RETRO Game Review - Perfect Dark (Xbox One)

Updated: Jun 1, 2021

This re-master is a faithful iteration of the Nintendo 64 classic and contains many subtle improvements over the base game that any fan of the original should definitely experience.

Now, full disclosure here; growing up, Perfect Dark for the N64 has always been my answer when asked what my favourite game was. And now having the opportunity to play it again, with up-scaled graphics on an Xbox One console as part of the Rare Replay package, is pretty exciting.

In the N64 days, everything about it was incredible and improved over Rare's spiritual predecessor Goldeneye 007. There were voiced cut-scenes in single player, reload animations for every gun, more realistic lighting effects, henchman spoke when you shot them or they saw you, the co-operative mode which allowed two players to play through the campaign, the counter-operative mode which allowed another player to play as henchmen, the combat simulator challenges, unlockable levels and guns, customisable simulants (AI controlled bots) in multiplayer, up to 12 characters could compete in multiplayer matches, the Goddamn Farsight gun which can shoot through walls – the list is practically endless. And I understand now that a lot of these features were probably not original if you had been an experienced PC player in those days, but these were mind-blowing for me as a 14-year-old with only an N64.

So, how did it fare in 2010 as an Xbox 360 Live Arcade release and now as part of the Rare Replay package? Well, it was ported by 4J Studios - they also did the Banjo Kazooie and Tooie remasters for the Xbox 360 Live Arcade service so were experienced hands with Rare’s previous works – and it received critical acclaim for its balancing act of feeling like the original game but also modernised with online connectivity, achievements, leaderboards, a revised game engine and higher resolution graphics. And now playing it on the Xbox One I can still appreciate the work they did on this remake.

As stated previously, the visuals have been updated with higher resolution graphics and, although will never match that of a modern Halo or Call of Duty game, look decent enough on a modern machine. Of course, this is mostly in relation to character faces and level geometry as well as the guns (in fact, 4J didn’t run an emulator of the game but actually created an entire engine to overcome the limitations of the previous game). But the actual animations haven’t been touched so character’s hands still move in that rigid blocky way that looks like their fingers were all glued together in a fist, making it appear incredibly awkward when they are typing or gesturing emphatically. As well as that, their faces are static and so when they are talking there is zero movement from the mouth which is a little unnerving.

However, these observations have not hampered any enjoyment of the game. What would have been a major buzz-kill though would have been if the re-master suffered from the previous game’s frame-rate. It was a seriously buggy game. I loved it and it kind of got a pass from me on the basis that it had so much content and things to recommend but it would pretty regularly slow down to a crunching halt as soon as there were multiple enemies on screen or explosions. I distinctly remember being wary of using all eight simulants in multiplayer if there was another player in the game as, even with the N64 Expansion pack, the game would completely freeze as soon as the action became too hectic for it to keep up. Thankfully, there are no signs of this issue on the Xbox version as it has never once hitched on me or crashed and the overall speed of the game has been increased which is making it a pleasurable experience.

It’s a strange feeling reviewing a game that is technically a modern release but the groundwork of the game was made 17 years ago. Although, in some ways the game does seem to be ahead of its time. Having a non sexualised female lead character that was smarter, stronger and more charismatic than any of the others was pretty unusual, the United States President in the story was of African-American descent which beat Obama by eight years and I mentioned the Co-operative and Counter-operative modes earlier and these are definitely areas which also feel like Rare were really thinking outside the box. I don’t remember many games having a co-op option back then and I still haven’t seen many games to this day utilise a counter-ops mode, outside of maybe the Versus mode in the Left 4 Dead series.

The game even had a hub area which allowed you to freely roam around the Carrington Institute, interacting with employees, practicing with the different gadgets in the game or even take on the shooting range with every gun available (and throwing knifes!) I remember this feeling original back on the N64 and still pretty fun to do on the Xbox version.

But within a modern context, it is easy to spot issues where the game hasn’t aged well (aside from the visuals, of course). The single player mission structure is the same style as Goldeneye in that you complete objectives within a set number of levels (around 17 with four bonus unlockable levels) and there are three difficulty levels ranging from Agent (easy mode) to Perfect Agent (hard mode). Nowadays, most first person shooters use a flowing narrative which moves smoothly from level to level such as the Half Life series with checkpoints being used to save progress. Fortunately, Perfect Dark missions are quite short and so when you die or fail an objective it doesn’t feel like you have lost too much progress. The missions themselves are relatively varied, such as hacking computers, controlling hidden cameras to take pictures or record video footage, rescuing hostages, escorting NPCs to specific areas, finding hidden documents, assassinating targets and destroying machinery so it doesn’t feel like you are doing the same thing over each level. The different difficulties offer more objectives so each level can play a bit differently when you replay it which is certainly more encouraging than simply having more enemies to kill with tougher armour.

