In gaming circles, as in regular everyday life, there are always categories to be named which separate seemingly normal individuals. When first person shooters are discussed, for example, there are two very distinct camps. The first is a fanatical, loud, proud bunch who believe that, without question, Halo and Halo 2 are the greatest games every made. You generally recognize this group because of their long-standing oratory skills which generally gravitate around the "just because" logic. The second, more introverted group on the other hand, includes all the unfortunate people who "better not say anything bad about Halo, or else!" Well, I am part of this last group and I've long ago given up trying to make sense of the whole mess. I much prefer a good RPG or racing game or tactical shooter over Halo any day of the week and I can explain, in great detail no less, why. But I'm not naive enough to think that I will ever change the mind or attitude of Halo fanatics. I'm glad they have their game and I envy their dedication. In fact, since Halo 2's release, I've yet to go online and not have at least one person on my friends' list playing Halo 2. That is truly a testament to that game, regardless of how much I like it. And so, to those millions of FPS fans out there, I say this: Even though you can still play Halo 2 in high-res on the 360, you should still consider running, not walking, to get Perfect Dark Zero. This is truly the game that you have been waiting for and may be your best substitute on the 360 until Halo 3 is released. PDZ will amaze you, delight you and entertain you with so many online options and new gameplay mechanics to learn and master. There are tons of achievements to be racked up, lots of stats to keep you happy and plenty of people playing it night and day. PDZ also has an amazing co-op mode, a clever DarkOps Mode reminiscent of Counter-Strike and enough to please all die-hard FPS fans and fanatics alike.
Now that "they" are gone, Perfect Dark Zero (much like Halo 2) is not the be-all and end-all of games, even on the 360. Years in the making, this game has gone through so many cycles of hype and anticipation that many gamers were sick of hearing about it. Released with restrained fanfare by Microsoft (who was more involved with the Kameo push), Rare's game actually fares better than any cynic could have ever expected. I should know; I'm one of them. Yes, Rare will always have a special place in my heart for having developed Goldeneye 007 and Banjo-Kazooie, but they are never beyond mindful criticisms since they also released many other games (high profile and critically acclaimed games) that I didn't care for, namely Perfect Dark 64 and Conker's Bad Fur Day. At its core, Perfect Dark Zero for the 360 is a good launch title that shows off perfectly well what the new Xbox can do both visually, gameplay-wise and with Live as its backbone. It's a fine game that will entertain all but the most jaded, but it isn't a game that you should pick up without knowing exactly what you're getting into.
Perfect Dark Zero takes place a few years before the 64 adventure. Joanna is a bounty hunter working with her father, Jack. The story revolves, again, around dataDyne (in one way or another) and along the way, you will see shadows of the Carrington Institute, DeathMatching software gone terribly awry and a lone female operative kick an awful lot of butt. Unfortunately, the story, which is convoluted and disjointed, barely keeps the narrative together long enough to string the next mission together. What truly doesn't help matters is that none of the characters are particularly endearing, especially Joanna's father Jack, and saving them and looking out for them feels very empty. Surprisingly, even Joanna, as a character, comes off as insipid and uninteresting and it's much more entertaining to try and figure out how Rare is actually trying to portray her. From the box art to the screenshots and even the computer generated renders we've seen of her, we are torn between two images; the mature, cold calculating woman who can take on anyone and the diminutive, cute pixie girl who seems wide-eyed about the whole affair. Unfortunately, PDZ continues presenting her as two entities and we are never left with a definite answer.
