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RETRO Game Review - Perfect Dark (N64)

Updated: Oct 10, 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.

Rare followed up their Nintendo 64 smash hit GoldenEye 007 with the superspy-meets-sci-fi spiritual sequel Perfect Dark (2000), which improved on every facet of their Bond shooter and included a stupendous amount of content that can still be enjoyed today.

Now, full disclosure here - growing up, Perfect Dark has always been my answer when asked what is my favourite game. It came at a time when I was fully into reading articles about games and having been a huge fan of GoldenEye 007 I was primed to love this game even without the ever glowing N64 Magazine coverage. But, I still wasn’t fully prepared for what I got. It blew me away (figuratively, obviously) when I first played it and heard henchman speaking, saw the realistic lighting effects, custom reload animations, bots in multiplayer, voiced cut-scenes (which at the time on an N64 felt truly cinematic), guns with secondary functions and also the bountiful modes and customisable options.

Those elements might be standard in today’s landscape but were mind-blowing for me back then. Of course, I have played many first-person shooters since and some arguably better games. Nowadays, there are too many great games to quantify picking a favourite. If it was based on hours played then Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2, The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, the Mass Effect series or Mortal Kombat 11 might take the prize. But in the heart, Rare’s game still lingers. Though, does it stand up to scrutiny nearly 22 years later?

Short answer – yes. But let’s not end on the short answer and I will explain how my time with it has been on replaying on my N64.

Also, there is an important disclaimer - Rare ambitiously packed this game with so many improvements to the GoldenEye engine and extra modes that they eventually realised they couldn’t fit it onto the standard N64 carts. They had to plead to Nintendo to allow them to continually delay and publish it as a game that fully required the newly released Expansion Pak (with a barebones multiplayer mode being the only offering if you played without the extra RAM). Thankfully, I have an expansion pak and have been able to review it properly. Otherwise, if you play this and don’t have one then feel free to remove four stars from the score.

The PAL box art – the expansion pak is required for ‘maximum gameplay’. Not kidding there.

If you have played GoldenEye 007 you will be very familiar with the structure and feel of the game. As secret agent Joanna Dark you are tasked with covert missions to infiltrate enemy holdouts; carrying out corporate espionage, rescuing hostages, sabotaging equipment, documenting illicit meetings and all the while shooting baddies. There are 17 levels in the main campaign (with a few bonus unlockable ones too) and each have you complete objectives to move onto the next. The amount of missions for each level escalates over the three difficulty options in conjunction with enemy awareness and accuracy. Each stage, if beaten in a set time, can unlock bonus cheat modes that can be used on other levels (such as the classic Big Head or Paintball Modes). You control Joanna with the analogue stick to move direction and strafe sideways with the yellow C buttons. Grant Kirkhope returned to compose the soundtrack (with some of Graeme Norgate’s samples) and the KLOBB also reappears.

So far, so GoldenEye 007.

But, it’s in the little details and extra features that Perfect Dark excels. There are more gadgets to use for starters. The missions find a use for night vision goggles, infrared scanners, covert spy cameras, door decoders and all sorts of little gizmos that it really immerses you in this futuristic spy world (future as in the distant 2023).

The levels also have far fewer respawning enemies than GE 007 so it doesn’t feel like you are constantly gunning down entire platoons of henchman and actually sneaking into bases like you imagine a spy would. It’s helped by the useful auto-aim system which covers up the inadequacies of the N64 controller and actually makes you feel like an incredibly proficient secret agent. The variety in the level design means this approach works for some but then there are missions which are more gung-ho and require smart trigger-finger work. But, the balance between pacing of levels and gadget use is fantastic and is much improved over its predecessor.

Fortunately, the levels are quite short and so when you die or fail an objective it doesn’t feel like you have lost too much progress. The goals are relatively varied such as: hacking computers, taking pictures or recording 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. There will usually be a fair bit of trial and error on later missions to understand some of the requirements but it’s not too frustrating (though, the final main level is an exception). Having the different difficulties offer more objectives so each mission can play a bit differently when you replay them is also certainly more interesting than simply having more enemies to kill with tougher armour.

Cassandra only hires women with identical faces as her bodyguards

In some ways, PD does seem to be ahead of its time; having a non-sexualised female lead character that is smarter and more charismatic than her male counterparts was pretty unusual for the time, the United States President is African-American (which beat Obama by eight years) and including Co-operative and Counter-operative modes (where the second player controls the enemy guards) definitely were fresh ideas in 2000. I don’t remember many games having a co-op campaign option back then and I still haven’t seen many games to this day utilise a counter-ops feature, outside of maybe the Versus mode in the Left 4 Dead series.

There is even a hub area which allows you to freely roam around Joanna’s work environment, the Carrington Institute. You can interact with employees, practice with the different gadgets in the game or even take on the shooting range challenges with every unlocked weapon. It’s a fantastic way to feel immersed in this shadowy sci-fi world but also serves as a useful tutorial for the different controls and principles of Joanna’s arsenal. Additionally, when you find yourself stuck on a particular level it can be quite the necessary palette cleanser to roam around and attempt those target practice challenges (though many of these are incredibly tough as well).

