Gettysburg, Tannenberg, and an AR-45
As I began this review, my initial impressions of the game were that it was another lame "me too" budget title doomed to be $4.99 used in GameStop stores everywhere. As I spent more time with the game, however, my opinion drastically changed. Yes, the graphics and controls, the dialog and the like can indeed feel half-baked or generic at times, but there are a number of strengths as well. One of the celebrated features in the games marketing is the large number of combatants on the battlefield. While much of the game is spent in duck and cover warfare on small wooded trails, or peering down at encampments over the side of a large cliff or hill, those moments of large scale are a true sight to behold, comparing closer to a first person real-time strategy game with good shooter controls than a traditional shooter, in a sense.
Where most game studios tend to put their best foot forward in the opening of the game to reel players in early and, perhaps more importantly, project a good image in previews and trailers, but slack off toward the end of the game becoming almost routine, 8Monkey did almost the exact opposite here. The beginning of the game feels bland and generic, but improves markedly as you go on. After finishing the first two segments with period weapons in the Civil War and World War I eras, some surprises begin to occur. There's no truly developed story to speak of, no character depth, or strongly detailed events, but what happens still adds to wow factor a bit. Events start to appear in the wrong place, and don't match up with the proper timeline. Green time portals open up and power armored agents pop out and begin interfering. The historical detail and mood is extremely well done throughout the game, so time bubbles and Storm Troopers provide the intended shock to the senses, as do events that don't match up. Later in the game you begin intersecting your own time intervention, working for the other side and experiencing your own actions from earlier in third person. Additionally, missions stop being a linear rail shooter and start focusing on objective based missions with some great scripted events such as stealing a zeppelin and manning its guns, induction into and escape from a Nazi POW camp, and a great mounted sniping mission. Beyond the wow factor, these events draw you into the world and give more of a feeling of purpose to your actions, and makes the game stop looking like a generic "me too" game and start standing out on its own.
Of course the small trace of story exists mostly as a guise to go parading around the Civil War with modern automatic weapons. There's a great deal of fun showing up at Antietam with an AR-45 with a laser sight and letting loose on the horde of Colt six-shooter wielding Confederates. This is the only game, ever, that lets you do something like that. You also get a chance to play with a guided grenade launcher at Tannenberg, an automatic repeating combat shotgun through many levels, and a few other goodies. That doesn't include the finishing levels that are, by now, no longer a secret involving a fully loaded "open engagement protocol" mission of time troopers versus centurions and opposing time troopers in downtown Pompeii as Mount Vesuvius is erupting. The notion of a future war blasting through the streets of fleeing Pompeiians is cool enough without adding in the notion that you don't have to worry about crossfire, protecting civilians, or even being seen as out of place - it's Pompeii, everyone's going to die in a few hours anyway...so it simply doesn't matter. (Ed: although it may intrigue archaeologists) The only thing that would have made it even more appealing to the masochist in all of us would be a rocket launcher and destructible terrain.
Very few games out there give us a chance to experience these more primitive battles, so there's not much of an existing game convention for how to handle things such as single-shot weapons. This is a place where Darkest of Days musters up some creativity. There's an interactive reload feature utilizing a green "progress bar" in a circle at the center of the screen during a reload. If you do nothing, you simply wait for the reload. If you tap the fire or reload button as the bar goes around, you can try to time it so that the bar is in the green block. If you do, the rest of the reload speeds along. If you miss, the gun jams, and the animation shows some struggling with the mechanisms and finally you can shoot again. One may ask why such importance should be put into a mini-game for reloads. When you consider that much of the game will be spent using a single shot rifle, that means you will be reloading after each shot. Yes. Every. Single. Shot. But hey, that's how it worked back then, so there's realism there. I'm sure many critics and gamers alike will be complaining about the lack of direction in some of the battles. There's no battlefield control, everyone is just running around with no sense of tactics, shooting all the while. This is in actuality an asset to the game. That's how it actually worked; it's not bad AI, that's how these wars were really fought. Yes, the AI is relatively poor in the game, but it doesn't detract from the believability since it's hard to tell he difference between an awful AI, and a real WWI or Civil War soldier. They'd both run straight at you shooting five feet away from you and then just stand there reloading. If there's one thing to take away from the game, it's that these wars had some exceptionally lousy tactics. Criticize history for that, not the game!
Finally, one other touch of creativity for mixing up the tactics is the previously mentioned weapon upgrade system. The points are awarded to you for sparing any of the soldiers on the battlefield that have a blue aura around them. These are historical figures that must not die in order to preserve the time-line. Presumably a number of these are actually yourself, in the past, intersecting with your own time-line. You're provided a fist full of Chasers you may throw at the field. If in range, they'll lock onto these targets and disable them, with the spares returning to you on their own. Alternately, if you've run out, you can shoot them in the legs to wound them without killing them. This is easier said than done, and often impossible from sniping positions. The weapon upgrades themselves, aside from reload speed and maybe clip size, are fairly irrelevant, however sparing the blue soldiers mixes up the tactics a bit and forces you in closer which can have interesting results. Later on, shooting too many blue figures calls about the revenge of the time police as well which is almost certain death.
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