It's tempting to try to put Perfect Dark Zero in perspective by spending a lot of time on topics other than what makes it such a terrific action game. One of the highest-profile Xbox 360 launch titles, this near-future first-person shooter is the long-awaited sequel to a highly acclaimed Nintendo 64 hit, and it happens to be one of the biggest games to be released by veteran developer Rare since its well-publicized acquisition by Microsoft several years ago. Perfect Dark Zero's sci-fi theme, together with the circumstances surrounding its release, also means it's destined to be compared to Halo: Combat Evolved, the game that defined the Xbox (so yeah, no pressure). But let's stick to the point: Perfect Dark Zero's stunning presentation, excellent assortment of believable weapons, exciting tactical firefights, and fully featured single- and multiplayer components combine to make it easily one of the best first-person shooters this year and one of your best options in the Xbox 360's starting lineup. Despite some minor shortcomings, the game is still a tour de force for the Xbox 360, and it's just a thrilling experience that pushes the already-extremely competitive first-person shooter category still further forward.
You don't need to be familiar with Perfect Dark for the Nintendo 64 to easily get into Perfect Dark Zero, starring the spunky red-haired hired gun, Joanna Dark. Though she and her dad are technically bounty hunters, the game has got more of a high-tech superspy feel to it, from the futuristic weapons to the fancy gadgets you'll get to use. Perfect Dark Zero's story spans more than a dozen big missions, and may be optionally played through cooperatively with a friend. The campaign is longer than average at about 12 hours, and its multiple difficulty settings, unlockable weapons, and the outstanding co-op mode should keep you coming back to it after you reach the conclusion the first time. Perfect Dark Zero also features a "combat arena" mode that contains most of its multiplayer options, some of which may be played with and against computer-controlled bots in addition to (or instead of) other human players. There's a wide assortment of different modes supporting up to 32 players online, including conventional free-for-all and capture-the-flag modes, as well as some great Counter-Strike-inspired team-based match types. In short, this is big game with a lot to it.
However, it's not just all the different modes of play, but rather the sheer attention to detail that separates Perfect Dark Zero from other first-person shooters out there. It's a gorgeous-looking game, especially if you play it on a high-definition display, and the beauty's more than skin deep. Most every weapon in the large arsenal of available pistols, submachine guns, assault rifles, and heavy weapons looks extremely authentic, right on down to their steely sheen and white-hot muzzle flashes. You've never seen a better-looking assortment of guns, and the near-future setting gave the designers license to include lots of familiar hardware, with some surprising special abilities. What's more, some excellent character animation helps make the guns feel as powerful as they look. Enemies recoil realistically depending on where they're hit, no matter if you hit them in the hand, the foot, square in the chest, in the back, or wherever else. And the vast levels are as varied as they are beautiful to behold, setting you loose in jungles, city streets, high-tech industrial compounds, and more. Bullet holes shred the scenery, armor pieces fly every which way under a hail of gunfire, blinding explosions rock the screen, and your enemies' bodies litter the corridors once you're through. Gorgeous lighting and an impressive motion-blur effect that kicks in whenever you make a sharp turn further enhance the quality of Perfect Dark Zero's visuals, resulting in a game that at times could easily be mistaken for a big-budget action movie. Credit is also due to the outstanding audio, which features some heavy-hitting weapon effects, as well as a fantastic, moody soundtrack that gives each mission its own pulsing rhythms. It's a diverse array of electronic and rock beats, and it's all very catchy.
