Learning Curve: About a half hour
It's tempting to try to put Perfect Dark Zero in perspective by spending a lot of time on topics other than what makes it such a terrific action game. One of the highest-profile Xbox 360 launch titles, this near-future first-person shooter is the long-awaited sequel to a highly acclaimed Nintendo 64 hit, and it happens to be one of the biggest games to be released by veteran developer Rare since its well-publicized acquisition by Microsoft several years ago. Perfect Dark Zero's sci-fi theme, together with the circumstances surrounding its release, also means it's destined to be compared to Halo: Combat Evolved, the game that defined the Xbox (so yeah, no pressure). But let's stick to the point: Perfect Dark Zero's stunning presentation, excellent assortment of believable weapons, exciting tactical firefights, and fully featured single- and multiplayer components combine to make it easily one of the best first-person shooters this year and one of your best options in the Xbox 360's starting lineup. Despite some minor shortcomings, the game is still a tour de force for the Xbox 360, and it's just a thrilling experience that pushes the already-extremely competitive first-person shooter category still further forward.
You don't need to be familiar with Perfect Dark for the Nintendo 64 to easily get into Perfect Dark Zero, starring the spunky red-haired hired gun, Joanna Dark. Though she and her dad are technically bounty hunters, the game has got more of a high-tech superspy feel to it, from the futuristic weapons to the fancy gadgets you'll get to use. Perfect Dark Zero's story spans more than a dozen big missions, and may be optionally played through cooperatively with a friend. The campaign is longer than average at about 12 hours, and its multiple difficulty settings, unlockable weapons, and the outstanding co-op mode should keep you coming back to it after you reach the conclusion the first time. Perfect Dark Zero also features a "combat arena" mode that contains most of its multiplayer options, some of which may be played with and against computer-controlled bots in addition to (or instead of) other human players. There's a wide assortment of different modes supporting up to 32 players online, including conventional free-for-all and capture-the-flag modes, as well as some great Counter-Strike-inspired team-based match types. In short, this is big game with a lot to it.
However, it's not just all the different modes of play, but rather the sheer attention to detail that separates Perfect Dark Zero from other first-person shooters out there. It's a gorgeous-looking game, especially if you play it on a high-definition display, and the beauty's more than skin deep. Most every weapon in the large arsenal of available pistols, submachine guns, assault rifles, and heavy weapons looks extremely authentic, right on down to their steely sheen and white-hot muzzle flashes. You've never seen a better-looking assortment of guns, and the near-future setting gave the designers license to include lots of familiar hardware, with some surprising special abilities. What's more, some excellent character animation helps make the guns feel as powerful as they look. Enemies recoil realistically depending on where they're hit, no matter if you hit them in the hand, the foot, square in the chest, in the back, or wherever else. And the vast levels are as varied as they are beautiful to behold, setting you loose in jungles, city streets, high-tech industrial compounds, and more. Bullet holes shred the scenery, armor pieces fly every which way under a hail of gunfire, blinding explosions rock the screen, and your enemies' bodies litter the corridors once you're through. Gorgeous lighting and an impressive motion-blur effect that kicks in whenever you make a sharp turn further enhance the quality of Perfect Dark Zero's visuals, resulting in a game that at times could easily be mistaken for a big-budget action movie. Credit is also due to the outstanding audio, which features some heavy-hitting weapon effects, as well as a fantastic, moody soundtrack that gives each mission its own pulsing rhythms. It's a diverse array of electronic and rock beats, and it's all very catchy.
Scratch that gun fetish with Perfect Dark Zero's wild assortment of wonderfully true-to-life weapons.
From a gameplay standpoint, Perfect Dark Zero is highly refined. It doesn't stray too far from convention, but it features some interesting twists in weapon and enemy design, making for a much more entertaining experience than the average shooter. You can carry up to four different weapons, but larger guns take up more inventory space, which means you could pack several pistols but only one machine gun at a time. It's a good system that makes sense, though it's tough having to choose from all the great options that are available. Even the pistol you start with boasts an optional silencer, a scope, and a flashlight attachment, making it extremely versatile and plenty deadly. But chances are you'll want to replace it soon enough. One of the assault rifles you find later on may be converted into an automated defense turret, helping you tear into the enemies' ranks. There's a pistol that fires madness-inducing projectiles that turn foe against foe (in multiplayer, this causes the victim's teammates to appear as enemies). One submachine gun even projects a diversionary holographic image of you. Many of the guns are scoped, and smaller weapons can be wielded in pairs, doubling your stopping power. A couple of the rifles have grenade-launcher attachments, letting you seriously damage groups of foes both in story missions and multiplayer, and making these particular firearms seem especially dangerous. But in the end, your choice of guns may well come down to personal preference. There's a lot of cool, lethal firepower to choose from.
The type of weapon you're carrying influences your running speed, which is something to consider. There's no jump button, but you are given some tactical options, like taking cover behind obstacles and executing quick rolls at the touch of a button. The cover system is implemented quite well, letting you take position behind any barrier or at any corner at the touch of a button, while seamlessly switching your perspective to a third-person viewpoint, which gives you more situational awareness. You automatically peek out from behind cover when you fire, and it's a deliberate-enough process that doesn't feel overpowered. As for the evasive rolls, they're great for quickly ducking out of harm's way, but you'll take extra damage if you're shot while rolling, so you'll have to think twice about tumbling around too much. And if an enemy gets in your face, you can always bash him with whichever gun you've got equipped. These are all great-looking moves, made all the better since they're powerful. What's more, you can even disarm opponents by ripping their guns right out of their hands, provided you've got room to carry another. It's hard to imagine a more satisfying way to take out some dude on Xbox Live than by using his own weapon against him (preferably the butt of the weapon, for that matter).
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