Updated: Feb 6, 2022
There are so many games to choose from these days and different platforms that it can be overwhelming deciding where to start. And, sometimes you simply want to delve into an old favourite or a series you have heard great things about but never played. Nothing wrong with it, no judging here. In fact, I am definitely guilty of spending many hours playing the old timers as much as the shiny new stuff. So, in this particular section, I will take the time to play a game of the past which could range from the NES era all the way to the Xbox 360/PS3 generation and share my thoughts with a rating out of five.
4J Studio’s HD remaster is a faithful perfection of the Nintendo 64 classic first-person spy shooter 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. I evangelised in supreme detail the reasons for this in the N64 retro review and so this will be purely a summation of my thoughts on what the Scottish-based porting studio were able to improve on the original.
Initially released in 2010 as an Xbox 360 Live Arcade digital release by 4J – they also did the HD remasters of Rare’s Banjo Kazooie and Banjo Tooie for the service – 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. For this review, I have been playing it on the Xbox One as part of the Rare Replay package and I can still appreciate the work they did on this remake.
It’s quite remarkable how the team were able to walk the tightrope of catering to the look and feel of the original game but also have it work with modern controls and standards. The ambition of the team fittingly matched the original Rare developers with the decision to create their own engine instead of simply emulating the N64 game underneath some high-res textures. That choice meant they were able to work in the online connectivity easier with their own engine so it massively paid off. Of course, even with the game on Microsoft’s Game Pass service I unfortunately haven’t been able to play any of the online modes recently so this will mostly cover the single-player content; a shame but expected when the game is nearly 12 years old.
With the updated visuals, cleaner textures and true widescreen support, it looks fantastic. Character models have changed for every character and all look so much more defined than the comically angular and stretched faces used in the original. This has meant even the central characters have been recast which is slightly jarring if you have been familiar with the original models but most look similar enough that it’s not an issue. But, crucially the actual animations haven’t been touched so character hands still move in that rigid blocky way, making it appear charmingly 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 in HD is even more unnerving. Yet, this is exactly what most Perfect Dark fans would have wanted – any major changes to how it would have played or looked would have altered it too much to be unrecognisable.
The level textures and lighting have also been massively improved. Of course, the actual designs of areas haven’t been altered and so some of the environments appear slightly empty and simplistic because that is how the N64 maps appeared but again this is vital to make it feel as close to the original as possible. The exterior areas like the Crash Site level also benefit from the graphical upgrade as the draw distance is much superior in this remaster. Additionally, the guns also have more detail and appear less blurry than the N64 version. All sound effects and Kirkhope’s soundtrack have also been updated from the source material to higher quality bit files so they sound less compressed than the original audio from the N64 cartridge.
The key fix, though, is the frame rate. It would have been a major let-down if it still suffered from the previous game’s choppy frames. I love the original 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 Pak, 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 360/One version as it has never once hitched on me or crashed and the frame rate consistency has made it a pleasurable experience.
Of course, the other issues I mentioned in the N64 version review still can be present such as the occasional 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 to work out where we needed to go or how to progress an objective. Although, again 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 on those points it can be slightly bothersome.
Though, they did provide more options where necessary. An essential improvement introduced was the optional control schemes, handily named Sparta and Duty Calls (clearly to aid players used to the modern Halo or Call of Duty series’ controls), and these fit so much better on the Xbox One dual analogue controller. I have tried even playing the Classic mode on the Xbox One controller and it’s quite unwieldy. Although, there have been some occasions where the in-game weapon menu has been unresponsive to subtle movements and so only a few of the guns can be chosen, causing some irritation when I have tried to select gadgets under duress. I have had to resort to actually pausing the game and navigating to the specific gadget and selecting it from there which is not ideal.
The multiplayer options to play over the network was a great addition when it was first released in 2010 as instead of only having four human players like in the original, 4J’s version allows up to eight connected players with another four bots to make up the 12-player limit. In my memories of playing it back then it ran well with no real hitches although if a player hosting left the game you would all be shunted back to the menu screen which was frustrating. But, even replaying this now I have been having a fantastic time playing with the simulants on some of my favourite levels and even trying to beat some of the challenges and target practice goals have been enjoyable. Some extra little changes like having the ability to use the classic GoldenEye 007 guns in the multiplayer (previously only available in the single-player mode) is a nice treat for anyone with a love for those old weapons. The in-built achievements and leaderboards systems are also welcome additions to add further longevity to a game which has heaps of content already.
Verdict – All in all, 4J Studios have taken everything that was great about Perfect Dark and added a nice shine to it. They removed the crippling frame rate and modernised it enough to make it a warm nostalgic trip for fans of the original yet accessible for new players who missed out on the N64 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. It’s the truly definitive way to play the game on a modern television and is one of the gems of the Rare Replay compilation package.