Speaking of guns, the Rare team really threw the kitchen sink at this game. Each has a primary and a secondary mode so a gun which fires normal bullets in primary mode can become a grenade launcher in secondary or some utilise cloaking devices, magnified scopes, threat detectors, laser sights and all sorts of attachments and alterations. In the world of PD, laptops can transform into machine guns which can also then be attached to walls as automatic turrets. The quirky weapons descriptions even give context as to why the different organisations use certain types of weapons. Then there is the weird and wonderful alien arsenal which is introduced further into the story as you progress through the campaign. These include laser guns which on secondary mode can shoot through walls, rocket launchers that allow you to remotely fly around the level as the missile and detonate on impact and there are N-Bombs (neutron grenades) which as far as I can tell are mini nukes that completely obliterate anyone in the vicinity. And this is merely scratching the surface as there are so many different weapons that can be used in both single and multiplayer that the gameplay never gets stale.

The story itself is decent, if a little silly by the end. It begins with the ongoing war between the Carrington Institute (the future equivalent of a privatised MI6/CIA) and the shadowy multinational dataDyne Corporation. However, as the story progresses it leads to alien wars between two ancient civilisations. Thankfully, the game doesn’t take itself too seriously as between all of the conspiracies and corporate scheming there is a Kermit the Frog-sounding grey alien calling himself Elvis.

Interestingly, Joanna’s likeness was based on Winona Ryder’s face.

Rare’s developers didn’t hide their influences and cited many different films were borrowed to form their sci-fi setting. The Japanese anime Ghost in the Shell can be seen from Joanna’s main costume and there are also levels that easily could be mistaken for locations from Blade Runner, Independence Day, Alien and Air Force One (in that particular case, there is literally a level set there).

This is also very evident from the music. Kirkhope’s score (with contributions from David Clynick too) was briefly mentioned before but feels fitting to now evangelise it in more detail. It’s astounding how good this soundtrack is – he is widely credited for his Banjo Kazooie themes (which are, rightly, brilliant) but my favourite of his is the PD score. There are trace echoes of the Bond ‘Soviet spy’ sound from GE 007 but with a much more futuristic other-worldly feel to it. The main menu theme alone will be stuck in your head after playing for a short while and each of the level music and numerous multiplayer tunes are all so evocative of sci-fi shows and films like the X-Files or even The Terminator yet also feel like they could get you pumped up for an apocalyptic murder rave. Graeme Norgate’s first level music (before he left Rare as part of the mass exodus to co-found Free Radical Design) is also one of the standouts and will - without fail - make you feel like a killing machine as you scale down the dataDyne tower laying waste to hapless goons.

Visually, it is a noticeable improvement over GE 007 with markedly better textures, animations and lighting (lights could be shot out, too). Admittedly, with the existence of the remastered Xbox 360 version, it has shown how much the original has aged but for its time it is an impressive looking game with a fairly unique design aesthetic. Sure, the cut-scenes do look very quaint now with the characters animating with their large blocky fists and speaking without any facial movement whatsoever but back in 2000 they were glorious. The voice acting is a mixture of paid voice actors and some of the Rare developers (one of the team’s composers Eveline Fischer voices Joanna) and having nearly an all British voice cast does make it charmingly odd when most of the missions take place in America on sites like Area 51. Rare’s sense of irreverent humour is definitely heard in some of the voice performances; hearing guards utter threats to you on being first spotted then when you have knocked their gun from their hand they panic and ask to be left alone. Even hearing your cohorts in the hub area greeting you with ‘Good morning, Joanna’ adds to the sense of place this game has and the superb level of detail from the developers.

And then, there is the multiplayer (named the Combat Simulator). This is 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 are numerous. If you become bored of the single player campaign then you have plenty of challenges to entertain you in the multiplayer. The sheer amount of levels, weapons and modes is still staggering. Having the option to also choose your character by mix and matching faces and bodies of the in-game models can produce some hilarious results and there is even a progression system that tracks as you complete the set challenges. The inclusion of AI simulants means even without any pals you can still partake in the deathmatch fun (although it’s never a true replacement for playing with a group of mates) and Rare’s decision to even allow you to set personality types to the Sims is typical of how customisable it gets. Tip – avoid killing the VengeSim.

Rare’s marketing material featured her ability to float in mid air

However, this mode can be where the game’s main flaw can show up – the frame rate. It can seriously chug and drop to a low level in certain large areas and can slow down to a crunching halt as soon as there are multiple enemies on screen or explosions. This was common in GE and I distinctly remember being wary of using all eight simulants in PD multiplayer if there was another human player in the game as, even with the N64 Expansion Pak, the game would completely crash as soon as the action became too hectic for it to keep up. Admittedly, I haven’t had too many issues on my revisit this week but I have been exclusively playing it on my own.

There are other issues I have noticed on replaying such as occasionally it feels dated in some of 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. 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 before they can even get a shot off (again, got to love that auto-aim) 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. Also, shooting the alien Skedar enemies in the final two missions of the campaign are nowhere near as fun as the human enemies as they don't speak and only snarl.

Lastly, one of the slight irritations of the multiplayer is the fact that players do not start with any gun or ammo (this was the same in GE 007) 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. Having played many console first-person shooters now it does stick out as a little archaic.

But, considering how much this game iterated on its predecessor and excelled in every conceivable way, it’s hard to get too worked up about these occasional hiccups.

Verdict - Rare created a memorable character and world that I have felt fully immersed in. It’s an impressive accomplishment. The shooting, gameplay, visuals and level variety are improved on everything that came before in GE 007 and the vast array of customisability in both single and multiplayer is still astonishing. Replaying it now has reminded me why I would proudly claim this as my favourite game and listening to Kirkhope’s score as I have written this has simply made me want to stop typing and fire it back up again. In fact, I’m going to do that now and finish with one more word - perfect.

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