The original Perfect Dark is the poster child for games that were far too ambitious for their own good. Crammed full of more options and modes than the underpowered Nintendo 64 could reasonably handle, Perfect Dark was often hampered by a sluggish frame rate. In the 10 years since the game's original release, technology has caught up to developer Rare's original vision, making it possible to enjoy this sci-fi shooter without the need for a barf bag. The core elements in this remake have not received any overhaul, and though it clearly has some old-fashioned design choices, it's positively overflowing with vintage fun. For fans of modern shooters, it may be difficult to adjust to the directionless level layouts, vague objectives that can cause you to fail if you make one mistake, and rudimentary gunplay in which precision is noticeably lacking. But for anyone willing to adjust to its outdated nature, Perfect Dark is still a tense, rewarding, and frantic shooter that finally realizes its long-dormant potential.
The most notable improvement from the Nintendo 64 original to this Xbox Live Arcade update is the visuals. No one will confuse Perfect Dark with a brand-new shooter, but the textures and resolution have been beefed up, making your adventure through offices, secret government facilities, and alien spaceships at least look passable. The frame rate has seen the biggest improvement. The game runs smoothly even when explosions and gunfire are erupting throughout the battlefield, no matter how many players are competing at one time. Online play has also been implemented for every multiplayer mode, letting you show off your laptop gun skills against up to seven other players. Unfortunately, there is some lag online, but all of the offline play can be enjoyed without a hitch.
The animations and graphical oddities from the original release have remained untouched, though. There are still a number of visual quirks, such as characters speaking without moving their lips and guns clipping through doors, which reveal Perfect Dark's age. But the animations are well done, even though they haven't been updated in the slightest. If you shoot enemies in the leg, they will limp sadly around the level until you mercifully finish them off. You can shoot guns out of enemies' hands if your aim is true, or plug them in the shoulder if you just want to disable them. Hold your pistol at point-blank range, and you turn it on its side, clearly indicating your desire to perform a kill shot. These little touches go a long way toward making this game seem believable, even with a few silly maneuvers tossed in. It's hard not to laugh when a bad guy pulls off a slow-moving roll right in front of you or turns sideways to strike a model-like pose before firing. The animations give this game a lot of goofy charm.
The level design is not so endearing. The campaign is confusing and oddly paced, making it difficult to find a good rhythm as you fumble around looking for where to go next. There are locked doors, unused rooms, and dead ends everywhere you turn, and it can be disheartening to stumble around in a circle until you finally happen upon the correct door you just couldn't locate. Every level contains a number of objectives you must complete in order to reach the end, and if you make one mistake, you could find your mission abruptly terminated without any clear indication of how you were supposed to succeed. Oftentimes, you will fail a mission because a key piece of machinery was destroyed or a valuable witness kicked the bucket, and it's frustrating when you didn't even have anything to do with these minor tragedies.
For all the grief you suffer going through these levels the first time, they are quite satisfying upon a second visit. Once you understand the layout and objectives, it's a blast to run through as fast as possible, going directly from one point to the next without even bothering to murder anyone along the way. There is a tangible reward for clearing levels under a certain time (cheats you can use in single- and multiplayer), but there are bragging rights to consider as well. Your best times are recorded on the online leaderboard, and it's easy to get sucked into a race with a person you've never met from halfway around the world because he or she somehow beat the first level in under a minute. Furthermore, the different difficulty levels have added objectives. On the Agent setting, you may walk into a room that is unused, seemingly a pointless detour. But that same room on Perfect Agent may house a secret laboratory that must be destroyed. Even though levels are confusing the first time around, it's a lot of fun to replay them to try for high scores and figure out the many unique objectives.
As fun as the campaign can be, Perfect Dark made its name on the multiplayer, and that is still the most fun aspect of this remake. The wealth of options is amazing. There are six different game modes, 16 maps, and 43 weapons. If you can't get enough players together, you can round out your matches with bots that come with their own personalities, from a pacifist who collects every gun but never fires, to a brawler who only punches. You can even go online with up to seven other players, which creates some insane situations, especially in explosive-heavy matches. Unfortunately, online play does suffer from a good amount of lag in every mode. There is still something to be said for playing split-screen, local multiplayer. This game was built with this setup in mind, and it's still rewarding to peek at your buddy's screen and see that you're lined up in the sights of his farsight or that he's laying down proximity mines in the adjacent doorway. Perfect Dark does not have many modern amenities. There are no persistent rewards, no way to record your matches, and there isn't even a jump button. But the excellent level design, cache of deadly weapons, and frantic match types make this almost as fun today as it was 10 years ago.
All that fun can't be realized until you can come to grips with the sometimes imperfect controls. Aiming is really finicky in Perfect Dark. There's no fine touch when aiming down the sights which makes it difficult to line up a headshot or nail an enemy right in the knee. This is especially noticeable when using a sniper rifle so those long-range weapons are all but pointless during intense action sequences. However, the controls still work well if you don't care about precision aiming. It's easy to slide around corners and blast enemies with a quick shot from your Cyclone, putting the emphasis on speedy gun duels rather than slow-paced wars of attrition. Perfect Dark does have control annoyances, but they're easy enough to get a handle on after a few minutes of playing.
Perfect Dark is jam-packed with content. Most console shooters have a campaign and a competitive mode, but Perfect Dark goes beyond even modern standards. Counter-Op offers a unique way to experience the campaign, giving one player control of the enemy AI as he tries to foil his friend's attempt to save the world. You can also play through Story mode cooperatively, which requires a strong emphasis on communication and careful planning because one wrong move can terminate the whole operation. Those two modes are limited to two players, but Challenge mode offers a chance for four players to team up against bots. These objective-based matches are exceedingly difficult but are so rewarding to plow through with some friends. Finally, there's a firing range that lets you not only hone your weapon skills, but earn medals based on your performance as well. Despite some outdated design decisions, this is still a fun and exciting shooter, and for only 800 Microsoft points, it's well worth going back to.