Darkest of Days – PC
Action Zero’s Christmas Memories
Developer: 8monkey Labs
Publisher: Phantom EFX
Release Date (NA): September 8, 2009
Genre: First-Person Shooter (FPS)
Nerd Rating: 5.5 out of 10
Reviewed by Action Zero
Sometimes you get really good games under the Christmas tree, while other times you get games that look good on the cover and turn out to be relatively mediocre and only good to play once or twice. This second examination of my Christmas past looks at Darkest of Days, a historically-inspired time-traveling first-person shooter. My first time playing this was also my first time using a new LCD monitor to play games on, so I had a lot of fun in my single-minded quest to beat the game. However, when I went to play the game a second time, the fresh and exciting atmosphere had gone stale and any impulse I had to enjoy the game as I did the first time was quickly diminished. Why is this? Let’s step through the time bubble and see what this game does right and where it fails.
Darkest of Days is a game built around the Marmoset Engine created by 8monkey Labs, an engine designed specifically to allow hundreds of characters to share the screen at once and have individual pathfinding and AI without trouble. Along with the Nvidia PhysX engine, this allows for massive army battles that flow pretty well, so it deserves credit for that. The premise is pretty fun at first glance as well, offering you the chance to enter some of history’s bloodiest battlefields and tear them up with automatic weapons and heavy ordinance. If these elements were focused on exclusively and the game was more focused on perpetuating the havoc, it might have done better, but this is only speculation. In reality, Darkest of Days had many factors that likely contributed to its failure to captivate a wide audience.
To start, let’s look at the story: You start the game as an American soldier who had the bad luck of being caught in the middle of Custer’s Last Stand at Little Bighorn. Just before you face your certain death, a time-traveler throws you through a portal to the future, where a company called Kronotek sends people like you out on special missions to preserve the timeline by protecting key persons essential to history. Guided on your missions by a potty-mouthed New York firefighter, you’re thrust into periods across time, chasing down two people instrumental in keeping history on its proper track, while in the meantime keeping an eye out for Kronotek’s founder, who apparently got lost somewhere in time. And to make things even more complicated, you realize quickly after you start delving into history that there’s a splinter faction called the Opposition (not a clever name, but it gets the job done) who are deliberately trying to endanger your mission by ambushing you and putting high-tech weapons in the hands of the wrong people.
Needless to say, Darkest of Days has a lot happening with the story alone, though wherever time travel is involved, headaches can easily follow, but there are a lot of mechanical decisions that only add to the confusion. The novelty of wide-open battlefields are made a moot point by invisible walls and obstacles, forcing what would be an open-ended experience to be frustratingly linear. The promise of employing high-tech weaponry on old battlefields is only delivered upon in the latter half of the game, with the first half being more of a museum piece showcase of muskets and rifles. I also find myself puzzled by the developers’ decision to spoil all of the locations of their game on the box art. Sure, you know what you’re getting yourself into beforehand, but a lot of the fun of a time travel-themed game is in finding out when you’re going next. It’s such a glaring problem that I’m not even hiding where the game’s locations are in my included screenshots. 8monkeyLabs didn’t care, so why should I? Besides, it seems rather limited that we have the majesty of time-travel open to us, but we’re not allowed to venture beyond four or five points in history.
Let’s also address a few of the technical problems that plague Darkest of Days. Overuse of character models can be a quick problem to notice when staring into the faces of a hundred men lined up, but it stands out even more when you’re fighting through small skirmishes too, and notice that German soldier Hans and his five twin brothers are all sighting down their rifles at you from the same line of sandbags. Other irritating conventions come up too, such as hiding behind cover until of your wounds heal themselves, which is not a mechanic that fits with a time period like the American Civil War, where gunshot wounds in the arms and legs alone regularly caused amputations due to infection and gangrene. It wouldn’t be that much of a problem if this game wasn’t dedicated to at least some measure of historical accuracy, so the inclusion of regenerating health seems about as well-researched as an episode of Deadliest Warrior.
I will say that there are some high points to Darkest of Days, especially if it’s your first time playing it. The World War II and Pompeii levels are probably the best in the game and if you manage to survive World War I and the American Civil War long enough to reach them, it’ll likely be worth the trip. But each high point in this game feels like it was made at the expense of other aspects, leading to some parts with higher budged than others. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the voiceacting, especially in the American Civil War segments. I’m not familiar enough with the Russian tongue to recognize a bad accent, but I am familiar enough with my own backyard to realize when a Union or Confederate soldier’s performance is being phoned in. I know good voiceactors are hard to find these days, but if you can have a bunch of legitimate-sounding legionnaires blurting Latin, I think that you can spend a few extra takes giving your American voiceactors some direction so that their segments of the game don’t sound weak by comparison. I also don’t really think the music is that memorable. Only two songs are easily found on YouTube and neither of them are very impressive. Here’s one from Custer’s Last Stand. Not exactly imaginative, creative, or compelling, just like the rest of this game.
At the end of the day, the success of Darkest of Days, or lack thereof, boils down to the game’s fundamentals. Was it fun when I played it the first time? Yes, I’ll admit that it was, but that’s because I didn’t know what to expect. Would I want to play it again? I don’t think so. It’s better than average and that’s not saying much. I can find plenty of other first-person shooters where the developers put more care into the simple fundamentals, while 8monkeyLabs ended up spending all of their time on their engine, their story, and the research done into everything just so that they could blow it out of the water by adding things like rocket-propelled mortars and overly convoluted time-travel intrigue plotlines. Needless to say, don’t expect a sequel to hit the shelves at any point. If you really like the idea of running across the same four sets of history and shooting a lot of people up, this game may be fun to you, but I would recommend that you try to get it on the cheap. You won’t be able to go back in time and kick yourself for spending too much on it. Not unless you put the time you bought it on the game box, at least.
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