Damnation's biggest accomplishment is making steampunk look bad. Even the usually cool mashing up of fantasy and sci-fi can't save developer Blue Omega Entertainment's mess of a third-person shooter. Aside from the intriguing alt-history setting that combines robots with the Civil War, everything about this game is inept. Combat is a dreary repetitive-motion exercise where you clumsily gun down enemies who have the intelligence of ducks in carnival shooting games. Ugly, convoluted levels see you acting like some kind of cowboy take on Spider-Man and leaping around buildings that make about as much architectural sense as the girder levels in Donkey Kong. And the remaining minimal entertainment has also been bled out of the game by hideous graphics, choppy frame rates, and screechy sound effects.
The steampunk storyline is poorly set up as well. You play an outlaw named Hamilton Rourke, a member of a rebel gang at large in an alternate 19th-century America where steam-powered high-technology robots and weapons were introduced during the Civil War. An evil industrialist named Prescott has taken charge of the country thanks to legions of robots and a serum that gives soldiers super strength, and it's your job is to take him down. All of this gives the game's settings a sinister atmosphere akin to that of a Wild West take on the ruined City 17 in Half-Life 2. Some levels even feature Prescott speaking on a loudspeaker, waxing philosophically about the destruction of whole cities and how he is the only way back to peace. Lots of steampunk trappings litter the levels, including giant airships, powerful sci-fi weapons, robot soldiers, and creepy enemies that look like a combination of WWI trench grunts and the Combine storm troopers from Half-Life 2. But these elements are never formed into a coherent whole. The background story behind these fantastic events remains a mystery. All you get are a few flashes of strange newspaper articles and photos, along with some quick cutscenes that depict Prescott as a bad, bad man.
But you won't care much about the story behind Damnation for very long. The gameplay is so trite and repetitive that you quickly go from curiosity to get-me-the-hell-out-of-here boredom. Instead of the fluidity that characterizes the best shooters, the pace here is choppy and awkward. Most of the time, you simply race along unopposed, with the main source of interest being the ability to leap up or down the faces of buildings and shimmy up flagpoles. This can be intriguing in spots. Intuitive controls make it easy to pull off some amazing leaps and backflips. With just a quick two-button combo, you can fly through the air backward and flip around to grab hold of a ledge or bounce off one wall to leap up to a ledge. Many levels are structured like erector-set puzzles, with you having to figure out how to vault and climb your way to the top of teetering towers. Still, it's all absolutely absurd. Many buildings are so gutted and wrecked that they would collapse long before you got perform your Cirque du Soleil stunts in them, while others simply couldn't stand up because of the way they were designed even while totally intact. All you can really say for the ability to leap around and the odd architecture is that, at least, the developers tried to move beyond the generic linear shooter.
But in the end, it doesn't work. All of the mildly entertaining derring-do is constantly interrupted. It's as if the designers realized at the last minute that they were supposed to be making a shooter, so they brought all the leaping and gallivanting to a crashing halt by stocking the levels with dumb ambushes. As a result, one moment you're dancing about like an acrobat in buckskins, then the next moment, you're hunkered down behind cover for three or four minutes, only peeking out every so often to rip off a couple of shots at the dozen bad guys who have suddenly popped up in front of you. None of these shooting sequences are the least bit enjoyable. Enemies simply stand in one spot blasting away at you or move mindlessly in and out of shelter like targets in shooting galleries. Baddies also take a stupid amount of punishment, leaving you to blast away a dozen rounds with the game's small selection of wimpy weapons before they finally bite the dust. The only challenge is to your patience. You can easily get so annoyed with constantly taking cover from the barrage of enemy bullets that you jump out into the open to try to get things over with quickly...but instead, you just wind up getting killed.
Controls are screwy whether you're playing on a console or on the PC. Aiming is awkward with both the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 gamepads because the movement of the sticks is imprecise when targeting enemies. PC controls are even worse because you never know when you'll be able to use the mouse or have to hit the keyboard. This is particularly annoying in the menus because it seems like the developers flipped a coin when deciding how to activate buttons. While one function is available by hitting the left mouse button, the very next requires you to hit the Enter key. Also, some standard shooter controls are unavailable, such as using the mousewheel to select a weapon. None of this really gets in the way of controlling Rourke, although that's probably because the underlying gameplay is so irritating it's hard to niggle over a few control flaws that are minor by comparison.
Visuals and sound are loaded with problems on all three platforms. Each version of the game regularly chugs during gameplay and cutscenes. The Xbox 360 and PC versions are probably the worst offenders, with the 360 stumbling through cutscenes and the PC displaying a lot of tearing. Textures are embarrassingly behind the times, many buildings display a jaggy, blurry wallpaper effect, and special effects are terribly animated. Enemy heads explode in a shower of gore, yet intact skulls are clearly visible when the bloody spray clears. Enemies caught in explosions are gibbed a split second before the kaboom even goes off. The voice acting is atrocious, although it's hard to imagine even a reincarnated Olivier doing much with the script's cast of stereotypes. For example, there is an Indian mystic who speaks generic Indian gibberish about his destiny; a cowardly, chauvinistic Mexican; and a stock shooter babe who wears a ludicrous top that reveals a good inch or two of bottom breast. Sound effects are arguably even more annoying than the voices. Enemy weapon fire frequently consists of an obnoxious, metallic noise that sounds a whole lot like somebody dragging a chain over a sewer grate. Oh, and the multiplayer is worthless. Co-op support is present--although it's absolutely wasted on a game with so few merits--along with a bunch of standard shooter game modes, such as Deathmatch and King of the Hill. At any rate, nobody is playing the game online, so you'll have to use some other way to find out if misery really loves company.
You have to give Blue Omega credit for trying something different with Damnation's steampunk story and its leaping-around action, but that's about it. Everything else here is painful to experience.