Perfect Dark is coming back! That’s currently the plan anyway, but a recent report from VGC reveals that things aren’t going quite so well at The Initiative. A large number of staff members have departed the project, cutting down the studio’s workforce significantly as Crystal Dynamics is allegedly brought in to help pick up the pace. Lacking creative vision and an unwillingness to explore new ideas have seen people leaving in droves, and given the project is still relatively early in its production, it’s unlikely we’ll be seeing it anytime soon.
Nevermind! I’d rather those who weren’t happy at the studio depart and pursue more fulfilling creative endeavours than burn themselves out on a shooter that is basically James Bond in the future but except this time it’s a lady. Let’s be real, that was very much the initial pitch for Joanna Dark when Perfect Dark first arrived on the Nintendo 64 back in 2000. It was an expansion of everything GoldenEye managed to achieve with an original setting and more futuristic weaponry, seeking to create an IP that didn’t rely on an increasingly finicky licence.
While the original game is still fun and boasts a distinct aesthetic, I’d hardly call it a shooter classic. It launched during an era when first-person shooters on console were far from commonplace, with the controls unwieldy on a gamepad that was seemingly designed for a race of extinct spider people. But it was fun, I played it for ten minutes when Rare Replay came out just like everybody else did. If you completed the whole thing you’re a liar, don’t try and convince me otherwise. Perfect Dark went into hiding for a number of years after that, with Rare focusing on Grabbed By The Ghoulies and Conker’s Bad Fur Day before an unexpected acquisition by Microsoft. This is where everything changed.
The British developer was brought on to help bolster the upcoming Xbox 360 launch line-up, a mission that would result in the production of Kameo: Elements of Power, Perfect Dark Zero, and the masterful Viva Pinata. Goodness me, they made a lot of games back then. Before the console’s launch in 2005, Perfect Dark Zero was one of the few games pushed to the forefront as both a graphical and technical showcase for the platform. This was before Gears of War came onto the scene and changed our perspective forever, so in that sense, it absolutely got the job done. Nowadays, everyone and everything in that game looks like it’s made out of clay, existing in a world that doesn’t look or feel real in the slightest.
I remember going to my brother’s place and playing a chipped Xbox 360 shortly after its launch, digging through a folder of blank discs containing all manner of games. I got my first taste of Oblivion, Condemned, Amped 3, and finally – Perfect Dark Zero. One of them had to be a stinker I suppose, but back then it was almost revolutionary. Environments and characters boasted a level of visual fidelity I’d never seen before. Everything appeared so lifelike, with gunplay feeling sharp and responsive on a controller no longer appealing to arachnid mutants and nobody else. Young Jade was a fool, because this game is wank.
Perfect Dark Zero is so painfully of its time that playing it in 2022 feels like an exercise in cringe retention. Joanna Dark is redesigned to be a cool, sexy, and painfully hip sweet thang who is so groovy it’s like she’s been repeatedly hit over the head with a baseball bat infused with mid-noughties energy. She’s cool and empowering, but to the extent that she feels like a caricature of what confident female characters should be in a game like this. She’s also sexualised, because it was 2005 and there was no escape from it.
Give the opening montage a watch for yourself below and come back to me once you’ve splashed cold water over your face:
Back? Coolio. There is something weirdly endearing about the music and transitions of Perfect Dark Zero, in how it’s trying to be so cool and of the era while maintaining what we loved about the original game. In some ways it stuck the landing, but it also depicted Joanna Dark in such a weird way that building upon that with additional games felt impossible. There is no way she could stand alongside Master Chief, Marcus Fenix, or one of the cars from Forza as an Xbox mascot all these years later. It just wouldn’t have worked, which sucks.
Even when moving away from its visual presentation, Perfect Dark Zero didn’t play well either. Guns fired well enough, but you moved with the speed of a lethargic snail and made use of gadgets which lacked any sort of meaningful impact. Menus are also sponsored by Samsung, meaning that the majority of them feel like a mobile phone from the era instead of focusing on actual user functionality. It’s funny looking back on it, how a super secret agent isn’t using a custom piece of gear, but instead a handset she picked up in Carphone Warehouse. The folks at Samsung must be in on the job or something.
Massive set pieces and covert stealth sequences were poorly executed, failing to gel with the game’s clumsy controls and discordant objectives. The thing is it was reviewed well at the time, but I imagine this was in response to the hype of a new console generation and gorgeous visuals that superseded the requirement of actually being good. We’ve changed so much as an industry since then, and in the years since Perfect Dark Zero has undergone a critical re-evaluation that has been less than kind.
I suppose the collective averageness of the two mainline Perfect Dark games we’ve seen thus far has me confused about the negative reaction towards The Initiative’s development troubles. We have no idea what this new version of the series is going to be, and chances are it will more than live up to middling expectations regardless of the state it’s in right now. That, and we shouldn’t be worrying about the state of our precious video game when dozens of talented people are leaving the project because of poor management and creative burnout. Focus on those problems long before worrying about your spy shooter.
Perfect Dark is a lot like Star Fox or Gex, franchises that we played as children and painted a picture of them in our minds as something legendary, classics in their own right that deserve to be revisited with sequels, remakes, and reboots until the end of time. The thing is, once you take a step back and look at things with an objective eye it all becomes so much clearer. Perfect Dark was never incredible, and we’re kidding ourselves for thinking otherwise.
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About The Author
Jade King (724 Articles Published)
Jade King is Lead Features Editor for TheGamer. Previously Gaming Editor over at Trusted Reviews, she can be found talking about games, anime and retweeting Catradora fanart @KonaYMA6.