Reviewed: July 8, 2009
Released: May 26, 2009
I have to wonder how many people were mislead into buying Damnation by the cover art which would have you believe you are buying either a western action game or perhaps something along the lines of Van Helsing. Even reading the back of the box would have you believe you are signing on for an adventure worthy of the Extraordinary League of Gentlemen, but you would be wrong on all assumptions as you would quickly learn after the opening cinematic. Hopefully this review will save you some time and money.
Damnation, on its best day is an average original-Xbox title. On it’s worst day it is merely a broken, lackluster effort of game design that isn’t worthy of being called next-gen. On any other day it is simply a waste of time. What few (very few) clever concepts the designers managed to come up with are squandered on dated graphics, generic gameplay, and a totally uninspired story that tries to play around with the timeline and alternate realities but fails under its own creative weight.
To understand the story you have to grasp the concept of steam-powered machinery and weapons ranging from clunky motorcycles to steam-driven shotguns then place that technology into the Civil War era. Of course when you start tugging at strands in the fabric of time things start to unravel, so what we know as the Civil War goes on for at least 40 more years. You play Hamilton Rourke, the moody desperado from the front cover, in search of his fiancée who has been kidnapped by Prescott, the evil genius who invented steam-powered technology, created weapons, and is now supplying both sides of the war thus rewriting our history.
If you remove the whole “steam-power” hook, you have a totally generic story to motivate the character and the player and you end up simply going through the motions of a generic action game, even if you choose to play in a fairly obvious and forced co-op mode via split-screen or online. Co-op might work in some games but when they force a second character into the story just so you can have this option it is so obvious and often as clunky as the inflexible and unintuitive control scheme.
Damnation runs on the Unreal engine – the game actually won some award in an Unreal development contest – but you wouldn’t know if by looking at it or playing it. The graphics are terrible (more on that later) but the AI is either absent or intolerably stupid. Unreal has always been known for the best AI in the business, so somebody at Blue Omega didn’t know how to work with the tools they were given. Enemies will frequently get stuck in their environments or more frequently, not even react to your presence leaving you with stationary targets that stand their waiting to die.
Unreal is known more for FPS games than third-person actions shooters, so I was a bit surprised to see that Damnation played from the more distant perspective, at least until I realized this game was more about level navigation than shooting…most of the time. Rourke is pretty agile given his size and heavy equipment load, so seeing him wall jumping like the Prince of Persia or scrambling up ladders and poles or swinging on bars or jumping across rooftops is a bit contrived.
When the time comes to pull out those guns gameplay really falls apart, as the shooting mechanics are more like GTA than anything the Unreal engine would produce. Aiming and shooting is awkward and unreliable, and the only time you can consistently hit your target is when the AI glitches and your target just stands there. Not much fun in that…
Graphically, Damnation is an abomination with character designs, models, textures, and all sorts of last-gen glitches we’d expect from a PS2 title. The levels are ambitious in size and design and the Unreal engine is more than capable of rendering them much better than what we are seeing in this game. Everything is muddy, the colors are ugly, textures blur together, and there is an overall lack of lighting and shadow effects. Special effects like the Spirit Vision are ripped right from Predator and fail to impress. Even more annoying are these little pop-up boxes that show up during gameplay and block your vision of important and semi-dangerous enemies.
The sound design is right on part with the 90’s-style graphics. Music is okay, cropping up for some sequences then leaving you in silence. There are minimal environmental effects leaving you with plodding footsteps and lots of unimpressive gunfire. I was hoping steam-powered weapons might sound different. The voice acting is comically bad, starting with the lame Dirty Harry impersonation of Rourke to the horrible performances from every other “actor” in the game. I’m betting they got office staff to fill in these supporting roles. There is no emotion in most of the readings, and there is even some gender confusion in assigning voices to characters.
I found it tough to stomach the entire single-player campaign, and the hour I spent in co-op proved that the story is unchanged as is the gameplay and level of difficulty. There are just two of you now with no new puzzles or reasons to interact. At least you have somebody to complain to. There is online support for up to 8 players in traditional deathmatch and CTF modes, but these online matches use the same massive maps from the single-player game – much too large assuming you could find seven other people playing this game, but you won’t have to worry about it because nobody (and I mean NOBODY) is playing Damnation online. In my 2+ weeks of playing I never saw a single soul playing Damnation online, which is going to make earning about half of the achievements impossible. The rest of the achievements are for completing the game in single player and co-op and performing various feats a certain number of times.
I love FPS and third person shooters, especially when the Unreal engine is backing them up, but Damnation is an intolerable experience. Considering what it costs to license the Unreal engine I can’t believe this game was allowed out the door in its current state – it will never recoup the development costs. There is a total lack of polish at every level of production, the AI is broken, the shooting engine is broken, the graphics are last-gen, the sound is abysmal, the levels are too long in story mode and too large for multiplayer, assuming anybody was even playing this game.
The coolest thing about Damnation is the cover art, and you can enjoy that as you watch this game go from the shelf to the bargain bin in record time, and even then I can’t recommend a purchase or even a rental.