From a gameplay standpoint, Perfect Dark Zero is highly refined. It doesn't stray too far from convention, but it features some interesting twists in weapon and enemy design, making for a much more entertaining experience than the average shooter. You can carry up to four different weapons, but larger guns take up more inventory space, which means you could pack several pistols but only one machine gun at a time. It's a good system that makes sense, though it's tough having to choose from all the great options that are available. Even the pistol you start with boasts an optional silencer, a scope, and a flashlight attachment, making it extremely versatile and plenty deadly. But chances are you'll want to replace it soon enough. One of the assault rifles you find later on may be converted into an automated defense turret, helping you tear into the enemies' ranks. There's a pistol that fires madness-inducing projectiles that turn foe against foe (in multiplayer, this causes the victim's teammates to appear as enemies). One submachine gun even projects a diversionary holographic image of you. Many of the guns are scoped, and smaller weapons can be wielded in pairs, doubling your stopping power. A couple of the rifles have grenade-launcher attachments, letting you seriously damage groups of foes both in story missions and multiplayer, and making these particular firearms seem especially dangerous. But in the end, your choice of guns may well come down to personal preference. There's a lot of cool, lethal firepower to choose from.
The type of weapon you're carrying influences your running speed, which is something to consider. There's no jump button, but you are given some tactical options, like taking cover behind obstacles and executing quick rolls at the touch of a button. The cover system is implemented quite well, letting you take position behind any barrier or at any corner at the touch of a button, while seamlessly switching your perspective to a third-person viewpoint, which gives you more situational awareness. You automatically peek out from behind cover when you fire, and it's a deliberate-enough process that doesn't feel overpowered. As for the evasive rolls, they're great for quickly ducking out of harm's way, but you'll take extra damage if you're shot while rolling, so you'll have to think twice about tumbling around too much. And if an enemy gets in your face, you can always bash him with whichever gun you've got equipped. These are all great-looking moves, made all the better since they're powerful. What's more, you can even disarm opponents by ripping their guns right out of their hands, provided you've got room to carry another. It's hard to imagine a more satisfying way to take out some dude on Xbox Live than by using his own weapon against him (preferably the butt of the weapon, for that matter).
Perfect Dark Zero's winning combination of pure run-and-gun action and tactical realism is also captured in the well-designed health system, which lets you soak up a good amount of damage but doesn't let you get cocky about it. Each time you're shot in succession, your health drops just as you'd expect, though Joanna can take a surprising amount of punishment at the normal difficulty setting. If you avoid taking any more damage for a couple of seconds, your health meter instantly jumps back up. This seems like Halo's recharging energy shields at first, but the difference is your maximum health gradually gets depleted the more damage you take. So, typically, the later into a mission you are, the more carefully you'll need to tread.
That's especially true since you'll often have to start a mission over from the very beginning (or maybe from a checkpoint halfway through) if you're killed or otherwise fail. You can't just quick-save your progress after every few steps like you can in many shooters. There are a couple of missions that are demanding of some trial and error, where the lack of an in-mission save feature might be frustrating (there's one particularly punishing late-game mission that forces you to complete your objective in a certain amount of time or start over). But this design choice mostly just forces you to stay on your toes, and it also helps extend the length of the story mode without feeling cheap. If you do find yourself stuck, thankfully you can adjust the difficulty independently for each mission.
The story missions offer a lot of variety, both in terms of mission objectives and tactical situations. You'll experience plenty of up-close, in-your-face shoot-outs that are perfect for shotguns and high-powered pistols, not to mention melee attacks. But the game also packs in lots of medium- and long-range shooting, sometimes pitting you against surprisingly large numbers of entrenched foes. There's some hacking, lock-picking, and demolitions thrown in there for good measure, each involving its own quick little minigame. There's a good bit of stealth, which lets you get the drop on your enemies before all hell breaks loose. Before each mission, you get to select your starting weapons based on the guns you've collected up to that point in the game, which is a nice touch that invites you to revisit earlier missions with later weapons. Some missions let you fight alongside some computer-controlled comrades, who'll do a thoroughly competent job helping to keep your foes at bay, and who may well save your life a few times. There are also a couple of entertaining but brief vehicular sequences in Perfect Dark Zero, featuring a jetpack and a hovercraft that you can pilot around. These look great and are fun to drive, but you don't get to play around with them for very long. Most of the combat arena maps and modes don't have vehicles in them either, so vehicles are one of the aspects of the game that noticeably could have been more fleshed out.
