Darkest of Days doesn't just ask you to suspend your disbelief: it begs you, it implores you, it pleads with you to do so. This isn't because its outlandish premise is hard to buy into, because while the time-traveling story is silly nonsense, it's clearly meant to be a not-so-subtle excuse to let you shoot Confederate soldiers with anachronistic weapons. No, the parts that strain belief involve enemies with no sense of self-preservation and friendly soldiers that fail to notice you're shooting American Indians with a submachine gun. You should expect to encounter a load of similar silly oddities in this highly problematic single-player shooter. Yet there are moments that make you see the fascinating game that Darkest of Days almost was. A few great ideas begin to take form in its final third, when the level designs begin to shine and you leave the dreadful muskets and rifles of the early game behind you. But a few sparkles of cleverness aren't enough to energize this dull, bizarre journey.
Darkest of Days starts with a good premise: You're whisked away from the Battle of the Little Bighorn just before you kick the bucket, and you find yourself facing a computer monitor with giant eyes that calls itself Mother. It seems that you're the perfect candidate to join a squad of corporate cronies dedicated to preserving the natural course of history--and apparently, things aren't going according to plan. The founder of time-travel technology has gone missing, and a bunch of heavily armored goons are popping up and spoiling things during era-hopping missions. Who are these guys? Why do they seem so determined to meddle with history? What is up with that weird tattoo above Mother's left eyebrow? You'll discover the answers to most of these questions as you trot about the Civil War, World War I, and a few other historical venues with your partner, Dexter, a potty-mouthed ex-firefighter who just wants a good slice of pizza.
The story starts off well, but the game squanders its potential by handing you some of the most boring weapons you'll ever shoot. The chance to liven up familiar battlefields with anachronistic weaponry is exciting, but for a huge portion of the game, you're stuck shooting muskets and rifles--that is, if you want something more powerful than your sidearm pistol. There's a reason Civil War FPSs aren't flooding the market: Muskets are dull to use, because you spend more time waiting to reload than you do shooting. And you can extend that wait if your weapon jams, which is a potential byproduct of Darkest of Days' reloading mechanic. This feature is an obvious rip-off of Gears of War's active reload system. Every time you reload your weapon, you have to press a button within a short window of opportunity indicated by an onscreen circle. A successful attempt means a quicker reload. If you miss, your weapon jams and you have to wait for it to clear up on its own. This mechanic worked in Gears, but it's poorly implemented here. Imagine this: When you use a musket, you have to perform a timed reload after every shot; if you mistime your button press, you more than double the amount of time you wait between shots. It doesn't sound fun because it isn't.
Other weapons fare better, though none of them are all that satisfying to use, partly due to the dinky sound effects that accompany them. At least they're effective: You can kill enemies at remarkable range, even when you wouldn't expect that the gun in question could be so accurate. The forgiving targeting and the range of firing effectiveness make Darkest of Days rather easy, though to be fair to your arsenal, your enemies don't put up much of a fight. In fact, they seem insistent upon getting themselves killed at every possible opportunity. Foes rush forward as if the best shot they can get is three feet in front of you, they run about in circles, and they don't have the good sense to get out of the middle of a wide-open field while the equally moronic soldiers standing next to them get taken out like ducks in a pond. You often fight off legions of cloned soldier models in large-scale battles, but while these skirmishes should be dramatic, the moronic AI makes them unintentionally hilarious instead. This may be the worst AI you'll see in a shooter this year.
You spend most of the time running from objective to objective across large-ish maps, picking off dunderheads in the midst of cornfields and ravines. The action gets predictable and boring, though Darkest of Days makes some admirable attempts to break up the action with turret sections and various set-piece sequences, like one in which you fly above the battlefield in a dirigible. Not many of these excursions work out well, however. Manning a cannon is exasperatingly slow and inexact, which might be what it's like to fire an actual cannon, but it's hardly any fun. Destroying legions of German soldiers with a powerful launcher could have been enjoyable, but the accompanying frame rate hitches suck all the joy out of it. On the other hand, using a futuristic sniper rifle to pick off foes from a snowy mountain is a nice change of pace and comes just before an interesting story development.
Once this point comes, Darkest of Days turns a corner, starting with an emotionally charged level within a World War II POW camp. The slow, chilling journey into the camp and your exciting escape make this the best level in the game. At the same time, the story begins showing signs of life, as you discover more about the armored interlopers popping in and out of your missions. But by then, it's too little too late, given how hard it is to buy into other aspects. For example, you're supposed to throw floating balls called seekers at certain historically significant enemies, which stuns them but doesn't kill them. If preserving their lives is so important, why is it that other soldiers can kill them without consequence? Why is it that you can climb some steep hills, but invisible walls hinder you on others? Why does no one comment on this apparent stranger (you!) appearing among their ranks out of nowhere? Why do running animations continue even in the middle of a jump to make it look like you are sprinting through the air? There are some fascinating ideas at work here, but Darkest of Days would have benefited from a good buffing.
But design and storytelling quirks aside, Darkest of Days deserves some credit for its plot (and its surprising conclusion), which some will embrace as reason enough to overlook the clumsy, boring gunplay and horrendous AI. Yet potential isn't enough to make a game worth playing. The gameplay never follows up on the intriguing premise, wasting its memorable final levels by forcing you to crawl through a dozen dull ones before you get to them. The ideas were there, but Darkest of Days doesn't deliver where it counts.