September 24, 2009
Darkest of Days plays with the concept of time travel in a way unfamiliar to video games, mixing historical accuracy and period battles with futuristic weapons across several eras, including the American Civil War and the World Wars. Players take the role of Morris, a soldier in Custer's army during his last stand. Moments before getting scalped, a soldier from the future arrives in a very Terminator-like time bubble to take you to Kronotek's labs. Concerned with the disappearance of their founder and emerging disturbances in the stream of time, KronoteK needs more people on their side to save time as we know it. Hey, it beats getting scalped, right? Fixing time won't be an easy job, since a rival group cleverly know as the Opposition stands in the way at every turn.
Since protecting history is KronoteK's chief concern, most battles are fought using period weapons, and it appears a strong effort towards historical accuracy is in effect here - look forward to reloading that musket after every shot during the Civil War. However, every once in a while, the gloves come off and players are given a "modern" weapon to change the tide of the battle, ranging from standard assault rifle and shotgun options, to more interesting fare like a machine gun that automatically aims toward enemies, or a portable laser-guided artillery system. Also in the player's arsenal are "Chasers," small balls that can be thrown out to stun certain enemies, which history says have to survive. If many of the enemies that need to survive remain intact, players will earn more upgrade points that can be used to improve their rifles or pistols. It's nice to get slightly better weaponry, but there's no real depth to the upgrading system, nor is it strictly necessary to be successful in the game. Traveling back and forth across time, and the unique mix of period weapons with more high-tech killing machines is a great concept, but it's one that sadly falls far short of its full potential.
Battles play out on huge open maps and players have the ability to access a map to help point themselves in the right direction. It doesn't take too long, however, to find invisible walls that inhibit progress, and thus undercut tactical freedom in going about certain missions. Sure, these large fields can host huge conflicts, but players will spend as much time traversing vast, empty fields or forests to get from one objective to another as they will fighting, which is every bit as dull as it sounds. Fighting these battles is often a roller coaster ride as the game can slow to a crawl and yo-yo back and forth between different speeds that are all slower than normal until things finally fix themselves. It's painful to experience a game engine chugging along so badly, especially in a game with such substandard visuals anyway.
The AI is unilaterally dim, prone to running around for no apparent reason, ignoring obviously flanking enemies, or just standing around. During one scene where I needed to defend a church, enemies ran confused circles around the place, and never came inside to press the attack, despite their overwhelming numerical advantage. Instead, they let me shoot them one by one through the windows, and periodically the star students even returned fire. Soldiers patrolling the open fields show limited awareness, making it easy to ambush them or straight up evade them. One would think soldiers in wartime, and on a battlefield, would be a little more concerned about their safety, but perhaps my standards are too high.
The checkpoint system in Darkest of Days can be your best friend or worst enemy. Some checkpoint saves come after completing objectives, while others seem to be based on crossing specific parts of the map. In practice, it seems players will rarely get a checkpoint when they want one. It's possible to trip across 10 checkpoints while walking the empty fields from one objective to the next, but once that battle begins, it can seem like forever before another one arrives. Checkpoint saves don't always come after a large battle. More than once I finished a large skirmish, got killed somewhere else, and had to start the whole battle over. Between the bad AI and questionable checkpoints, it's easy enough to progress through the game by running past enemies in the hopes of tripping another checkpoint on the map, and keep moving this way through the majority of the mission, unless fighting is required.
Darkest of Days is an experience for the eyes and ears, though not of the kind most gamers would prefer. While the draw distance is actually pretty good and lots of NPCs can be seen on the screen at once, the overall quality of visuals here are among the worst on the system, with rough characters, little texturing, and a host of other problems. I've seen soldiers standing two feet above the ground, walk where only their head could be seen above the ground, or pop in from nowhere. In terms of audio, Dexter is a treasure trove of hilariously bad dialogue, most of which is too vulgar to print here. When escaping from a prison camp, he'll suggest players "Make like shepherds and get the flock out of here." That's a direct quote. It's hard to decide whether to laugh or groan every time he opens his mouth. Most of the music consists of five to fifteen second sound bites that are played in an endless loop, which rapidly becomes grating. Exercise the option to turn the music volume to zero post haste.
With only thirteen achievements on offer, Darkest of Days throws down an achievement list that smells of apathy. There's your standard achievements for game progress, points for maxing out rifles or pistols, and achievement for going through a mission without killing anyone, and a pair of "idiot" achievements for intentionally killing yourself. The one achievement I like here is the darkly hilarious "Horse Puncher" achievement for killing a horse by a melee attack to the face, which is worth a whopping 100 points. PETA can't be pleased, but at least it's... original.
The only ray of light in this mess of a game is its concept, which grudgingly carried me on to the end, where the ending was absolutely the last straw. Worthy of being included in a top ten list for worst game endings ever, Darkest of Days sets the stage of a sequel in the most heavy-handed fashion imaginable, then jumps to a silent credit roll. With AI this poor, dubious checkpoints, slowdown during large battles, and a host of other problems, a sequel to this game sounds like a pretty tough sell.
Dexter's dialogue is terrible, and the music sounds like five to fifteen second sound bites on a repeating loop. It's not a symphony by any means.
The frame rate is erratic, characters look rough and can pop in from nowhere. Darkest of Days is one of the ugliest games on the 360, despite boasting a good draw distance.
The slowdown during large battles is unacceptable, and the erratic checkpoint system makes it hard for players to know when progress is going to save, which can lead to some frustrating moments.
One of the worst endings I've ever experienced in a game was just the last straw on top of utterly minimal presentation, long wanderings across empty fields, and battles against mentally deficient adversaries.
Of the thirteen achievements, only Horse Puncher provides any originality. The rest are stock-standard, and netting the full 1000 isn't that difficult, which may be one of the best things about Darkest of Days.
Darkest of Days takes the concept of time travel in an interesting direction, and then proceeds to fumble at every turn. Poor AI and slowdown lead the list of this game's problems, and with so many better shooters out there, this isn't worth the time and frustration.