The foes you'll fight throughout the missions in Perfect Dark Zero won't necessarily shock you with their tactical prowess, but they do a pretty good job of weaving to avoid your fire or just keeping their heads down. In general, they believably behave like action movie fodder, creating danger often just through sheer numbers. What's interesting about them is that many of them are armored, clad in helmets or full protective gear. Anyone who has been playing first-person shooters for a while is by now accustomed to aiming for enemies' heads, and while headshots in Perfect Dark Zero are as deadly as you'd expect against unprotected opponents, helmeted foes can withstand a couple of shots to the noggin before going down. Even at the standard difficulty, your foes tend to be highly accurate at long range, which would seem unrealistic were it not for the scopes on their weapons. And they'll do a good job of tracking you down if you try to run from them. Your foes will use all manner of different weapons against you, and that, combined with the different environments you'll be fighting in, keeps the combat consistently fresh. It helps that your foes have a lot to say in battle--you'll catch them urging their comrades to press the attack when you're reloading, cursing you if they're shot but survive, and so on, and you'll rarely hear any of the dialogue repeat.
It's fortunate that the action is as good as it is, since the story in Perfect Dark Zero--which involves a power-hungry businessman's search for some sort of powerful artifact--feels surprisingly tacked on. A combination of voice-over mission briefings and rather unimpressive cutscenes using the in-game character models try to drive the plot forward, but it's easy to get lost in the details, and it's harder to care. Despite some good voice acting, the characters just aren't developed much, not even Joanna's relationship with her gruff father. The story takes a few decent twists, but it seems to be kept down to a minimum so as not to get in the way of the shooting action. It's too bad, though, since a better story would have helped make the mission mode more cohesive. As it stands, the missions are generally excellent, but they do feel somewhat disconnected, especially since the game pushes you back out to the mission-select menu in between each one. A very brief ending also prevents Perfect Dark Zero from having much impact from a storytelling standpoint. But on the plus side, there's a good chance you'll want to dive right back into the campaign as soon as you've finished it for the first time.
Perfect Dark Zero's cooperative play mode is easily one of the best things about the game. You can play through the entire campaign cooperatively online or in a split screen, and the tactical shooting is even more fun when you're coordinating with a friend. However, what's really great about the co-op mode is that it does more than just throw a carbon copy of Joanna Dark into each level with you. Instead, player two will control some other character, who may begin the mission in a different place and be forced to overcome different obstacles from player one. For example, one early mission has Joanna high up on some rafters overlooking a city street where her father is fighting for his life. When playing solo, you must defend Jack Dark by sniping at his enemies and cutting a path for him to proceed. But in co-op, player two controls Jack directly.
These types of scenarios don't fundamentally change the fact that the both of you will end up running and gunning side by side, but they help keep things fresh and they also foster communication between the players. What's more, the headset support works great, letting you speak to your partner without interruption during missions and in between them (during the relatively brief loading times and everything). And the game is still plenty challenging in co-op mode, offering both players a lot of targets to shoot at. Should one player fall in combat, the other player can revive him just as long as the coast is clear. In one nice little innovation, you'll always be able to find the other player in a co-op game just by following some yellow waypoint markers to his or her location. For that matter, similar waypoints also appear to help guide you to your next objective. At first this seems like cheating (and you can toggle it off if you want), since you're clearly shown where you're supposed to go. But it's a great feature that's simply there to keep you from getting lost in some of the big levels, and it's justified in the context of gameplay by how Joanna's off-site support staff is able to frequently bring her updated intel and status reports.
