The last time we saw Joanna Dark was roughly 5 years ago on the Nintendo 64. A lot has changed since then, for her and for us. We have gone through the 128 bit consoles and we are entering the "next-generation" age of the Xbox and PS3. For her part, and from the initial renderings and screenshots we were given of Perfect Dark Zero, it seems that before her adventures with the Carrington Institute, Joanna "The Bounty Hunter" looked more like a pixie or even perhaps a Hobbit than a grown woman. I'll be the first to admit that as much as I wanted to see Joanna again, I really wasn't interested in the new look and feel of Perfect Dark Zero. I've heard a lot of friends go on about how good it will be and how amazing it looks and maybe it's the pointy ears, but I didn't see it. Well, at X05 I got to sit down with Joanna for a little one-on-one time; I wasn't looking to make friends or even enjoy the game more than on a cursory fact-finding mission, but in the end, she wore me down and won me over. And if a curmudgeon like me can love Perfect Dark Zero against his will, anyone looking forward to it will be most pleased.
The level available at X05 was a single player tutorial-type level where Joanna had to protect Jack Dark as he made his way around futuristic Hong Kong. The level reminded me a lot of a level from Max Payne 2 where Mona Sax uses a sniper riffle to protect Max in what appears to be a construction yard. Call it nostalgia, but the level's premise had me hooked from the start. The one thing that concerned me slightly however, was the long loading time before the level started. As the level opens, you are given a little bit of free reign to get used to the controls. Anyone who's played a FPS in the last few years won't find anything too complex, but there were still a few unique touches that surprised me. For one thing, the zoom on the guns is now assigned to the left trigger button (the right trigger is the trigger, unless you have two guns equipped) which is cleverly used (pressure sensitive) and fast when you want to zoom in for a specific body-part kill and then zoom back out to take care of business closer to home.
The other mechanics that may surprise some gamers is the use of a context sensitive button which allows for many possibilities. In the demo, this button was used to swing on ziplines across the city, climb up and down ladders (all of these incur third person view changes which are rather neat) and most importantly, allow Joanna to take "cover" behind certain objects. While in cover-mode (camera changes to third person perspective), you can still use the thumbstick to aim your shot, and then a quick press of the trigger will bring Joanna out to actually shoot the gun. This mechanic is nothing new, but it is cleverly used in a FPS and is useful against boss-type planes.
In this level, wasting too much time in any one area would bring forth a blue arrow system which would "kindly" and "gently" show you where the next point of interest was. While this may annoy the hardcore gamers out there, considering the size and scopes of the levels, this was a nice feature to have (especially in the sewers later on where I got lost a few times).
As most know, Perfect Dark Zero takes places about three years before the events of Perfect Dark on the N64. In this game, Joanna is a bounty hunter, but I was told that it's not unreasonable to assume that she will eventually be wearing her traditional blue/black outfit. As for the pixie ears that I was so hesitant to see, they were nowhere to be found. Joanna looks damn good and actually, all the characters in the game are pretty amazing to see. Guards have a particular look of determination about them and it was quite fun to shoot them dead and watch them slump forward. If you stand close enough, you can even catch them as they fall. How realistic is that? The characters all animate well and the amount of textures used on each is incredible. While they all seem to wear the same uniform, there seems to be something slightly unique about each and everyone of them. The ragdoll physics used in death animations (and body-specifics shots) are also well applied.
The level itself was a little humbling. Maybe I couldn't go anywhere I'd have wanted to, but I did take my time to zoom in on the smallest corners of the city and notice all the textures and work that went into them. Perfect Dark may not completely have the gun textures down just right yet, but the levels themselves are simply breathtaking. From the smallest, most remote point of interest, everything has been carefully crafted and considered. The texture on walls is nothing short of photorealistic and while it wasn't the best looking game at X05, there was definitely a certain draw to the look and feel of Perfect Dark.
Another aspect to the world of Perfect Dark Zero is immersion. The on-screen GUI is kept minimal and it's only during small quarter-screen inlayed cutscenes that you remember that you are playing a game. The build at X05 was nowhere near finished, but early on the one thing that will seriously need to be looked over is the framerate. As is stands, I sometimes felt like it was dipping quite low, especially when Jack Dark was on screen (in an inlay). In one particular instance, sprinkler systems (which looked amazing otherwise) would freeze and start sputtering water instead of shooting it out. This may be my only complaint with PDZ, but it's one that I hope is addressed before the final product ships.
On a more positive note, the weapon carrying aspect of Perfect Dark is one that I hadn't heard anything about. As it turns out, you will not be limited like in other recent games in carrying only 2 weapons, but instead will have a more RPG-like interface with slots. You can therefore carry as many weapons as you can store in your slots. Weapons of various size will therefore take up more/less slots and therein lies the dilemma. Three small guns, or one small and one large? The choice will be yours.
As a whole, I must state again how surprised I was with Perfect Dark Zero. Maybe I was expecting to be underwhelmed by it (and had therefore lowered my expectations) but as it turns out, the game got me hooked with its smooth and innovative gameplay right off the bat and its amazing levels and attention to detail just cemented the deal for me. Plus, I'll admit it; after hearing and seeing Joanna, it was hard to resist. I was a doubter, but I'm clearly a fan now. Yet again. And I look forward to seeing a little more of Joanna come launch day.