Here’s Damnation, pressed onto a plastic platter for easier consumption.
The concepts that it mixed together sounded like a good idea…steampunk stylings plus Tomb Raider-esque acrobatics mixed in gently with bits and pieces of third person shooters such as Gears of War or Resident Evil. It shouldn’t have gone wrong, but things do. Otherwise RPG fans wouldn’t still be upset over how Shadowrun had turned out.
The game takes place sometime during the American Civil War in the late 1800s just as the North and South have nearly beaten each other senseless. But in a twist of history that Harry Turtledove might appreciate, Lord Prescott arrives from the West with steam driven inventions to take advantage of the chaos and invades the nation from within, conquering the East Coast and crushing most of the opposition thanks to his technological edge. PSI, or Prescott Standard Industries, becomes the heart of “New America” as the former weapons dealer now turned dictator begins cleaning up what is left of the “Sovereignty” until Rourke and his rebel allies arrive to knock a few gears loose from his carefully oiled war machine.
Before you start thinking that Will Smith is going to come swinging in on a giant mechanical spider, something that cool never happens in this game. But if you’ve seen that movie, you’ll have an idea of what steampunk is. For those that haven’t, imagine if the steam engine had become as revolutionary as nuclear power, ushering in a whole slew of new ideas and inventions in extreme directions…such as steam powered robots. Other games have visited this concept before such as the Thief series, or Troika Games’ RPG, Arcanum. In Damnation’s case, history itself has also been changed as what is left of the United States, which has apparently become the Sovereignty, now reel under Prescott’s riveted jackboots.
Prescott has used his advanced knowledge of all things steam powered to his advantage in creating an army of machines, but he has also developed “the serum” which allows a person to work longer, harder, and faster in order to support PSI as long as they don’t become crazed maniacs as an inconvenient side-effect. It also allows him to create an army of mumble men. I’m not sure what exactly these bowler hatted, mask wearing enemies are, except that they all radio-mumble in the exact same way every time they are found.
Damnation’s phoned-in voice acting does little to help bolster the terrible dialogue that often states the obvious in such a way that one is left the impression that in their world, forgetting to wash your hands before leaving the restroom may spark a pandemic. Aside from the embarrassing lines riddled throughout the story, the incredibly thin characters are even more painful to watch knowing the potential that Damnation’s actual gameplay had squandered.
Although the game runs on the same Unreal tech underlying Gears of War, the game doesn’t look as good up close thanks to the excessive texture popping and the copy-past feel of much of the architecture throughout most of the areas, although there are some inspired exceptions such as the besieged city of Terra Verte. But whenever the game drops you into a new region, don’t be surprised to see the details pop in a few seconds later. The special effects in general lack any real detail, especially for most of the weapons which make every battle feel as if I were punching back with a padded fist. As far as the characters go, Rourke looks the part of a rough and tumble adventurer while Prescott looks like your typical, Wild West tycoon gone bad complete with a black mustache.
But side-kick Yakecan who I am guessing is supposed to be a general-purpose Native American (although the manual simply calls her a “Native”) has apparently been designed around the same ideas that other designers had abandoned for female characters. Not only did her dialogue and voice acting want me to puncture my eardrums with a steam driven pike, her gravity defying costume made her more appropriate for hanging around the docks after hours for Captain Nemo and his crew instead of at Rourke’s side as a fellow soldier. Fortunately, another gal pal, Jack, steps in looking more the part but with about the same numbing dialogue as Yakecan which ruined the moment. Rourke was thankfully quiet for most of the game. He had lines, but they were as forgettable as everything else.
The incredibly huge levels are where Damnation lives up to a part of its promise in attempting to be a vertical shooter thanks to their sheer size. The massive levels are broken up into clusters of obstacles, such as buildings, sheds, pipe catwalks, caves, and other places of interest to flex Rourke’s acrobatics. He can shimmy across walls, jump up to higher ledges, swing on bars, and dive tumble over barricades like an Olympic gymnast thanks to the decent controls. Unfortunately, those same levels also make playing the game with these controls feel like a repetitive chore no matter how good they were.
