If someone were to casually explain the concept of Darkest of Days, it'd sound like a great experience. You're an unwitting soldier pulled from certain death at the Battle of the Little Bighorn through a time portal by a mysterious futuristic agency called KronoteK. Its chief scientist, Dr. Koell, has gone missing, and it's up to you to track him down and right some of the aberrations that have been appearing throughout history. If left unchecked, the aberrations could cause potentially disastrous consequences or perhaps even Simpsons-style doughnut rain. The benefit of the B-movie sci-fi plot setup? You can use futuristic weaponry to wipe out armies from ages past. While Darkest of Days does let you fulfill this fantasy – you will, for instance, fight American Civil War-era soldiers with assault rifles – it does little else but annoy and confuse.
Whether this project didn't have enough funding from the beginning or whether the operation disintegrated partway through is tough to tell, but it doesn't seem like this game is entirely finished. From the placeholder user interface to the underdeveloped artificial intelligence and clear lack of quality assurance testing in spots, this game doesn't play, run, or look like something that was given enough time to achieve its full potential. Since it's now available for purchase and linked with a 50 USD price tag, it has to be judged against the rest of the first-person shooter genre on the market.
After the opening sequence with Custer's forces, you're dumped into a metallic room and introduced to Mother, a set of female eyes that appear on a computer monitor that oversee the action, and Dexter, your compatriot in battle who occasionally supplies you with powerful weapons. You pick missions in semi-branching fashion from a monitor in the room, a time portal pops into existence like somebody whipped a snapper on the ground, and off you go to time periods past in the name of historical preservation.
Despite a setup so ripe with possibilities, developer 8monkey Labs forces you to spend a majority of your time in only two settings – World War I and the American Civil War. You battle it out in large but generally unremarkable maps filled with vast expanses of ugly countryside fighting disorganized hordes of soldiers as you run from checkpoint to checkpoint experiencing the game's poorly realized first-person shooting mechanics. Aside from the animations, skins, and reload times, none of the weapons have much of a sense of weight or feel. A Gears of War-style active reload system was built in to try and enliven the otherwise Death Valley-dry gameplay, but it's clumsily implemented.
You do eventually go to Pompeii and make a few stops in World War II, but it seems like so much more could have been done here in terms of plot development, setting, and mission variety. As it is, all you're given is an extremely standard assortment of sniping, turret defense, and general combat goals. The only real standout feature of the combat is there are frequently plenty of NPC enemy and friendly soldiers fighting alongside, but the game's shortcomings ensure you never feel as though you're immersed in an actual battle, but rather given front row seats to an unfortunate comedy. You'll see entire groups of soldiers point their guns in the wrong directions, enemies that run directly by you without noticing, don't realize they're being shot, or just stand around and do nothing. If you run too far ahead of the game's pacing, easy to do considering some of the nebulous goals, or if you're standing in a spot a plot-critical NPC was supposed to, don't be surprised if you encounter an unwinnable scenario or the mission breaks and you have to reload your game. Some of the turret sequences, particularly an extended zeppelin ride and any time you're forced to operate a Civil War-era cannon, are absolutely torturous to experience, to the point where you have to wonder if anyone at all tested this game for its entertainment value, let alone bugs.
Yet another example of poorly implemented gameplay elements are glowing blue soliders peppered throughout the throngs of standard enemies. These guys are apparently of prime importance in time's overall design and to kill them is potentially historically harmful. So what do you have to do instead? Throw little green balls at them and pop them near their heads to stun them. Ok fine, that's annoying, but the larger question is why do other friendly NPCs get to mow them down with no consequences whatsoever?
The futuristic weapons might offer respite from such poorly designed first-person shooting encounters, but for some reason these aren't handed out very frequently. For every instance where you're handed a future shotgun or auto-aiming, kill-everything-that-moves gun, you're sitting there with a single-shot musket wishing you'd spend more points to upgrade its reload speed in the game's anemic between-mission upgrade system. For that matter, even the weapons aren't creatively designed, but function just like sniper rifles, flamethrowers, and assault rifles, but with one minor twist.
To criticize the game's plot doesn't serve much of a purpose considering how it's not trying to be anything but pulp nonsense. It's actually the strongest part of the game, since it seems to not take itself too seriously and happily embraces all kinds of clichés and sci-fi absurdities. Terms such as "time signatures," "time frame analysis," and "time alignment lasers" and gems such as Dexter's line "I really miss New York style pizza. Remember that? Ah, I forgot, you're from a time before pizza," get tossed around as you play through. Though humorous, bits like that do little to offset the otherwise repulsive gameplay. In fact in some cases they complicate it, since the KronoteK organization, which as you're frequently reminded wants to preserve history, has no problem with you dropping into a musket fight with an assault rifle, but then at other times requires you sweep up all futuristic weapons from a battlefield so as not to disturb historical continuity, or something like that.
With the Xbox 360 version, performance is also problematic. Slowdown, pop-in, low quality textures and plenty of other graphical demons plague the game from beginning to end, and drop the value of what's already a sloppy first-person shooter into the territory of the worthless. The music and sound effects you'll forget just as soon as they finish playing, and the voice acting, while presumably intentionally hammy, doesn't really help.
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