Of all the weird and wacky crimes committed by North Korean despot Kim Jong Il, some of the weirdest and wackiest were the kidnappings of Japanese civilians for such disparate duties as training spies and making movies. Still, that was a pretty good scheme, at least for an evil dictator, because nobody would willingly sign up for a tour of duty in Pyongyang. It's also a tactic that developer Jarhead Games (known for such straight-to-Wal-Mart classics as World War II Sniper: Call to Victory) might want to adopt for DMZ: North Korea, because nobody would willingly play this horrible third-person shooter.
There are so many awful things to discuss here that it's hard to decide where to start. But let's begin with the plot, which is B-movie absurdity at its finest. Whoever came up with this saga about an American commando waging a one-man war against North Korea hasn't opened a newspaper in a few years, as the story deals with discovering whether or not the nation has an "under the radar" nuclear-weapons program under way. Yeah, you really need to send in the troops to find that out.
Want more chuckles from the writing? Your code name is "Loveless." Every line of dialogue sounds like it was snapped off while chomping a stogie. The opening spiel from your boss back at HQ is all about getting "intel" and sneaking around, but by mission three you're calling in air strikes to blow up whole North Korean military bases. Mission information is transmitted to you on a laptop while en route to assignments. In the opening mission, you actually get the particulars while piloting a rubber dinghy to the North Korean coast in the dead of the night. Nothing like putting less time into planning these covert ops needed to save the free world than the average housewife spends on writing up a grocery list. Also, you have to take photos of many major objectives, which doesn't always make sense. It's understandable to snap pictures of a missile, but when you're also grabbing shots of assassinations, either you're a ghoul or somebody back in Washington doesn't trust you.
Of course, even the stupidest story can mask a pretty good game. Alas, DMZ: North Korea's gameplay matches its lame premise and script. While the look has been patterned on Splinter Cell based on the way that Loveless wears a Sam Fisher-style frogman suit and night-vision goggles, the game is a kill-'em-all Rambo affair patterned on the shooter design template circa 1997. So ignore the box-cover images; there is no stealth meter, hence no need to determine if you're invisible in the shadows or as obvious as a sheik in suburbia--as silent as death or as loud as Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. Here you just stomp from point A to point B, throw a few switches, gun down everything that moves, try to act surprised when enemy reinforcements arrive on the way out of Dodge--you know the drill, move along, nothing to see here.
But DMZ doesn't even do a good job of sticking to the basics. There are only a handful of weapons, all of which are dull shooter standards like submachine guns and rocket-propelled grenades, and all come with a rat-a-tat whine that most developers jettisoned with their Ad Lib soundcards. Most are nearly impossible to aim, too. Automatic weapons have such a kick that you can't accurately target enemies unless you're on top of them, and even then you're best off aiming at the ground and letting the recoil do the work for you. You can take a break from the shooting and do some driving, but clunky vehicle controls make it as hard to drive a jeep as it is to hit the broadside of a barn with a combat shotgun.
Artificial intelligence is awful. Enemies run around like idiots whenever a firefight begins. This is a step above other awful shooters where the bad guys act deaf, blind, and paralyzed while you plug them from 10 paces away (although you can shoot the hat off of the odd enemy here without him even flinching), yet still annoying in that they sprint so fast that they outrun bullets. It feels more like you're playing paintball with a bunch of third-rate Flashes than engaging in deadly combat with villainous enemies. At least your foes die superdramatic deaths when the lead finally catches up to them, thanks to an over-the-top use of rag-doll physics.
Visuals add to the problems. Everything in the game is indistinct. Character and vehicle models seem half finished and even oddly surreal, as dying enemies often briefly morph into Mr. Fantastic and flail arms long enough to drag on the ground when dying. Buildings are completely barren. And the satellite-styled overhead map is tough to read, because it consists of mashes of green terrain and colored blobs representing enemy soldiers and objectives.
Maps are often overly long and convoluted, with a lot of dead ends and odd twists and turns making it fairly easy to get lost. Nighttime missions are so pitch black that cranking up the in-game gamma setting does little to lighten the gloom. In the daytime, when you can sort of figure out where you should be going, bloom effects are so extreme that it sometimes looks like everything has already been nuked. A bigger obstacle to getting around properly is the lack of an on-demand save option. Here, there are just console-style automatic saves at checkpoints, and these are often very far apart. Sometimes you have to pass two or three mission objectives just to get a checkpoint.
Last and least, even though it's ridiculous to complain about a terrible game not being long enough, it should still be noted that DMZ: North Korea has an abbreviated solo campaign and no multiplayer. Even if you can manage to struggle through the entire game (Magic 8 Ball says: "Very doubtful"), you're still going to wrap up your violations of North Korea's sovereignty in no more than six or seven hours. The only thing that will keep you in the glorious republic any longer than that are the bugs that occasionally lock up the game and force a retreat to the desktop and a manual shutdown.
Here's the point in bad-game reviews where a few more putdowns are usually stuffed in. But if you've taken the time to read this far, you've already given DMZ: North Korea more of your life than it warrants, so let's cut this short and just wrap things up. Oh, OK. Here's one more--you can't skip any of the cutscenes, and there are a lot of them.