Normally I can bang off a review immediately after finishing a game. I'm decisive about what I like and what I hate, and usually the game is from some big company that has managed to skirt the review process with pre-orders. The indie nature of Darkest of Days, however, made me feel like I was kicking a puppy, and I needed to do some digital soul searching. There's a quant charm to the title, but isn't a blockbuster, and I'm not sure about the $39.99 price tag. ($49.99 on Xbox 360)
If you are on limited finances, or are a multiplayer fiend, save your money - there's no multiplayer at all. If great graphics and sound are a must for you, take a pass. Ditto if 9/11 is still a sore point. However, while I wanted to see more from the story, and the ending is a frustrating tease, I can't deny I had fun with Darkest of Days, and it does show that historical shooters can work outside of WWII. The concept is great and the weaponry is interesting, and it requires more strategy than a run and gun, without the thumb-tangling confusion of squad controls.
You play as Morris, a US Army recruit who is transferred from Antietam to the 7th Calvalry of the US Army, commanded by General Custer… right before his last stand. You're felled by a Lakota arrow and are seconds from becoming an historical statistic when you're nabbed by a KronoteK agent… from the future! You've been handpicked by a team of time traveling scientists to jump through history and fix what's broken.
There are a lot of plot holes as this concept plays out, but it leads to some extremely fun, terribly politically incorrect levels. Gunning down dozens of Native Indians with a futuristic weapon and popping ancient Greeks with an auto shotgun is far more fun than I would have predicted, and to ease any gentler consciences, any adversary lacking a blue survivor aura is scheduled for an imminent death anyway. It was kind of refreshing to play a game this self-aware about containing scenes of mass death, and trying to not kill someone with weapons that are historically imprecise is a tricky feat. Fortunately the game gives you multiple options regarding how to overcome that challenge. I mainly relied on my sniping skills and loaded from a previous checkpoint when I screwed up. Furthermore, a gun battle with muskets is hilariously tedious, and does give you a sense of what armed combat was like back in the civil war.
The only thing that completely drove me crazy were the maps, which looked far more massive than they really were. This isn't the first time I've encountered invisible walls in levels, but it always drives me crazy when I do. Something that looks like a playable space should be a playable space. There's also an audio bug that makes the gunfire sound like rain on the top of a camper van, but I didn't find that as annoying. The Xbox version also has lag issues, but it's been ages since I've encountered an Xbox game without lag issues.
While the play time on normal is completely adequate - your standard 18 hour campaign on normal difficulty - the end point of the game feels like an "Oops! We ran out of money!" On the whole, Darkest of Days suffers from the shoestring indie budget that also makes it charming. It's an acquired taste that gets better as you play, once you get used to the dated graphics and sound. What makes me hesitant to recommend it is that most people have limited time and funds and there are far better games out there.
Something with historical content like this would be a phenomenal teaching tool if properly developed in that direction. As it is, there's no market for it, unless the price drops in half on Steam. There's no place for it at all on the Xbox, because no one takes a $20 title seriously, and… dudes, it's really crap on Xbox 360. If you do decide to buy, do it on PC - it saves you $10 and looks, sounds and performs much better. Furthermore, the added precision of mouse aiming makes it way easier to mow down hundreds of rebel soldiers with a futuristic machine gun.
It's a telling sign of the maturing state of the video game industry that these independent projects are starting to emerge. The question now is what to do with them, because they don't stand toe to toe with the big companies, and don't have the money to license the most popular engines or dump millions into marketing. That being said, indie game development shouldn't be relegated to Wii Ware or $3 itunes downloads, but things have gotten so expensive that those are the only spheres that allow them to go to market at a competitive price.
If Darkest of Days were a film it would make the rounds at festivals, where "flawed but interesting" has its place. But there are no festivals in gaming, outside of the ten games that get selected for spotlight every year at PAX. Also, video game reviews are like figure skating judging: highly political. A Halo title will score ten-out-of-ten somewhere no matter how bad it is. Conversely, if you're a developer without a pedigree, you're going to eat every shortcoming. Darkest of Days is not as bad as Metacritic would have you believe, but better games have died because they weren't produced by the right cliques.
So you're not going to score any cool points by having this game in your Xbox Live or Steam profiles, and your meathead buddies are probably just going to play ODST multiplayer until Modern Warfare 2 comes out. But I had fun with Darkest of Days, and if you've seen some of my other reviews, you know I don't say that readily.