What truly doesn't help the characters in PDZ is that they are voiced in a completely over-the-top matter with lines that are eye-rolling bad. The character that we are meant to care about the most, Joanna, rarely chimes in, and Jack and Chandra (intelligence liaison of sorts and mission briefings) seem to explain everything to her (and us) as if she were clueless. The trick to enjoying Chandra's character, I found, was picturing Salma Hayek or Paz Vega delivering the lines instead, since she definitely sounds a lot like those two actresses. For the other characters however, you're on your own. And it's really too bad that the voice acting, story and dialog is so bad because PDZ also features what is hand's down one of the best musical scores in recent memory. While drawing on the themes of James Bond, the layered and varied instrumentation and musical maturity of the score is compelling enough to sit at the menu screens just to hear it. The game features all sorts of different genres, all pulsing with a back-beat that keeps the blood pumping. The audio mix and weapon sounds are also second to none and will blow away audiophiles everywhere. Perfect Dark Zero has, quite possibly, the finest audio presentation of any next-gen game and that's saying a lot.
Graphically, Perfect Dark Zero offers up a slightly mixed bag. As a whole, the textures are amazing to look at and zooming in on them really highlights how much effort has gone into every inch of the levels. The problem stems from the choice of some color palettes which just don't work in the game at all. This is a small nitpick, but one that surfaces enough times to be highlighted. Also, a lot of the textures appear shiny. This is fine at first, but then you realize that almost every texture appears shiny and you can't help but feel a slight shiny-overkill. Artistically, the levels fall into the cold sterile futuristic look, the large urban population center look or the dark claustrophobic look. In all cases however, the levels are well detailed, logically laid out and really nice to explore. It's too bad that you constantly feel pressured by the game to move on, especially on the outdoor Hong Kong level, since taking the time to dawdle really has its upside, visually speaking.
While the Xbox 360 may very well be a next-generation console, very few games really "feel" next-generation. Granted, the graphics are all amazing, but few games really feel like anything but a nice (read: amazing) port of an Xbox title. PDZ, on the other hand, actually tries to incorporate new elements into the mix and these are truly the best parts of the gameplay. The coolest new addition to FPS games everywhere is the pressure sensitive weapon zoom. If you pull the left trigger (unless you are dual wielding) your weapon zooms in. Want to zoom out without having to click a bunch of stuff? Let go of the trigger. This may seem like a simple little addition, but consider the power of the console and the amount of programming that has to go into rendering a texture 5 miles away perfectly within a fraction of a second. PDZ does this easily and it's truly what makes certain levels (like the rooftop Hong Kong escape) so fun to play. The remainder of the controls is very similar to any typical FPS except that PDZ features no jump button. Now, before anyone cries fowl, it isn't needed. Instead, the left bumper button allows you to roll/dive in whatever direction you are pointing the left stick. This animation, presented in the third person, much like climbing ladders or using ziplines, is actually pretty cool the first few times you see it. Once you've played a few multiplayer games however, you may cringe at the sight (more on that later).
PDZ also offers a wide selection of futuristic weapons to try out. Obviously, there is a trade off among each weapon and where one might offer a greater level of zoom and better stopping power, it may take forever to reload and may shoot rather slowly. In this respect, the game is nicely balanced to allow any weapon to be useful. What you choose to carry, and pick from the inventory menu initially, will generally come down to personal preference. Perfect Dark Zero use a size based interface to determine how many weapons you can carry at once. You generally have three slots that you can fill with weapons. Most handguns take up one slot while larger, heavier weapons take two or three slots. Armor doesn't tax you slot count and you are also generally allowed to carry one gadget of your choice into battle.
The other small difference between PDZ and the traditional tactical shooter is the regenerating health bar. The manual and load screens explain that when "shock damage" is taken from falls, gas, fires and some melee attacks, your health will gradually recover. This appears to be the case with all attacks though and whenever you find yourself with diminishing health; it's always a good idea to just lay low for a bit. This is very Halo-ish as well, but it actually feels a lot different in its implementation. It's also a lot more maddening to unload a full clip into a rolling/diving Live opponent knowing that while you reload, his health will be regenerating. In fact, playing Live, this is perhaps the single greatest annoyance of PDZ (and the use of head-shots).
