Know When to Fold 'Em
I'm going to once again depart from our standard format and place the negativity before the praise. Why? Sometimes a game just plays out that way. The negatives appear dominant at first until you get into the feel. The initial moments of the game were lackluster at best. As a soldier in Custer's army at Little Big Horn, it goes without saying you don't survive long. Instead of serving as a training mission to get you used to the controls though, you're simply dropped in with little clue as to what's going on. While you're on Last Stand Hill, and you're firing away at the huge ring of mounted Indians, you still are left with little idea of what's going on or what you're supposed to be doing, before, finally, the time agents warp in and drag you off to the lab.
Once at the lab, you're greeted with a pair of eyes on a big screen and a guy that sounds like a mobster from an especially bad Stallone movie. The voice acting is less than great all throughout the game, though certainly nowhere near the level of putridness seen in Raven Squad. Admittedly though, the soldiers on the field have more convincing voice acting than any of the named characters (Union soldiers excluded.) None of the voice-work is truly bad, but it's not memorably good, either.
Gameplay, as it begins in the early segments of the American Civil War and World War I gives an impression of a rather bland and inexperienced game design. It's a shooter, but gives the impression of sloppy controls. The player moves much faster than any other character, even without sprinting, nor is there any weight to your movement. There's no cover system, leaving one to simply crouch behind objects. Granted, in the covered wars, battle tactics training was in its infancy, so this could be forgiven were it to have a toggle ability for crouching instead of having to hold the key/button down for the duration. Another anomaly in the game, even before you get to the time stream anomalies, lies with the weapon operations. While there is an RPG-like weapon upgrade system present in the game, even with no points used on accuracy the guns are way too accurate. You can accurately pull off a head-shot from the other side of a farm in the Civil War with a Springfield or Henry rifle. Springfield rifles in reality had good range, and were great for the marksmanship obsessed U.S. Army of the day, though Henry rifles were known to be of much shorter range. In this game, both can compare well with any modern sniper rifle. The plus of this is that it makes the game far less frustrating than it would have been with simulator-accurate (or, rather, inaccurate) weapons of the day. There's a reason why muskets aren't common fare in first person shooters. They're annoying, short range, low powered, horribly inaccurate weapons. Civil War era weapons weren't all that much better. For that reason alone, I can forgive the unrealistic behavior of the weapons.
Another obvious weak point of the game is the graphics. The touted Marmoset engine has a few issues. Much of the terrain is covered in pixelated sprites which often share the same alpha issues as the text. The textures are low resolution and fairly plain, leaving trees looking like marshmallow blobs. There are also framerate issues, some slowdowns and tears where there shouldn't be in larger conflicts, and when heavy smoke effects are employed I experienced several near-complete stops in the action. However this is rare. Given the feel of the gameplay controls and the graphics appearance, there's a very 2003 feel to the game. That in itself isn't inherently bad, though. A theme I've re-iterated in numerous other reviews is that "behind the times" in doesn't always mean bad. There seems to be a vibe in the game community, and especially among critics these days that the point of a game is to have the most current and up-to-date graphics-driven gameplay paradigms around. My feeling is that a game's point is to be fun. The success of the Wii, Fat Princess, Plants vs. Zombies, and hand-held consoles appear to confirm this theory. If it looked like Wolfenstein 3D I'd have a problem with it. But graphics from within this decade are more than passable, and as such, they look good enough, and as you get into the game, suspension of disbelief kicks in and the graphics issues become less noticeable.
A few other gripes and nitpicks stem from the controls, at least on the XBox 360 copy I evaluated. There's a problem with the dead-zone settings for the left analog stick for movement controls. If the controller allows a little play in the stick, as mine does to the left and bottom, the dead-zone is too small, leading to potential drift in one direction or another. I often found myself gliding sideways or backward while trying to line up a shot, though this compensates for the all too accurate aim of the rifles! There is also no vibration feedback used within the game on the 360. I'd have loved to get a jolt from firing those Springfield rifles, or when mortar fire landed a few inches from me. Another issue that affects the 360, though no doubt also affects PC, if to a lesser degree, are load times. As with any first person shooter, you will die. Often. And when reloading takes forever, only to die moments later and have to reload again...and again...and again, frustration rapidly takes hold. Installing to the 360 hard drive helps slightly, but not enough to spare objects in the room that are not securely fastened to the tables. PC load times are always faster, though some games (Crysis, this means you) seem to find ways to make it as slow as possible, presumably to build up your levels of lactic acid to make the coming fight more realistic. I have a sneaking suspicion that Darkest of Days is one such game. All of these issues can be fixed in patches, however and are generally minor in nature.
The larger problem with some areas of the game, especially in the beginning is a simple lack of direction. You're placed on the battlefield, and while you have a map, invisible walls block obvious routes in many cases, leaving you to figure out how to get to the blinking circle. This issue, surprisingly does yield partway through the game, or, perhaps, player familiarity with the game's conventions improves. In fact, quite a few things improve as you move onward with the game...
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