Version tested: Xbox 360
Contrary to popular opinion, we critics are not a pinch-faced brood of grinchy old killjoys, no longer able to recognise the simple notion of "fun" as we hungrily plot to eviscerate the next hapless game that crosses our path. Quite the opposite. When you spend much of your working life playing games, you can't help but look for the best in everything, trying to find that glimmer of worth to justify the investment of time and money each game demands of our shared audience.
It's not always easy.
Case in point: Damnation, a steampunk third-person shooter that has swaggered into town, kicked open the swinging doors of the saloon and making bold claims of revolutionising its genre with acrobatic "vertical" gameplay. It does nothing of the sort, of course, but unfortunately puffed-up PR promises are far from the worst sins committed here.
Our hero is Hamilton Rourke. He's a disgraced soldier turned rebel, trying to live down a disastrous defeat that left his men slaughtered. He's battling against the evil Prescott, figurehead of the dictatorial and technologically advanced New America, a crude "conquer the world" plot that he plans to bring about using an army of mechanical men. They look a lot like the robo-skeletons from The Terminator and, just in case you don't make the connection, the soundtrack shamelessly apes Brad Fiedel's iconic throbbing movie theme as well.
You're accompanied by a posse of frankly baffling characters, each of which is groaning under the weight of the sort of florid back-story that even Resident Evil would reject for being too convoluted and improbable. A fruity English professor with an evil cyborg daughter. A flamboyant, vengeful Spaniard. A feisty Native American squaw who, somewhat inevitably, uses blue glowing magic while struggling to contain her heaving norks in a tiny leather bikini top. All are on hand to clog up the interminable cut-scenes with mind-numbing melodrama and throw repetitive quips your way during gameplay.
Gameplay. I should probably bite the bullet and tackle that thorny issue.
Almost immediately, it becomes clear that Damnation isn't going to justify its mould-breaking hype. Far from turning the third-person shooter upside down, requiring gamers to master new ways of playing as they acrobatically make their way through the dizzying heights of the levels, there's absolutely nothing here that hasn't been done in hundreds of 3D platformers. A little game called Tomb Raider was built on the exact same foundations over a decade ago. You can hang from ledges, pull yourself up onto surfaces, slide down zipwires, clamber up ropes and perform wall-jumps to ping-pong up to out of reach areas. That you're carrying a gun while doing so hardly makes it a feature worthy of note.
It's not as if your arsenal is anything to write home about either, since every weapon feels pathetically ineffectual. Guns sputter and hiss, but there's no feeling that you're actually doing any real damage. Spray bullets in the right direction for long enough and enemies keel over, in woeful ragdoll fashion, but the game struggles to convey the sense of solidity, weight and mass that a shooter needs. This intangibility means that there's precious little immersion, and precious little engagement with the rote tasks the game demands of you.
What really sinks this uninspiring experience, however, is the skittish control, which never becomes as intuitive or fluid as it needs to be in order to sell the daredevil aspect. A nudge on the stick sends Rourke lurching forwards, making precision movements problematic. Scenery snags are depressingly common, and there's a weird judder when you leap, as the game seems to hurriedly adjust your location to match up with the landing animation on whatever ledge you're aiming for. Those clichéd AI companions are a hindrance more than a help, too, blundering into your line of sight during shootouts or simply charging ahead like angry wasps and getting incapacitated for their trouble. It's no secret that the game began life as an amateur Unreal mod, but whatever attempts have been made to bring it up to professional standard haven't had the desired effect.
Even the much-vaunted vertical levels do little to compensate for the flakiness. True, each level does have multiple routes, but that's just because as long as you keep moving in the right direction you really can't go wrong. Progress feels inevitable rather than something to be earned through ingenuity or hard work. Few are the moments where you'll need to actually plot a path through the game but, since there's no map and no objective indicators, when you do get turned around by the procession of identical buildings and rocks, the odds of getting back on course are slim.
It's an ugly game in appearance as well, with boxy character models, horrific frame-rate and a generally unfinished air to proceedings. Apart from a reasonably impressive draw distance, necessary to show off those artificially elongated chasms, there's not much in the way of passable eye candy. Characters pop in and out of existence or glitch through solid objects as they try to navigate the crude geometries of the gameworld. The camera is awkwardly passive, pointing lazily in whatever direction you last looked until you wrestle it back into line yourself. Needless to say, as you leap this way and that you're often left struggling to see where you're going. In a game based around a need for nimble navigation, it's yet another example of the many ways Damnation fails to deliver on even the most basic fundamentals of modern gaming.
Crackdown, Prince of Persia and Mirror's Edge all delivered on the vertical gaming premise far more successfully than Damnation ever manages, and all are vastly more polished and enjoyable to boot. The best Damnation can offer to alleviate its woes is a spread of multiplayer modes and a drop-in co-op option. Both are welcome inclusions, but are still rendered pointless by the grim game engine. Who wants to share such a clumsy experience with a friend? It's not even as if Damnation benefits from co-operative play. With levels that confuse sheer size for shrewd design and enemies that will happily stand six feet away from you without attacking, there's no real need for team play. You're just running around the same giant, hollow playground at the same time.
The game does feature numerous vehicle sections, in which you race chunky motorbikes and trikes over ramps and along sheer walls, and this does at least allow one player to steer while the other shoots. Since you're always moving too fast for any enemies to prove a problem, there's absolutely no reason to do this, but at least the thought is there.
Even after looking for a glimmer of quality, hoping that there'd be some redeeming feature to balance out this avalanche of weary criticism, Damnation offers little to which to cling. At best, it's a functional third-person platformer that sometimes acts like a shooter. At worst, it's an astonishing collection of poor design decisions, half-hearted implementation and mindless narrative clutter that will only lead to buyer's remorse in all who decide to give it a try.
3 / 10