This review is about one of my favorite games, and one of the most overshadowed. Ask people to name 3 games on the N64, and invariably one of them will be Goldeneye. Not nearly enough people realize that Goldeneye had a successor, a descendant, and – dare I say – a replacement. That heir to the N64 FPS throne is known as Perfect Dark, a game that manages to expand upon its predecessor in every way and offers a truly mind numbing amount of content and customization. Unfortunately for Perfect Dark, it came along somewhat late in the N64 life cycle and Goldeneye had already solidified its hold on the 4-player deathmatch, causing a large number of players without Nintendo Power subscriptions to not even know Perfect Dark existed. Too few people have experienced the joy of Dual Cyclones set to “Magazine Discharge,” the ridiculousness of the Farsight, or the incredible glee of watching your friend explode from the “Proximity Mine” secondary fire of the Dragon. Perfect Dark seems like a perfect fit for Review a Great Game Day – an excellent game that deserved a lot more playtime than it ever got from most gamers.
Perfect Dark was released for the Nintendo 64 by Rare in 2000; the last of the 3-round salvo Rare unleashed on the N64 including Jet Force Gemini and Donkey Kong 64. A spiritual successor to the classic Goldeneye, Perfect Dark is an expansive first person shooter which includes an engrossing story mode, loads of single and multiplayer challenges, and a deep competitive multiplayer that can include up to 4 human controlled players and 8 computer simulants. While its Goldeneye roots are very clear, Perfect Dark expands upon its predecessor in every way, with a graphics boost, a new and imaginative array of weapons, and a staggering amount of different play modes.
Perect Dark’s campaign mode is massive, with loads of varied locations, expansive environments, and a unique storyline. Taking place from Chicago to Area 51 to an alien world, and everywhere in between, Perfect Dark features some very novel levels and situations for the time. Some of the levels in fact are so big that the story mode requires the 4MB expansion pack just to play. Just like Goldeneye, the campaign mode features 4 difficulties. The easiest difficulty is usually mostly an excercise in run and gun, with very few objectives other than getting to the end of the level. The harder difficulties, however, add more complex objectives and significantly more difficult enemy AI. In the hardest difficulty (Perfect Agent), it is usually impossible to just blast your way through the level; instead you will typically have to use some amount of stealth to avoid setting off alarms or alerting too many guards. An emphasis on discreet killing is also required for the hardest difficulty, as the AI is no slouch in detecting non-silenced gunfire. Also present in the single player campaign are time cheats just like Goldeneye, however none of them seem to be quite as frustrating as Facility or Archives could be until you mastered them in Goldeneye. There is still certainly a lot of challenge to be had in getting all the cheats, they just are quite as difficult as the most severe ones in Goldeneye.[SPOILERS] The story takes place in the year 2023 and revolves around Joanna Dark, an agent for the powerful Carrington Institute, which has allied itself with the peaceful and technologically advanced Maian aliens. You are initially sent on an infiltration mission to extract a mysterious Dr. Carroll from the sinister DataDyne corporation, and you are then sucked into a tale of government conspiracies, aliens, and a plot by the vicious Skedar aliens to recover a megaweapon from a crashed alien ship at the bottom of the ocean. The bad news? They intend to test the weapon on Earth first before using it to destroy the Maian homeworld. Agent Dark must act quickly to prevent the destruction of two civilizations at the hands of the nefarious Skedar. [/SPOILERS]
After you’re done with the story mode, there are plenty of other single-player options to keep you playing. There are 3 medals to win with each weapon in the game at the Carrington Institute’s firing range. The Bronze medals are all simple enough to acquire, but some of the Gold medals will leave you frustrated and screaming at the game. There are also a ton of options to square off against computer controlled players in the multiplayer levels.
Another great campaign related feature that Perfect Dark included was Co-op play. In addition to the standard Co-op mode everyone would expect (you work with a friend to conquer the single player campaign), there is also a mode called Counter-Operative. In this case, one player controls Joanna, and the other inhabits the body of the closest normally CPU controlled enemy in the level. The ‘enemy’ player tries to assist in dispatching Joanna, but this is easier said than done because they also inherit the pitiful health of a normal CPU player. If they die (which they most certainly will), they merely respawn in the next closest CPU enemy and take control from there. This mode is a great addition that really helps to up the already astronomical replay value if you have a friend around.
Just like Goldeneye, there is a whole suite or weapons to collect and become proficient with. Unlike Goldeneye, each weapon has both a primary and secondary fire mode. The secondary fire can be as simple as a pistol whip or as complex as a proximity mine function on a combat rifle or a fly-by-wire missile function on a rocket launcher. The addition of primary and secondary fires really opens up the complexity or the game and adds a lot more depth to the available weapons. Also unlike Goldeneye, all of Perfect Dark’s guns feature an active reload animation – which can be both a blessing and a curse. A lot of the reload animations look very nice and add a feeling of realism to the game. The down-side to this is, however, that some guns take longer to reload than others (also, more realistic), but this can hinder your use of the .357 magnum or the shotgun, for instance, which both take a very long time to reload. This adds an extra layer to your decision about what weapons to use for what situations, unlike Goldeneye where every weapon reloaded at the same speed regardless. Perfect Dark also includes some fairly novel weapons, including the Psychosis Gun and the Farsight, the latter of which can see through walls and will kill an enemy in a single shot, but its tracking is fairly slow and cumbersome.
