Haze and Lair were both the tragic results of a developer failing to live up to expectation. It came as quite the surprise; despite the pedigree of the two studios involved adding integrity to their lofty ambitions and haughty promises, the titles turned out to be possibly two of the worst this generation has yet to see. And we all know, of course, how costly such disasters proved to be for everyone involved.
Blue Omega, on the other hand, has approached Damnation from the opposite position, with nothing to lose and everything to gain. Originally starting life as a fan-made total-conversion mod for Unreal Tournament 2004, Damnation’s premise was, much like those aforementioned titles, full of promise. Its heady combination of vertical platform action and original steampunk setting was, in theory, set to offer a welcome twist to the more typical third-person shooter.
Yet in truth, Damnation’s an embarrassment. Horrifically broken in almost every conceivable way, the end result is a far cry from the “exhilarating epic” originally promised. The initial shock of the PS2-era visuals is the first warning sign, as badly animated character models clumsily traverse their vertical playing field with the rigidity of a circa-1996 Lara Croft, while animations of characters beside you condense to a stutter in an attempt to reduce load. It makes no difference, of course; the game’s frame rate regularly dives into a crippling single-digit figure when only a handful of enemies dare venture into view.
That’s after they’ve worked out what they’re actually supposed to be doing, of course. Simply put, Damnation’s AI – of both your enemies and allies – is comical at best, absolutely inexcusable at worst. When they’re not running into walls or getting stuck on objects, they’ll fire at you with an inhuman level of accuracy or simply disappear into thin air at the drop of the hat. Which makes your life easier at least; Damnation’s clunky combat is so woefully awful that Blue Omega’s comprehension of the genre is open to debate.
It’s just totally haphazard and unbalanced. Machine gunners can fatally wound you from miles away with a single piercing bullet, while snipers can often miss the target altogether. Get up close and personal and you’re guaranteed death regardless of whether the one-shot-kill shotgunners get you the first time; the screen blur implemented to warn the player of their impending doom is so over-the-top that it simply obscures your vision altogether. The rudimentary cover system too is altogether useless, requiring the player to physically remove themselves from behind cover in order to hit their target, despite the reticule flashing red to suggest otherwise. Fire when in cover and your bullets will almost certainly find themselves lodged in the object you’re cowering behind. To make matters worse, should your enemies be standing behind a low fence or similar themselves, your own bullets often fail to register, seemingly getting stuck in an arbitrary invisible wall in front of them. It turns the whole thing into a clumsy, impracticable mess, where the outcome of a firefight isn’t determined by the player’s skill, but whether the game decides to play fair.
Vehicle sections break up the frivolities, but again their implementation show Blue Omega up as a pathetic, and often plagiaristic developer (the similarities between some of Damnation’s design and Gears of War are obvious, least of all the game’s ‘Casual, Hardcore, Insane’ approach to difficulty), merely acting as exercises in time-wasting and offering very little purpose, or indeed, entertainment. Instead, they stick to the game’s unrelenting rule of being an unpolished – and clearly unfinished – mess, breaking all the laws of physics to jolt up a wall one minute, before randomly deciding to come to a sudden and unexpected halt the next. You just couldn’t make it up.
It’s frustrating because, at times, Damnation’s level design can show a fleeting glimpse of the spectacle it should have been. Levels are large and sprawling, as tall as they are wide, and though their linearity doesn’t offer the same amount of athletic freedom as, say, Empire City, their ingenuity is inviting. Overlooking a canyon and working out how to best get across momentarily raises a glimmer of hope, before the game dashes it with another insipid firefight or ridiculous design choice.
So, though still far from perfect (or particularly pleasurable, come to that), it’s the platforming elements of Damnation that are – surprisingly, in fact – the game’s highlight. But when they’re the best part of an otherwise broken game, what does it matter? Blue Omega certainly has the vision, but evidently lacks the talent to do it justice. Damnation indeed.
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