they can’t see, then strapping mines to their eyes. Setting elaborate traps with laptop guns and proximity mines, getting into slapfights and using n-bombs to make opponents run into walls.

This all comes from that weapon set and, oddly enough, its lack of balance. Restraint here would have made Perfect Dark a tighter, more focused experience, helped with those framerate issues, and removed almost all of the fun. Instead it overreaches itself with game-breaking tools just to show that it can. It gives you a gun that can shoot through walls, then adds an X-ray sight and autotargeting as standard.

The Psychosis Gun converts enemies to your cause. Assault rifles can turn into proximity mines (Dragon) or be turned on their sides as handy grenade launchers (Superdragon). The laptop gun is all about sleek chrome and efficiency, perfectly exemplified when you toss it away and it begins acting as a sentry gun. The RCP-90 is the most powerful automatic weapon in the game, and comes bundled with a cloaking device.

Some weapons are there just for the hell of it, like the nerve grenade that turns fourplayer splitscreen into a black-and-blue smeary mess, or the perfect recreations of GoldenEye guns (with names like PP9i and Klo1313). It’s not just about function, either. This is an FPS for gun fetishists: in place of GoldenEye’s ‘dipping’ reload animations, Perfect Dark is the visual equivalent of tonguing the barrel.

The Cyclone, a svelte curve of metal, whirrs and clunks with each new magazine – the chocolate-orange slabs of ammo feed through its belt, are ruthlessly stripped of their bullets, and fall to the ground empty. There are tremors as a thick clip is slammed into the base of an RCP-90. Alien weapons suck in opalescent blobs with a ’60s Dr Who sound effect, bolts clack into place on anything automatic, and even the humble throwing knife has to be casually tossed in the air and caught with a flourish before use.

Even the bots are in on it. PD calls them ‘sims’ and gives them ‘personalities’. The Preysim looks for recently spawned and weak players. Vengesim blindly hunts the last person to kill it. Judgesim maintains balance by killing the current leader. These have obvious applications, but there are others designed to simply shake things up a bit. The Peacesim abhors violence, and runs around the level trying to collect weapons and ammo before playerscan get to them. It won’t attack, but get too close and it’ll disarm you. The Fistsim just runs around whacking players – which with PD’s overzealous dizzying effect is very annoying. And the Rocketsim just likes explosions, regardless of its own life.

Like the weapons, these sims were designed for possibilities rather than balance, for play rather than work. For combinations. It’s a miracle that this gallimaufry works at all, never mind that it was one of the greatest fourplayer FPS games of its time.

Almost as an afterthought, the Combat Simulator includes challenges that can be tackled solo or with friends. Usually some kind of objective-based assignment against a sim or team of sims, over 30 missions this mode somehow creeps from embarrassingly easy to not-in-this-lifetime-pal difficulty. Most of the ideas and innovations of the game are in multiplayer, but there are also gems in the underrated singleplayer campaign.

Modern FPS games should try this one on for size: difficulty levels present different types of challenge rather than the standard upping of enemy AI, numbers and hitpoints. Play on the easiest, Agent, and you’ll face a relatively sedate experience with one or two objectives. But as the difficulty increases locations become circuitous with more objectives and new set-pieces to trigger: the first level, set in the dataDyne skyscraper, introduces an attack helicopter on Secret Agent, hovering outside and carpeting the lobbies with minigun bullets.

Even the way people played together was thrown up in the air. In 2000 a shooter that offered a co-operative campaign mode would be unusual, though hardly exceptional. But what about a counter-operative mode, where one player tries to complete the level while another takes control of the enemies in their path?

As with so many of Perfect Dark’s other big ideas, it falls just short of greatness in practice, but is good enough that your imagination can fill the gaps. And as with any big and brave innovation, there are happy flaws in the counteroperative mode you can exploit to infuriate goody two-shoes: when playing as the counter-operative, shooting guns from your fellow soldiers’ hands will make them draw out their secondary weapon and immediately begin seeking Joanna. Get four or five to attack with you on Perfect Agent difficulty and it’s all over bar a merry day’s hunting.

There’s real character in Perfect Dark, but it’s nothing to do with its heroine. Walking through levels, you’ll see little scripted sequences with people being shot, arguing or simply relaxing. Playing with friends, you’ll devise deathtraps of outstanding ingenuity, before being sniped through the wall from 300 metres away.

Ian Fleming himself could have been behind the little gentlemanly twinkle in the repurposing of the Facility level as Felicity. And when we really get down to brass tacks, how many games have Shigeru Miyamoto running around and hiding the weapons?

Perfect Dark may not be all that fun to play any more, but its currency of ideas and provocation, most of which still hasn’t been picked up by other genre works, remains sound.

Who knows what the future holds for Joanna Dark? Another novel? More appearances in men’s magazines? As far as the game goes, though, we don’t need to worry about Perfect Dark’s future. It’s already written most of it.