For single player gamers out there, PDZ offers up offline Deathmatching with bots and the Solo Agent (story) mode. I've already stated my opinion of the story, but let me caution everyone on the single player mode as a whole: if you enjoy loose mission objectives that never seem to make sense, a great sense of being pressured along, bland fire-fights that erupt even when you're sneaking around, questionable A.I. and hit-or-miss levels, then this is your game. This is not to say that the single player missions are not playable, but some of them are truly not fun and it's a good thing that the game holds your hand (with arrows pointing out your path and next objectives) because it's easy to get lost. The other problem is that the better levels are never left for you to explore because they push you on with random time-sensitive objectives or playing guardian angel to Non Playable Characters, like Jack Dark.
Luckily, PDZ allows you to play through the single player missions in co-op mode (on one Xbox 360 or with friends on Live). This is the best part of all of PDZ and can be re-played over and over. Without having say, Jack Dark, to protect (since he's now a human player), you can each take your time as you cruise through the levels. Objectives have also been altered slightly to take into account the other cerebellum involved. Co-op is truly the highlight of PDZ and feels like a completely different game when played in this fashion. I also preferred co-op in Halo and Halo 2 to its single player game (and multiplayer) and PDZ trumps even those games with its co-op mode. An excellent job by Rare.
Where the longevity of PDZ comes into play is truly with its multiplayer aspect (locally, through system link or on Live). There are really two modes to the multiplayer: Deathmatch and DarkOps. Deathmatch, although featuring bots and many customization options (size of the maps, match types - kill count, team kill count, capture the flag & territorial gains - etc) feels incredibly shallow due in part to its limited maps (six at the moment) and its killing mechanics. It would almost be funny if it weren't so frustrating, but the majority of Deathmatch players are professional divers and rollers. Once you draw a bead on any opponent, you will begin emptying your clip as he/she rolls around like a fish out of water. You're only hope is to magically shoot him in the head which seems to be a 70% luck, 20% skill endeavor. Real fans of Deathmatching will enjoy this for what it is (since everyone has the same fighting chance and roll/dive/dance maneuvers) but many will want something a little more fulfilling.
For the discriminating Deathmatcher on your list who seems to have everything, I present DarkOps. Even though this is a slight rip-off of Counter-Strike with its purchase menus, cash and scenarios, this mode is exceptionally entertaining and much more slower-paced and tactical. There are four scenarios to compete in: Eradication (a last man standing game played on teams), Onslaught (a capture the base derivative), Infection (a truly fun free for all game where one team is infected and one is uninfected. The infected must infect more players while the uninfected must survive) and Sabotage (a property damaging team-based affair). All the DarkOps modes are incredibly fun and well designed to allow for a little bit of thought to seep into the typical run and gun action.
Perfect Dark Zero is also available in a Limited Collector's Edition which generally sells for ten dollars more than the bare-bones version. It should be noted that the game content in both packages is identical and the only swag the LCE gets is a bonus DVD with various production footage, a special issue Comic Book, a Limited Edition Glyph (1 of 9, which I still don't know what they amount to) and themes/pictures for your Live account/menu. For the extra cost, there really isn't anything in the package to justify the higher priced purchase, but fans looking for a nice metal package should look for the upgraded version.
In the end, is Perfect Dark Zero as good a game as the hype will lead you to believe? Well, that depends on what you are looking for. If you are a die-hard FPS fan, a Halo deathmatcher or someone looking for "the" Live game of choice until Halo 3 is released, than yes, you have found your perfect game. If you are a casual gamer looking to see what all the hubbub is about and want to experience a decent FPS with amazing graphics, a first rate audio presentation (except the voice acting) and a few twists on the usual FPS gameplay, Perfect Dark Zero is worth a look. Don't be fooled, the single player mode is frustratingly bad and the multiplayer deathmatching is shallow, but co-op and DarkOps help elevate the title above what most were expecting. A rental for those with any hesitations.