But where it feels dated is in the level geometry and lack of hint system. Some of the missions are less clear on where exactly you are meant to be going and so it can be a little testing wandering around back-tracking across areas you have already been. My girlfriend and I have been playing the Co-Operative mode through the campaign and on more than one occasion resorted to checking YouTube videos as to how to get to the next area. Compounding matters worse is the amount of areas which lead to nowhere and are simply dead-ends which feel like they would not be in a modern game. It’s a shame as it can break the immersion of being this ultimate bad-ass secret agent when one moment you could be scaling down a high-rise eliminating everyone you see in seconds before they can even get a shot off (the generous auto-aim mode is great for this) to suddenly getting lost within an alien ship where every corridor looks identical and you resort to running around aimlessly Benny Hill-style to find the exit of the level.

One of the irritations of the multiplayer is the fact that players do not start with any gun or ammo (this was the same in Goldeneye) and so many matches can result in players and bots alike running around maps simply punching each other or trying to avoid the players with guns. It wasn’t such an irritant in the N64 days but having played many console first person shooters now it does stick out as a little archaic.

Although, I understand why 4J Studios have not touched these elements as they wanted the game to play and feel the way the original did and that is admirable but at times a little frustrating.

The story itself is decent, if a little silly by the end. It’s set in the far distant future of 2023 and begins with the ongoing war between the Carrington Institute (a research and development organisation that also act more or less like the CIA) and the shadowy multinational dataDyne Corporation. However, as the story progresses it leads to alien wars with the Maians (the good ones, which look like little grey guys) and the Skedar (the evil ones, which resemble a mixture of the Alien Xenomorph and the aliens from Independence Day, and have the ability to cloak themselves inexplicably as tall Scandinavian blonde guys). Joanne Dark is the protagonist and is a super spy who works for the Carrington Institute and is voiced with an English accent although the voice acting in general isn’t consistently great and stands out years later.

Rare’s regular composers returned for this one, notably Grant Kirkhope, and created one of the best gaming soundtracks I have ever heard. The music in this game was atmospheric, otherworldly, ethereal and catchy too. And for the remake 4J Studios have remastered it and the score perfectly complements the look and feel of the setting, whether that is infiltrating a secret dataDyne facility or a deep underground alien vessel.

The influences on the Rare team in terms of level design and setting are more obvious in some than others. Having lost the Bond licence after Goldeneye they were free to do what they wanted and it shows in the variety of guns available and the single player campaign. There are clear references or homage to sci-fi and action films of the era, such as Air Force One, Independence Day, the first two Alien films, Blade Runner and many more.

The guns were also pretty radical. Each had a primary and a secondary mode and so a gun which fired normal bullets in primary mode became a grenade launcher in secondary, or some utilised cloaking devices, scoping was magnified, and so on. In the world of Perfect Dark, laptops could transform into machine guns which could also then be attached to walls as automatic turrets. There were alien laser guns, alien rocket launchers which allowed the player to fly around the level as the missile and detonate on impact, there were N-Bombs which as far as I can tell were mini nukes which completely obliterated anyone in the vicinity. And I haven’t even scratched the surface. The game also allowed the player to use classic guns from Goldeneye and three of that game’s best multiplayer levels for anyone who was feeling nostalgic.

The Combat Simulator is the multiplayer mode and this was arguably where the game really shines. It was astounding back in 2000 how much was customisable and the amount of options and game modes available were numerous. If you were bored of the single player option, then you had plenty of challenges, game modes and options to entertain you in the multiplayer. And playing this Xbox version with the Xbox live connectivity as an extra feature was decent although if a player hosting left the game you would all be shunted back to the menu screen. The options to play over the network was a great addition when it was first released in 2010 however nearly impossible to get into a game with anyone now, which is a shame but expected.

All in all, 4J Studios have taken everything that was great about Perfect Dark and added a nice shine to it, removed the crippling frame rate and modernised it enough to make it a warm nostalgic trip for fans of the original and accessible for new players who missed out on the Nintendo 64 version. This is still a great game and a must-play for anyone who appreciates console shooters from an era preceding the big game changers, Halo and Call of Duty, and is one of the gems of the Rare Replay compilation package.

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