It's always nice to see an interesting mod taken from the original platform it was built within and made into a retail game. In this case, we have the 2nd place mod in the UT2004 MSUC contest, Damnation. From its humble beginnings as a quickly prototyped platformer game that nearly stole the show in the final phase of the MSUC, to the retail experience that Blue Omega has brought us this week, Damnation ends up failing to surpass anything more than "interesting" in any area of gameplay it strives for. Most disappointing may be that untold potential is visible just under the surface of what ends up being a decent to mediocre third-person jog through areas of Civil War America you never thought existed.
Okay, okay. Before we get too far ahead of ourselves, here's the deal in the game. During the Civil War, the country was embroiled in war. An altruistic Professor invented a serum to genetically enhance a person for Prescott Industries and William Prescott, the antagonist, uses it in evil ways (read: overdoses and infecting water supply) to enslave Americans to fight in his army and take over the entire country. Your job? Stop him. As Hamilton Rourke, and working with the now wanted Professor Winslow (who invented the serum) along with the widely screenshotted, booby Native American chick, "Yakecan" ('yuh-kee-kun'; don't ask me) you set off on an adventure of epic proportions. At least, that's how it starts out.
Most parts of the game feel as though they weren't quite finished and nobody went back to polish them up. Graphically, you can tell the game is UE3. The character animations are mostly smooth and the textures on certain objects are nice and bumpy. There is also plenty of bloom in certain areas, though, thankfully, it is not heavily used. Ultimately where the game lacks graphically is in environmental effect. Most of the rock textures (which you see 90% of the game) are bland and generic and don't look particularly interesting. Additionally, things like rocks and trees don't bear any real resemblance to their real-world counterparts in most cases. In fact, these aspects of the game almost feel like they were intentionally left in their UE2.5 incarnations, despite it ruining the feel of the game. In addition to this, the game runs aggravatingly poorly in many areas seemingly for no reason. I would have perfectly smooth framerates during and entire section of wide open areas but then suddenly looking at a corner would make the game pause for several seconds. These indicators of less than outstanding optimization feel like an indicator of the rest of the game experience. Still, graphics are not everything right?
Well, in this case, maybe wrong. Personally, I found Damnation to be a very enjoyable game in that the core gameplay was not terribly aggravating and the overarching steampunk civil war era story held my interest well enough to get me through the game. If you don't expect anything from the game, you might actually find yourself looking past the problems and having a good time. Still, despite the fact that I was able to do so, it's hard to miss that these elements are not developed well nor that they really contribute nothing to the overall experience you will have with the game. Unless you are a stalwart lover of platforming, the gameplay will quickly get boring since it involves jumping, climbing and running around consistently, more than half of the game is spent doing nothing other than jumping and climbing up various areas that, while being miles apart in the game world, all end up looking and feeling exactly the same with Prescott's propaganda spewing from loudspeakers in every new area you come to.
Also contributing to the annoyance factor of these parts, falling or otherwise dying will usually take you back to the last checkpoint, which, more often than not, is located about three areas back from where you were just playing. I hope some day that developers will learn that forcing gamers to play through the same lackluster areas repeatedly is not a good way to get them to ignore the problems those areas have. The most irritating point this happens is when you finally reach the end boss and, after being killed from mere confusion a time or two, you are drawn all the way back to entering the area and have to take a long elevator ride down to even start the boss fight again. Bad times! Other aspects of the gameplay are not as irritating, but are completely uninspired. You can pick up blue "collectibles", but no reward seems to come from this other than a counter on your HUD. You can also use a power you achieve early in the game to see enemies (and allies) through walls, something you will find yourself rarely wanting or needing to do. It is disappointing that so few aspects of the mod actually made it into the retail game.
Another area that is bound to get on your nerves if you let it is in the sound department. First, the game sounds in general were either too dang loud or not loud enough. A few times I was sitting somewhere waiting to reload, as becomes steampunk weapons, and got shot at without hearing a peep out of the game. Second, the music in the game is not only generic quasi-metal drivel, but it's the SAME MUSIC on every level in the game. Not only that but it accelerates into this music during gun battles, then when everyone is dead it fades off into barely audible ambient music that gets old fast. Probably the best use of sounds are the reloading sounds on your own weapons. One sniper rifle that shoots a railway spike and instantly gibs whoever you hit with it has a pretty cool animation and sound for being loaded, but these sounds are so sparse that the enjoyment factor wears off quickly and easily.
In terms of weapons, the game plays it cool. You can hold up to three weapons, two standard weapons and a pistol. All of the weapons are fun to play around with, and sniping is as fun as ever with the two sniper rifles in the game. It's really a shame that so little of your time is spent holding a gun. That said, the gunplay itself is, at times, pretty frustrating. In order to aim your gun you have to hold down a button. Then you have another button for zooming in, and yet another button for firing. Don't let go of that first button, though, because pulling up your weapon takes time and could mean the difference between life and death, even on the casual difficulty. You can hide behind various world geometry,but don't expect this to be as well delivered as Gears of War. Cover involves crouching and walking behind something. Most of the time it's just frustrating, but it does make it easier to zoom in on opponents with the sniper rifle, then stand and headshot them (something you have to find pleasure in during the few times you get to firefight).
Finally, for multiplayer, the game is outfitted with Gamespy. Sure to turn everyone off almost immediately, you have to register for yet another account (I couldn't get my UT3 account working) and dealing with Gamespy is, as usual, an exercise in frustration. Coolly, the game does have drop-in co-op support, so you can have your friends join you in the middle of a game, but getting it to work is another story altogether. Once you deal with this frustration, the co-op ends up being very entertaining as there are quite a few areas of the game that are better served by having a second player who can really man a sniper rifle. Tactical thinking doesn't really accompany you in the singleplayer, but you can plan out much more interesting strategies in co-op.
Overall Damnation is a good game wrapped up in a gigantic cloak of poor polish and bad design decisions. Despite the fact that the game will take you nearly 10 hours to complete, don't expect yourself to grow any kind of attachment to the characters or care for their well-being at all. You spend so much time jumping around that there is very little time for storytelling in between, so the cinematics feel rushed and paltry. The voice acting is amateurish and the script is simply laughable at times. Still, if you've been eyeing a replacement for Prince of Persia and you have plenty of money to burn, you can probably feel justified splurging the $50 on this game. For the rest of you, this is a bargain binner, though if you're in to platforming games, this is one to watch the bargain bin for.
Visual - 70/100
They look decent but you won't be writing home to mommy about your photo-realistic game with this one.
Audio - 50/100
Mostly fail worthy but has a few redeeming qualities.
Gameplay - 70/100
The best parts of the game are hidden behind limitless platforming.
Value - 60/100
If you like Prince of Persia style platforming, you'll love it. But you won't spend $50 on it. The game is long but that doesn't add any longevity.
Bias - 75/100
I wanted to love it but it fell disappointingly short of my expectations.