Of course, no successor to Goldeneye could be complete without a robust multiplayer mode. Perfect Dark calls it the “Combat Simulator,” which allows for a dizzying array of levels, game types, and options. In addition to the standard 4 person multiplayer, Perfect Dark ups the ante by allowing up to 8 computer controlled ‘simulants’ to do battle with as well. These simulants can be assigned any difficulty ranging from the MeatSim, which will be lucky to even pick up a weapon and point it in your general direction, all the way up to the maddening DarkSim, which quite literally cheats at the game. The DarkSim will always have the best weapons available, always have a shield, and can teleport around the maps to always be putting pressure on you.
Perfect Dark features a large amount of new maps, but also brings back some of the Goldeneye favorites, including Facility (renamed Felicity), Archives, and Temple. Some maps in Perfect Dark are truly huge, and with the number of combatants that can be active at once, games can get very intense, much more so than any other title on the N64. A welcome addition this time around is the ability to completely define what weapons you want present in a game, rather than sticking to preset groups as in Goldeneye. Nothing but combat knives and rocket launchers? You can do it in Perfect Dark.
Also part of the Combat Simulator are the Challenges. There are 30 challenges that can be attempted with anywhere from 1-4 players. The early challenges are laughably easy; they usually involve Meat or EasySims, and you would frankly be hard pressed to lose even if you tried. Towards the end, however, both Perfect and DarkSims get thrown into the mix, which produces some incredibly frustrating situations. The last 3 challenges in particular will push even the most battle hardened Goldeneye veteran to the limit, relying almost more on luck and cheap tricks than pure shooting ability.
If there is one flaw to be found in Perfect Dark (and it’s pretty obvious), it’s the framerate. To Rare’s credit, they have packed a ton of visuals and cool effects into an N64 cart. On the other hand, they packed in way more than the lowly N64 can possibly handle, even with the 4MB expansion pack. Sure, you CAN play a 4 player local + 8 simulant multiplayer game, but enjoy doing it at slideshow framerates. In all fairness though, it is up to the user to choose just how extreme they want their combat simulator experience to be – you can certainly lower the number of combatants to improve the framerate; Rare has provided the full gamut of options for you to trade against performance. Annoyingly though, even some of the single player levels try to crank large environments and advanced lighting effects (like real-time lighting from your gunfire) out at the same time, causing the game to choke when a reasonable number of enemies get on the screen. This studdering can be very frustrating at the best of times, and worst can get you killed when you miss critical shots on Perfect Agent. On the other hand, Perfect Dark contains just SO MUCH more game than almost anything else on the N64, that you can reasonably excuse Rare for the performance issues. Hell, the combat simulator alone could be released as a stand-alone title and people would have bought it, let alone including all the awesome single-player content.
In addition (and in retrospect), the controls leave something to be desired. The default controls mirror those of Goldeneye, devised before the world understood the term ‘dual analog’ and the glory of being able to move, strafe, and aim freely at the same time. There is flexibility in the controls that can be customized, but at the end of the day, you are limited by the controller hardware. Speed strafing is still king in this game, especially when going for the many time cheats, and pulling off amazing hip shots while strafing produces as much joy as it always did. But compared to modern control schemes, Perfect Dark (just like Goldeneye and other contemporary shooters) feels archaic and outdated. This is of course fairly standard when you dig into the retro catalog, but Perfect Dark plays so closely to some modern games that the control issues feel more glaring than they do in say, Mario Kart for the SNES. Analog control sticks really are man’s gift to man, and while Nintendo was almost prophetic by including one on the N64 controller (the first to be found in recent generations of consoles), a second stick would have gone a long way towards improving this game (and all others like it).
Gameplay: The single player campaign is fabulous, and there is a good amount of other single player content to be had. The multiplayer mode is massive and completely customizable, dwarfing Goldeneye’s in every way (to the detriment of performance at times). Fans of Goldeneye should know what they’re getting into here; solid FPS gameplay with loads of replay due to time cheats, challenges, and just good old fashioned local multiplayer competition.
Graphics: The graphics are very strong for the N64, but as mentioned previously, this leads to some rather serious performance issues at times. Advanced lighting effects, expansive environments, and lots of real-time cutscenes make this game a visual treat on the N64.
Sound: The sound does a great job of setting the atmosphere and the music is very fitting for the game. There is tons of voice acting as well which helps to really up the quality factor. The sound effects, in particular the guns, are quite good and some in particular, like the Devastator, are very satisfying.
Nostalgia X-Factor: As a teenager, I played this game A LOT. I still have my save file that has all the time cheats, all the medals, and has beaten all the challenges, including the ones with DarkSims. To say I played this game a lot is a pretty big understatement.
Worth Playing: Absolutely. There is so much content to be found in this game that it can keep you busy for a long time. If you can get past the performance issues and the archaic feeling controls, Perfect Dark is a true gem, and in the running for the best game released on the N64.