Darkest of Days Review
Developer: 8monkey Labs
Platforms: Xbox 360 and PC
Reviewed on PC
Windows System Requirements: 2 GHz Processor, 768 MB RAM, GeForce 6600 or Radeon 9800 Video Card with at least 128 MB of VRAM, 5 GB HD space, Windows XP or more recent operating system
Moments before the Battle of Little Bighorn, Alexander Morris was transferred to General Custer's regiment. Fortunately, due to a dearth of paperwork documenting the transfer, when Morris was about to pass away thanks to fatal wounds, he was snatched to safety by a time-travelling agent from the future. Now Morris is working for a corporation called KronoteK, defending time from unknown assailants attempting to rewrite history by tweaking critical battles throughout history.
It would be easy to dismiss Darkest of Days as a deeply flawed first-person shooter. The game has problems so huge you could drive the baggage train for the entire Seventh Cavalry through them. Yet, Darkest of Days offers some incredibly clever moments and game devices. If Darkest of Days hadn't suffered from fatal crashes to the desktop, I would have given it a higher score than I did. Thanks to a genuinely innovative approach to the FPS, I wanted to be able to recommend the game to everyone. Thanks to its technical failings, Darkest of Days is a game I can only insist that other developers should play. The average gamer needs a high tolerance for frustration to enjoy what Darkest of Days has to offer.
The concept behind Darkest of Days is a brilliant setting for an FPS. MIAs stolen from time become the enforcers who ensure time isn't altered. Players take on the role of a soldier from the Battle of Little Bighorn, partnered with a missing firefighter who, despite being off-duty, rushed in to help with the collapse of the World Trade Center in New York on September 11, 2001. It's an excuse to visit completely different settings from every time-period in history, offering an incredible break from the usual endless, identical corridors that populate the Platonic form of the first-person shooter.
Sadly, the opportunity is squandered. There are opportunities to visit World War II and Ancient Rome, but so much of the game is spent in the battle of Antietam from the American Civil War and a battle on the Russian Front during World War I that the game feels monotonous. That said, Darkest of Days should be the drug of choice for history buffs with a real interest in the battle of Antietam or the Battle of Tanneberg. Locations are real enough to be familiar to anyone who has visited the battlefields, and are steeped in historical details.
Thanks to the historical setting, Darkest of Days actually drops players in the middle of enormous battles with a muzzle-loading rifle. Where FPS fans are accustomed to high-powered automatic rifles, here's a game where players wait a long time to reload while shoving powder and a ramrod down the barrel of a single-shot rifle. More importantly, it was actually fun. But it was only fun thanks to the focus of the game.
Since most missions placed me in the middle of densely packed historical battles, the goal was rarely to eliminate all of the enemies. Certain characters who survived these battles and are important to the time stream are marked with blue auras. It's important that these characters survive. Preserve them, and KronoteK's agents can focus on improving your armaments. Kill them, and KronoteK will have to focus on putting things right rather than upgrading your equipment.
In my early engagements, I found myself running right into the throng, eagerly shooting blue enemies in the leg to ensure that they fell but survived, or flinging KronoteK "chasers" (futuristic tracking grenades that knock out important individuals for their own protection). That's a brilliant play mechanic for an FPS. Throw players into battle and make them take out specific individuals, non-lethally, rather than gunning down all comers. Sadly, after a few hours of play, I realized it didn't seem to matter as long as I didn't shoot blue-aura guys in the head myself. If this idea had been central to play instead of an inspired sideshow, it would have been an element that made Darkest of Days brilliant. It wouldn't matter if the muzzle-loading rifle were slow if shots were meant to be historically tactical rather than lethal to masses of troops.
Another point that seems brilliant is the intended morale state of allied and enemy troops. Theoretically, Darkest of Days should allow players to turn the tide of battle by blasting enemy troops. And by introducing anachronistic weapons, players should be able to frighten enemies and allies alike, risking alteration of the time stream. Unfortunately, in play, these factors didn't seem to matter. If my use of an automatic assault rifle in the Civil War remotely affected troops, I couldn't tell. And even using period weapons, every time I sent the enemy fleeing in terror, it felt like a scripted event.
I really appreciated how often Darkest of Days seemed to turn FPS conventions on their ear. But this was always offset by a lack of polish (and sometimes just-plain-broken software). I loved that in a World War I level, I was finally forced to avoid shooting exploding barrels. Yet at times (like in Miller's cornfield) the game would wrest control from me and, while still on foot, transform into a rail shooter. Darkest of Days offers colossally wide-open maps – and then fills them with invisible walls. These clearly set boundaries to the maps attempted to funnel the player to specific locations, yet I often found myself on the wrong side of such walls when trying to flank enemies, unable to reach my objective without following extensive invisible walls like a blind man in the minotaur's labyrinth.
The vegetation in Darkest of Days was particularly irritating. While the game gorgeously uses the SpeedTree to fill battlefields with natural-looking vegetation, that same vegetation doesn't restrict the line-of-sight for AI opponents. I often found myself struggling to find enemies a few feet away in the brush, while enemies hundreds of yards away could shoot me through the treeline. Worse yet, while hundreds of characters could occupy the battlefield at once, they behaved like insects, scattering wildly and presenting their backs to me from a few feet away to snipe at distant foes.
8monkey Labs may have developed the new "Marmoset" engine for Darkest of Days, but it still needs further work and testing. The wide-open battlefields are undermined by the invisible walls that funnel movement, and the huge number of enemies isn't as impressive if they act like epileptic baboons as soon as their scripted directions end. In the same way, the variety of time travel is undermined by the surpassing focus on two battles.
For all the extensive problems in Darkest of Days, I really wanted to give it a great score. The game has some brilliant ideas that even the failings in its execution can't completely undermine. Then I ran into a repeatable, crash-to-desktop bug late in the game that stopped me from progressing. As a result, the score doesn't perfectly reflect my real opinion. The average gamer will probably want to pass on Darkest of Days, but every developer interested in making shooters should play this game, to get a different perspective on an overdeveloped genre.