It’s true that everybody has to start somewhere, and in the games industry, it can be incredibly difficult to get a foothold, and turn your ideas into a game that people want to play. So, when the mod scene took off, would-be developers the world over saw their chance to exercise their creative urges and make some cold hard cash.
Few game modifications have made it big however, with most simply enjoying a loyal, small following. Others, however, have fared a little better. You may recall a slightly successful Half-Life mod called Counter-Strike, which eventually saw a release as a commercial title, and veteran gamers should remember Rewolf’s Gunman Chronicles, another Half-Life mod. We shouldn’t forget the excellent Portal either, yet another Half-Life mod made good, this time from HL2‘s Source Engine.
Damnation, the game we see before us here, started off in similar digs. Created as a mod for UT2004, and a runner up in the ‘Make Something Unreal’ contest, Damnation, created by newcomers Blue Omega Entertainment, got a full commercial go ahead, and now arrives courtesy of Codemasters.
Set in a steampunk-themed alternate Wild West timeline, Damnation tells the story of an America torn apart by the Civil War. Instead of the Union victory we witnessed, the world here is a grim, dangerous place, practically ruled by a large corporation called PSI. This company developed weapons, and sold them to both sides in the war, and has now become a very powerful organisation, with the company’s CEO vying for control of the country. As well as weapons, PSI also produces a strange serum that can brainwash people, turning them into crazed, aggressive soldiers.
Enter, Hamilton Rourke and his group of resistance fighters – a group that aims to stop PSI and free what remains of America. Of course, Rourke also has his own agenda – finding his lost love (cliché alert on standby!)
Blue Omega has been keen to tout ‘vertical’ gamplay as Damnation‘s major feature, and most levels make use of this element, seeing Hamilton and Co. traversing towering structures, in order to reach a lofty goal, or descending to a location lying far below.
To achieve this, he and his comrades can jump, mantle, swing, rope slide and ledge walk their way through the various convoluted areas they find themselves in, and as the player, all of this movement is made easy enough, thanks to a simple control system that doesn’t rely on a multitude of button presses.
While making your way through the various levels, you’ll also have to deal with a range of enemies, such as masked cowboy-like soldiers, steam-powered robots and crazed, feral natives. To protect you, you have a selection of weaponry, all of which, sadly, aren’t really too interesting. We’re talking the usual assortment of machine guns, pistols, shotguns and sniper rifles – nothing impressive. In fact, as soon as you first engage in combat, you’ll run into Damnation‘s first (but certainly not the last) issue…
Combat here just feels wrong. Weapons have no feel to them, and simply spray bullets in your target’s general direction, with no noticeable impact. The aiming system is inaccurate and crude and, as there’s no cover system, despite clearly being influenced by Epic’s Gears Of War, you’ll spend much of your time running around as if you’re playing Quake III or any other mid-90s action game, trying to hide behind walls, and then strafe out to fire.
In fact, even though the game does feature a few more powerful weapons (although the grenade launcher is one of the slowest, and most useless weapons I’ve seen), you’ll probably spend the majority of the game with the same three weapons – a pistol, machine gun and sniper rifle. All other weapons are essentially pointless, as these three will see you through any and all encounters.
You’re rarely alone in Damnation, and for most of the game you’ll have AI teammates with you. Now, I’d bet my house that you can guess what I’m going to say next. Yes, Damnation‘s AI is pretty shocking, on both sides of the gun sights.
Your allies are certainly fickle, and will follow you around like groupies, and then, all of a sudden, will run away, practically to the other side of the level, leaving you no indication of how they got there or the route they took. You simply have to figure out how to traverse an area yourself, which isn’t an issue, as this is the game’s major challenge. But it would be nice for your teammates to wait and/or help once in a while.
Even when you do move through a tricky area of jumps, swings and climbing sections, the AI and its seemingly superhuman powers of speed somehow manage to jump epic distances and scale the area to your location in an instant. I observed several instances of allies simply appearing in front of me out of nowhere, and other times the AI fell to their doom down a pit trying to take an impossible route, only to reappear at the end of a level’s section. Not a great sign of a well polished title.
Then there’s your teammates combat prowess, which is pretty much non-existent. Yep, that old chestnut of followers running to their doom, right into the sights of your foes is present here, and as is usual in these situations, you’ll be fighting a one-man war while your bumbling, intelligence-free allies glitch and pop around the level like ghosts.
Enemy AI isn’t much better either. It’s quite shocking just how many times I’ve drilled an enemy full of bullets while he simply stood there, motionless, as if the AI never fired up. Other times foes use the crude-as-a-Blackpool-comedy-act AI of simply running away or zig zagging around, and the feral natives would certainly win an Oscar for the most inept and downright irritating enemy in a game award 2009. While they represent no threat at all, thanks to an amazingly slow-motion lunge attack, they also run around like speed addicts on a sugar rush, randomly running in all directions, making them near impossible to hit without wasting masses of ammo.
To further your enemy’s almost benign nature, Blue Omega decided to take one more step to remove any aspect of challenge out of the equation by giving your character a spirit sight. By holding down a button, Rourke can use this ability to view all foes in an area, even through walls. This means that you’ll always know where each and every enemy is. While this could be a good idea if implemented well, here it simply removes any semblance of difficulty. If the ability was limited to, say, a couple of uses per level, then fine, but as it is, it ruins any possible feel of danger or surprise. You can even use this to heal teammates from a distance if they fall in battle (which they will, many, many times) – another step to removing any challenge.
Luckily, Damnation does make good use of the game’s strongest feature – the large scale environments, and while the climbing and level navigating play isn’t anywhere near the quality of games like Prince Of Persia, it’s still quite enjoyable in small doses, and some environments are interesting and good looking enough to spend time in. Each level is pretty big too, and you can almost always see where you need to go, even if it’s seemingly miles away, thanks to a decent viewing distance, courtesy of the Unreal engine.
For the most part, these large levels are all held in memory, with no loading, but occasionally there are loading pauses needed. It’s here we see yet another sign of downright sloppy development and poor presentation. While other titles would cleverly use tunnels, doorways or other transitional breaks to load content, here you get hit, out of nowhere, by a loading message. This can occur right in the midst of a conversation and at other odd moments, and are always unexpected and poorly timed.
I commented on the simple movement controls while climbing around, and that’s true. The climbing mechanic is solid enough, if a little computer-assisted. Sadly, controls in general are also pretty poor. Hamilton runs around in a very floaty and over responsive manner, resulting in endless accidental falls and missed jumps, and it’s also ridiculously easy to get hung up on scenery, a personal bugbear for this reviewer, and a sure-fire sign of inexperienced development and poor quality assurance.
I should also mention the various vehicle sections you’ll find yourself tackling. These distractions, which see you on a steam-powered super bike, racing at speeds through tunnels and along walls, should be a standout moment, but, like much of the game, are marred by poor controls, awful collision and sub-standard physics. Shame.
I find myself hit by equal doses of dismay and anger when I play Damnation. I so wanted to like this game, I really did, and I must admit, despite its many and varied flaws and problems, I did enjoy it to some degree. I like the setting, the focus on vertical levels and I’m always happy to see new developers appear on the scene. But it’s just not enough.
In the end, the remarkably poor presentation and delivery, stream of bugs and tepid combat can’t rescue the game from its own name. I give Blue Omega full credit here, and they have achieved an impressive feat given the title’s previous mod status, but either due to lack of programming skill, funding or external input from more experienced developers or their publisher, Damnation isn’t a good game, and coulda, shoulda, woulda been so much more.