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.
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