Whether you play solo or cooperatively, the mission mode presents some of the game's greatest thrills. But the combat arena mode offers plenty of fun and variety as well. Multiplayer matches in Perfect Dark Zero aren't wildly out of the ordinary, but the excellent weapon selection, flexibility of options, high-quality maps, and smooth online performance (we never experienced any lag in several days of playing online) make for a rock-solid competitive shooter. Game types are split up into "deathmatch" and "dark-ops" themes, each of which features a number of unique variants. The deathmatch variants all let you play with bots, and that includes killcount and team killcount for your typical multiplayer shoot-outs, as well as capture-the-flag and territorial gains, the latter of which forces players to fight for control over certain key points on each map. You can determine the weapon loadout, number of players, and many other variables for each match.
As for the dark-ops variants, these all feature a Counter-Strike-style rounds system, so you'll earn money as you play and will get to spend it on armor and the weapons of your choice in between rounds. Eradication is the simplest dark-ops variant, pitting one team against another in a fight to the finish. Onslaught puts one team on offense and one on defense, and the defensive team must make a stand in a fortified position. The defense team may purchase weapons, while the offense team may not. But members of the offense team respawn if killed, while members of the defense team only get one life. The infection variant is kind of similar, but it's a free-for-all in which human players must fend off infected players who look like skeletons. Human players can purchase weapons, while infected players are stuck with whatever they can get their hands on. But any human killed by an infected player joins the infected...making it that much tougher for any remaining humans to survive the round. Finally, the sabotage variant tasks the offense team with trying to incur as much collateral damage as possible by damaging key objects in the environment, while the defense team must prevent this by any means necessary. You can only play dark-ops matches with other human players, though the bots found in the deathmatch variants seem like they could have been smart enough to handle these slightly more complicated battles, too.
Not every combination of map, game variant, and number of players leads to spectacular results, but many of them do. The killcount and capture-the-flag modes, being the most conventional, are probably the least remarkable, while the more-novel modes like onslaught and infected are really quite fun, offering tense but fast-paced thrills. All modes benefit from giving you a helpful onscreen map and radar, which briefly detects foes that fire their weapons in your vicinity and lets you get to where the action is. The game records your progress as you play successive matches, and many of the unlockable achievements are tied to long-term multiplayer accomplishments, like playing 1,000 deathmatch games. And since you can heavily customize any multiplayer games you set up, down to which combination of weapons will be available for players to choose from, Perfect Dark Zero should have plenty to keep you busy over the long haul.
As mentioned, Perfect Dark Zero is very impressive from a visual standpoint, but some of the multiplayer match types do bring out some of its graphical rough edges. Team-based matches color code friends from foes, but the monochromatic uniforms look rather garish. You'll also see some downright crazy rag-doll death animations, like when characters are killed sometimes they'll bounce or slump in impossible ways--effects that are likely to be just as amusing as they're distracting (but they do detract from the presentation slightly). You might also see the game's frame rate take a dive during particularly hairy multiplayer shoot-outs, though this also happens on occasion in the mission mode. Other visual details in Perfect Dark Zero really stand out, like the stylized gouts of blood that spurt out whenever you score a headshot, or the way killed enemies' weapons leave their grip and clatter to the ground. The game performs about as well if you're playing alone or in a split screen with three other players, and it still looks fantastic on a standard-definition television. The audio has no real weak points apart from a few hokey voice acting performances, but the weapon fire and musical score easily drown this out. There's no music during multiplayer matches, though, unless you provide your own using the Xbox 360's slick custom soundtracks feature. Also, if you've got a surround-sound system, you'll enjoy the tactical advantages of hearing all the great audio happening all around you.
Taken as a whole, Perfect Dark Zero is decidedly one of the best, fully featured Xbox 360 games so far, and it's a compelling reason to spring for the system if you've been on the fence. While the game doesn't reinvent the first-person shooter, which has been a mainstay of action gaming for more than a decade, it delivers one of the most highly refined and spectacular examples of this brand of gameplay to date. From its ravishing good looks and totally first-rate audio, to the believable feel of its outstanding weapons, to its wealth of single- and multiplayer options, Perfect Dark Zero delivers just about everything you could hope for from a first-person shooter.