If you had to name the all-time top console first-person shooters, you might include the likes of GoldenEye and Perfect Dark on that list. Both Nintendo 64 classics were developed by Rare so wheno Perfect Dark Zero was announced as a launch title for the Xbox 360, there was no surprise it quickly became one of the more highly anticipated for Microsoft's new console. If you shared in those high expectations for Joanna Dark's latest adventure, you might be a little disappointed. Don't get me wrong, Perfect Dark Zero is a solid FPS with easily the best multiplayer of all the Xbox 360 launch titles, it just could have used another month or two of polish.
Perfect Dark Zero is the prequel to Perfect Dark, following sexy super agent Joanna Dark as she joins forces with her father to battle the corrupt dataDyne corporation. The singleplayer campaign, which spans 13 missions plus a tutorial program, is where this title hangs by a few threads. Not only is the story silly and full of holes, but the level transition is disjointed. The laboratory rescue mission in China is a microcosm of the issues that hamper the enjoyment of the singleplayer campaign so if you'll bear with me, I'll describe that particular level in a little more detail.
The prisoner in question is Jack Dark, Joanna's father. In order to rescue him, you'll have to infiltrate dataDyne's laboratory in China where he's being held in a containment facility. Prior to the operation, a disgruntled dataDyne computer technician provided valuable information with regards to the lab's security system so your first objective will be to shutdown the power generator, thereby taking out the lights and allowing you to move about undetected. Despite the intel, night vision goggles are not available to equip as a gadget prior to the start of the mission. What kind of an agency doesn't provide necessary equipment like this?
The insertion point is an elevator entrance. After a brief cutscene that sees Joanna take out a few guards, the operation begins. The great thing about this assignment is that you can actually reach the halfway point without being detected. Stealth is a tactic often emphasized during the campaign but often impossible to achieve not only due to the sheer number of guards patrolling the various environments, but also the fact that as soon as one enemy sees you, the whole world knows your location.
Back in the lab, you'll know you're getting close to the first objective when somebody conveniently leaves a pair of night goggles on a crate for you to find. Surprise! The power generator resides in the next room. To the developer's credit, you have a choice of ways to shutdown the generator. On the one hand, you can turn the power off by simply pulling the lever. On the other hand, if you were lucky enough to equip one, you can affix a demo kit to the generator itself and cause an explosion. I won't spoil which, but one of these methods will trigger an alarm.
When the power generator is taken care of, the lights go out...at least they appear to go out. At this point you'll have to put your night vision goggles on so you can locate the duct you'll have to crawl through to get to the next area. The duct leads to a corridor that doesn't appear to have been affected by the power generator going down. In fact, magically enough, the lights appear to be back on in every room. So much for moving about undetected. So much for having an edge over the enemy. So much for the techie's intel. Your next objective is to disable a tracking system that reads heat sources. Again, the guards will have a tough time locating you once it's offline. Of course, that's what they said about the power generator and that turned out to be false. This objective is just as worthless because the moment the firefight begins, and believe me it will shortly thereafter, the guards won't need a tracking system to find you.
All that's left at this point is to eliminate any remaining guards and access the containment facility with the gold keycard you should have found on your way down. Once you locate Jack, the mission comes to a successful completion...or does it? It would appear that way, however the next mission briefing reveals that you're still not out of the woods yet. Now that you've rescued Jack, you need to escape the laboratory and travel down a river to the extraction point using one of dataDyne's hovercrafts. Hot damn, sounds like a plan. But wait, you get to re-equip your weapons and gadgets before you begin. Who with the what now?!? How is it that the agency can supply Joanna with new weapons, full ammunition and a new gadget no less, when she currently resides in a cell deep in enemy territory? It just doesn't make sense. Objectives that have no effect on the game and level transitions that make no sense. Believe me, it won't be the only time you'll be left scratching your head.
The enemy AI is typically brutish. Occasionally they'll take cover but for the most part they'll take advantage of sheer numbers and come at you guns blazing. As such, if you run into a large group of guards, your best bet is to backtrack and force them to a choke point where you can pick them off one by one as they come through. What makes the enemies tough to kill is the fact they can absorb a lot of punishment. Unless you land a headshot to an enemy without a helmet on, you can expect to empty entire clips into a target before taking them down. That means you'll be doing a lot of reloading, which leaves you vulnerable to attack. To aid in that regard, Joanna herself can take quite a bit of punishment, not to mention her health bar recharges automatically, similar to Halo, after a few moments of rest.
Visually, Perfect Dark Zero is a beautiful looking game. A great amount of detail was put into creating surface textures that look three dimensional, like ground tiles. In fact, the textures almost look too good in certain environments. They have a shiny gloss to them that's appropriate in most of the hi-tech establishments, but it's odd in the jungle level, for example, to see the jungle floor sparkle like somebody took a mop and a bottle of Mr. Clean to it. Aside from that, everything from the character models to the explosive weapon effects are outstanding. The audio is equally good, highlighted by a great soundtrack. Some of the voice acting is a little hokey but it's a minor gripe in an otherwise brilliant presentation.
Judging by the number of multiplayer-related achievements, you might say Perfect Dark Zero was designed more as a multiplayer title than a singleplayer experience. In fact, as long as you have a friend who owns a copy of Perfect Dark Zero, I don't see any reason why you should run through the singleplayer campaign on your own when you can complete it co-operatively. The missions are that much better with a second player. In some cases, players will have to take seperate paths and work together to complete key objectives. For example, in an early level that sees Joanna Dark moving from rooftop to rooftop in order to snipe down at enemies attacking her father on the streets below, the second player in this instance would take control of Jack Dark, eliminating the AI's disastrous hotshot antics that plague the mission in singleplayer.
If competitive modes are more your style, there are eight to choose from, split up into deathmatch and dark ops. Deathmatch delivers the usual suspects in terms of killcount, team killcount, capture the flag and territorial gains, while dark ops features such objective-based modes as eradication, onslaught, infection and sabotage. Each of the weapons in Perfect Dark Zero has a secondary and sometimes tertiary function but it's only in multiplayer where you really get to take advantage of their firepower. Up to 32 players can do battle on the larger-scale maps and if you're short a few players, you can populate the world with bots of varying difficult settings. There are so many ways to customize a match. With the inclusion of leaderboard support and stats tracking, Perfect Dark Zero was clearly built for multiplayer.
Joanna Dark's latest operation is not quite as perfect as its name would suggest. The singleplayer campaign lacks polish and as a result, some of the objectives are confusing and ultimately meaningless, and the levels feel disjointed. Where Perfect Dark Zero excels is multiplayer, co-operatively and competitively, with a vast selection of cool weapons, a number of clever game types and a seemlingly endless number of options. As long as you're in the market for a great multiplayer experience for your Xbox 360, you can do no better right now than Perfect Dark Zero.