Keith's Crappy Videogame Blog


Damnation (PC, 2009): The Saving Grace of Cooperative Play
January 10, 2011, 2:48 am
Filed under: Damnation (PC, 2009, US)

I spend a good deal of time on this blog defending crap. I guess that’s because I always found the potential for greatness, especially in games, more alluring than actual greatness. Bizarre? Sure. Or maybe I find that the dramatic story of a game gone awry—as long as it has some redeeming qualities—is much more intriguing than the story behind a triple-A game with God-given talent that is easy to love. Of course sometimes, amidst my machinations and justifications, I realize my loyalties are misplaced, and I’ll begrudgingly admit that a game is an undeniable piece of flotsam and there is no way to reasonably champion it.

Damnation skirts that line like few other games for me. But in the end, it avoids eternal hellfire (err…) because of one simple facet: the non-split-screen cooperative story campaign that allows two players to make their way through the crappy story on two  big, beautiful flat screen TVs. There are tons of biting reviews of Damnation across the net, and they are all deserved. The game is subpar on many counts. But few of these reviews discuss how the game functions as a cooperative experience. Before sitting down to endure Damnation with my LAN-partner, I had one question on my mind: Does playing this generally crappy game in co-op mode increase its fun factor, or do you just end up with double the crap? Fortunately, I found the former was true.

In the Civil War-era steampunk alt-history setting that is Damnation, you play as Hamilton Rourke (in third-person perspective), leader of (yet another) ragtag group of freedom fighters. Your partner plays as several different sidekicks that shift during the game. In this alternative chronology, steam power was discovered during the Civil War in America (a war which lasted several decades), and this new power source was used by PSI (Prescott Standard Industries) to create all sorts of high-tech stuff, including robots and fully steampowered canons, guns—and even some ability-altering drugs to make soldiers on the battlefield into fighting machines. The CEO of PSI (Prescott himself, a very bad man) is hell-bent on world (or at least American) domination, and our hero and his band of fighters (including a native American chick, Yakecan, with most of her boobs showing, naturally) exist solely to take him down. There ensues a series of missions, including rescuing scientists, infiltrating enemy lines, and even attempting to locate our hero’s long-lost love, presumably a prisoner of war. The atmosphere in the game is promising—one reviewer said it feels like Half-Life 2’s City 17 meets The Wild West, and that’s just about right. Throughout some of the levels, you can hear Prescott broadcasting his dystopian monologue, saying that no cities are left—Chicago, Baltimore, New York have all been lost in flames over the decades-long war—and that submitting to his will is the only way for us to regain our humanity. As I’ve said many times before, I’m a sucker for this type of thing, regardless of how rehashed it is.

But the story is so barely fleshed out, you’ll forget about most of it immediately—which is only one of the many critiques reviewers have leveled at this game, and rightly so. And if there’s one element that is even less developed, that is the characters. These are caricatures only, folks, no getting around it. These two shortcomings make it extremely difficult for me to recommend this game. But hang on a second.

The short lore of the game goes thusly: It was originally developed as an entry into the well-known Make Something Unreal contest where aspiring developers submit their creations using Epic Game’s Unreal Tournament 4 engine. Damnation won second place in the Total Conversion category, was picked up for full development, and was slated for a fall 2008 release. Several missed release dates later, it finally shipped in 2009. And then the trouncing began. The game is pretty much universally despised. Why? Pick a reason: Choppy framerates, intermittently clunky graphics, really rough cutscenes (this is especially true in my opinion), awful voice acting, truly irritating weapon sounds, dull shooting action—the usual suspects. While playing the game, it occurred to me that it does in many ways feel unfinished (a quality that fortunately, over the course of the game, improves considerably), or as if the developers couldn’t quite pull off the level of professionalism you find in other games from 2009 (I mean, not even close).

The game’s unique hook, pre-release, was that it was bringing “verticality” to the shooter genre. And it does that. The game’s maps are not so much expansive to the horizon a la Fallout 3’s capital wasteland, but the maps extend to dizzying heights and depths, which is pretty cool (although sometimes nonsensical, but hey). Deep caverns that must be traversed, impossibly constructed skyscrapers to be climbed, that sort of thing. With a free-roaming camera, it is fun to climb a flagpole atop a 40-story building and survey the tiny town below from a variety of angles (though this level of scale does bring a kind of fakey, dollhouse-like quality to the environments of the game, a strange phenomenon I have experienced with other titles (see “Scorpion: Disfigured” on this blog for example). Of course, high and low maps like this require a lot of Laura Craftian jumping, hanging, ledge-climbing, and zipline zipping. Then, right when you least suspect it (yeah, right), a group of enemy soldiers/robots/armaments will stop your progress and you must hunker down, or hang off the ledge, and use your sad little peashooter to clear the area.

For all its shortcomings (there’s lots), the game does have cooperative story mode, which is how I played it. And in my experience, if you enjoy cooperative gaming and the camaraderie (and frustrations) it can bring, it’s difficult to find a game to hate (even games with very few redeeming qualities). At the very least, while gaming side-by-side with someone to cooperatively complete all the missions that comprise the game’s narrative, you can at least marvel together at how awful something is. And that in itself can be fun. My partner and I scaled heights together, made acrobatic leaps together, got shot in the butt together (and also healed one another), climbed aboard a lightening speed tandem steampowered motorcycle that can scale canyon walls together—you get the picture. It was a casual kind of fun; like the title of this post says—cooperative play was this game’s saving grace. Some of the “look at us on our summer vacation!” shots here are evidence of that.

Visually, the game is a mixed bag. Generally, the textures are really sharp and vivid, which provides a hyper-realistic feel at times, and, as mentioned, the graphics engine has considerable draw distance. It’s a colorful game too, and it ran smoothly on a mid-line laptop. But then there are some surprisingly ugly, low-rez textures thrown in haphazardly as well, and there’s the bizarre dollhouse-like quality to many of the environments when taking the extreme draw distance into account. My coop partner and I also kept noticing “seams” where the various texture planes did not meet properly, leaving tiny bright “cracks” in the universe here and there—clearly a quality control issue. The camera control and character control are smooth, and while some reviewers have groused about difficulty with aiming and a convoluted control scheme, I really had no such issues. Reloading—simultaneously squeezing the left “aim” trigger and pushing downward on the left thumbstick—was kind of a stupid decision, but it was the only control combo that I considered awkward. In addition, your character is vested early on in the game with the ability to see enemies through walls (during a brief, but painfully clichéd, powwow with a native American seer). Gameplay wise, this provides you with the ability to alter your tactics and make the game more fun, but plot-wise…huh? It is one of the most “tacked on” abilities I’ve ever seen; it comes completely out of left field and seems disconnected from the rest of the game’s world.  The AI is unintelligent, and the too-small (in my opinion) third-person perspective shrinks everyone down in size to the point where your enemies (of which there are 4 or 5 varieties?) really have no characteristics—they all look generally like cookie-cutter stickmen in the distance standing around waiting to be shot.

But most of these concerns disappear when you have fun goofing around, casually making your way through the cardboard-thin storyline with a friend on the couch, each with his own huge plasma screen TV side-by-side on the wall. Actually, massive plasma screens make everything better. Anyway, my advice: Just don’t play it alone.