Damnation’s large levels, while impressive at first, dissolve into a series of jungle gyms occasionally filled with a few bad guys to keep the player from thinking that they had just gone through the same thing a few buildings ago. There is little variety to any of the obstacle jumping other than a few new textures and locales. Once you’ve climbed through one building, you’ve got the basics down for what you will repeatedly have to do across the rest of the game along with pulling an endless selection of levers to solve some “puzzles”.
That feeling doesn’t end there thanks to the clone army of soldiers that quickly make combat as much of a wearying chore, especially when the enemy can predict where you are going to shoot while having the kind of crack aim usually reserved only for snipers. With newfangled steampunk weapons to fight back with, I half expected them to be awesome tools of destruction and one or two of these are, but the excitement quickly dwindled away when I saw how easily most foes will simply move away from your reticle as if they know you are looking right at them.
You also receive little to no feedback indicating that you’re hitting someone with your bullets aside from a slight twitch that the enemy might display, but most of the experience simply felt as if I were shooting at whatever the reticle was pointed at and waited for it to quietly fall down. Enemies fall over like rag-doll mannequins after absorbing enough lead, although the weapons do make a lot of racket to let you know that you’re fighting with something more than a blowgun. And if they’re not busy running around dodging your bullets, enemies tend to simply stand in place and wait to get shot, sometimes waking up after taking in a few bullets to realize that they are under attack.
Other glitches made my trip into Damnation an even more grueling experience. There’s some kind of lag with the continue menu when it asks you to hit “A” in order to pick up where you left off, the menu sticking around for a few seconds making me unsure whether it was loading something in the background or if my controller was broken from the frustration that I was feeling with the game. Checkpoints are placed in order to guarantee maximum aggravation by placing themselves in spots either right before yet another speech, unnecessarily long elevator ride of which there are many, or at the start of a yet another multi-tiered battle allowing those that have died to experience every shot all over again. And the AI for your teammates? They might as well not have any.
It’s not that when they die, you fail a mission. You can always revive them by running to their side or, once Rourke attains Native American magic in the form of “spirit vision” allowing him to see his enemies through walls, can remotely bring them back from the brink. But it is also the fact that they tend to run straight into danger with absolutely no regard for their safety. Given how convoluted some of the levels can get, finding that ladder or wall jump can sometimes become tricky although the AI has no problem in leading the way…unless it teleports way ahead of you and gets to a spot that you haven’t been to yet making the player feel like an appendix. It tends to do that. A lot.
Other times, Rourke’s “friends” just stand around and wait for you to get far enough before they realize that it should follow. It tends to do that a lot, too, sometimes blocking your way since it doesn’t understand that your melee attacks are a silent cry for it to move. Other times, it simply won’t fight back against your enemies and leave you to do all of the work making it about as useful a derailed locomotive.
Sometimes Rourke will find himself having to drive a motorcycle to the next point in an area, crossing over and through canyons and caverns, leaping over grottoes, and occasionally running over enemies that can hit a moving target just as easily as they can on foot. While these aren’t hard, they do offer a breather of sorts in between the obstacles and gunfighting because they help you forget how utterly awful everything else is. Leaving your sidekick behind, as tempting as it always was, is nothing to worry about as they miraculously teleport to the back of your bike once you drive off. This is a good thing since they can also tend to ignore the fact that you have a ride and just stand there like morons while you rage at them to get on the damn bike until realizing that it doesn’t matter.
There’s multiplayer, too, offering up Deathmatch, Capture the Flag, and King of the Hill, but I had no idea what this experience was like because there was no one out there playing this. It does feature co-op play if you want to replace the idiot AI with someone more intelligent, but as I have said, I couldn’t find anyone out there to try this out with.
A PnP game by the name of Deadlands had turned the Wild West and an East torn apart by the Civil War into a twisted reality where the dead could walk, strange inventions and their mad creators were out in the wild, and men in black dusters investigated the Weird West for the Federal Government. The Thief series’ take on steampunk wove together a dark city whose leering shadows and unsuspecting nobility would provide plenty of five fingered discounts, tempting adventurers to dance on the dark side while unsuspectingly playing a part in saving the world.
But the steam powered potential behind Damnation’s has been bled dry thanks to its gear grinding issues, leaving this trip into the West as cold as rusted iron.
Codemasters / Blue Omega Entertainment
PS3 / Xbox 360 / PC (Xbox 360 version reviewed)
Rated M for Mature