Damnation is the type of game that disappoints more than others. The promise of a steampunk rebellion, with vertical-centric gunplay and platforming is something we don’t see too often in gaming. I admit I was very excited to get my hands on the title; the art style and promise of true platforming in a shooter were enough to pique my interest. Sadly Damnation falls short on most of its promises, leaving you with a mediocre experience that simply cannot stand up next to the top-tier games of 2009 so far. Truly I wanted to love the game, and I stuck with it long enough to really appreciate what it was attempting to accomplish, which makes it all the more disappointing when it falls flat on its face; time and time again.
The story thrusts you into the shoes of Hamilton Rourke, once a soldier who has opted to turn rebel and search for his lost fiancée. The narrative is actually the most redeeming quality of the game, if it weren’t so convoluted and far-fetched. The game takes place around the same time as the Civil War. A man named Prescott sells a new weapon technology to both sides of the conflict, thus extending the war 40-odd years. That is about the most you can decipher from the perplexing cut scenes. The rest is left up to interpretation for the most part but does involve spiritual healing, graphic depictions of under-boob, lots of one-liner dialogue, and lesbians with green eyes and robotic hands. Yeah I know it sounds really cool, but trust me it is so convoluted you won’t be able to make heads or tails of it by the end.
At its core Damnation is a shooter mixed with platforming elements. The further you get into the game, the more focus is applied to the latter. Levels are built with verticality in mind, making the journey about finding ledges, climbing ladders and other various acrobatics. All of this is what really would have set the game apart from the rest of the herd had it worked. Let’s start with the shooting to see what I mean. You aim by pulling down the left trigger, much like many other third-person shooters. The problem is that there are only a few sensitivity settings, and none of them feel right. Your crosshairs are always jumping around the screen, causing more frustration than fun.
I had to drop the setting all the way to the lowest just to make it through the game, and even then it was a chore. When you combine that with the fact that enemies seem to be perfect shots (when they bother to fire) and you can imagine the annoyance. They also appear to be wearing some type of magical armor that allows them to take more bullets than Superman to the chest; headshots will alleviate the stress, if only you can steady your crosshairs long enough to pull one off. If all of that wasn’t enough once you get towards the end of the first chapter you run into enemies that are much faster and agile. If you thought taking down foes that remain stationary most of the time was a challenge, wait until you try to headshot these sporadic foes.
The levels themselves prove to be the most enjoyable aspect of the game, and even with that it doesn’t come without a cost. I love the designs of each area. When you enter a new environment, the camera pans around the entire place showing you what you will have to tackle to succeed. Sometimes this can overwhelm you as the levels truly are massive in scale. Hamilton has a nice array of acrobatic maneuvers that help him traverse around the environment, but the stiffness of the control scheme really holds back what is otherwise a very solid platforming experience. You can climb nearly any building as long as you find the proper footholds, and my favorite aspect is that you have to hold down a button in order to jump from one section to another. This eliminates a lot of cheap deaths from tapping a button too soon. You can also wall jump and swing around objects with the flick of the analog stick. You can really tell this was the focus of the gameplay from the beginning.
There are also vehicle levels where you will be forced to hop aboard this generic-looking motorcycle and race through a few canyons. This wouldn’t be so bad if the engine didn’t have such a hard time keeping up. On more than one occasion I found the bike shifting through the ground, or the textures simply not keeping up with my ride. Enemies will also try to gun you down during these jaunts, but they truly pose little threat. You can run them over for an Achievement/Trophy, but once you obtain it there is little reason to concern yourself with them. You also have what is called Spirit Vision that allows you to see through walls and pinpoint enemy locations. This is actually very useful as the most effective way of taking out enemies is by surprise. This can also be used to heal wounded teammates from a distance, which happens often as they prefer to be meat shields instead of actually helping you.
Instances like the above mentioned texture problem are all too frequent throughout the game. There were times where I would fall off ledges I was clearly not at the end of, enemies will disappear into thin air, and my teammates will suddenly spawn right next to me. Coupled with AI problems like enemies completely ignoring me, and teammates standing directly in the line of all the fire the frustrations begin to wear on you very early on. This is disappointing because there are a lot of great ideas stuffed into the game; it is just a shame that they never materialize due to the issues mentioned.
I do have to point out that I love the fact that co-op is completely implemented into the game. Both online and offline modes are available, and it is slightly more enjoyable to play the game with another player as opposed to the atrocious AI. There is also an online competitive mode, but to be perfectly honest you are not likely to find much competition, as the community is just shy of being a ghost town. There are collectibles to find and new weapons to collect, plus an insanely hard difficulty mode, but I imagine one play through will be more than enough for the average gamer.
Visually the game has a cool art style, but sadly lacks the finer details to take advantage of it. Characters sport some truly stiff animations, and the aforementioned clipping and glitches really take you out of the experience. The 360 version holds up slightly better than the PS3 counterpart in the frame rate department, but still has moments of crawling. The voice acting is laughable at times, with dialogue that attempts to be humorous and comes across more insulting to your intelligence than anything else. Sound effects are not done very well and the music score sounds like an attempt at big-budget Hollywood style that falls flat at every note.
Damnation is the type of game I am most disappointed in simply because it really is trying to push the genre forward. The execution kills it almost instantly the first time you try to take down an enemy. The level designs are definitely unique and online co-op is a huge bonus, but neither of these are going to elevate this title past the tag of mediocrity. I really hate to say this, but I don’t recommend Damnation for more than a rental until the price drops substantially. There just isn’t enough here to make up for the numerous mistakes it makes, thus eliminating most of the enjoyment that could have been.