Damnation (Xbox 360)
Remember steampunk? It's the hip, cool fantasy subgenre spun out of the inspirations of Jules Verne and H.G. Wells where steam mechanics, clockwork machines and hydraulic design manage to somehow mimic post-industrial advances of digital technology. A recent fascination with steampunk -- including a shark-jumping New York Times article -- wound up making the whole thing seem a bit burnt-out and pass?. Still, the fact that Damnation takes an overdone trend as its jumping-off point is the least of its problems.
Damnation's story is a mishmash of clich?d hard-boiled revenge, Native American mythology and alternative-history tomfoolery. A munitions mega-corporation named Prescott Standard Industries has taken over the federal government, and insane industrialist Mr. Prescott stands on the brink of a war, with an army of proto-robots. It's up to Rourke, a disgraced soldier, a stereotypical American Indian tribeswoman and a macho Mexican to try and stop Prescott.
The game started as an Unreal Tournament 2004 mod, and you can tell where Damnation's truly designed to be a multiplayer competitive experience. The verticality of the arenas -- chock-full of hidey-holes and snipers' nests -- plays to multiplayer, but the single-player campaign feels a slog through confusing environments where the path forward isn't always obvious. Maybe the developers were going for a hybrid feel: Gears of War meets Red Dead Revolver by way of Will Smith in "Wild Wild West." The basic control scheme mimics that of Gears but it doesn't have the Roadie Run, the dodge or cohesive cover. As a result, during the heavier firefights, you're running around with little in the way of strategic options.
The Native American seer you meet early on in the game grants Rourke the gifts of Spirit Vision and Spirit Revive. The former allows you to see enemies and allies through solid walls, and the latter lets you get an ally back on their feet just by looking at them and holding down the appropriate bumpers. But Spirit Vision's not terribly useful when every enemy in the game shoots at you and runs to and fro as soon as you enter a level. And that ranged Revive is just about the most interesting bit of design going into Damnation.
Everything in Damnation feels clunky and clogged-up, like it's not making the most of the system's processing power. The character animations happen slowly and lack charm. Actions like changing weapons on the d-pad or doing wall jumps feel positively glacial when you attempt them. The weapon designs feel similarly under-realized: The Railroad Spike Gun tries to be a cousin to Gears' Torque Bow, but doesn't actually make you feel any more powerful than the other weapons do. Likewise for the game's steampunk vehicles -- dirigibles, motorcycles, biplanes -- which all look cool, but aren't interesting in terms of gameplay. The platforming elements are a joke, especially in an era when Assassin's Creed and Infamous make traversal a joy in its own right.
Our heroic cowboy needs to fill his steamcycle up on whatever it runs on? coal, water, wood? I think it operates on shame.
Your artificial-intelligence partners spout banal lines that are supposed to convey a tense, begrudging alliance -- but the dialogue's so bad that you'll hate just about anyone you encounter in the game. Yes, you can play cooperatively through the campaign, but you should only do that if you want to lose a friend.
How bad is it? As I kicked in a window in the Mine level, an enemy stood stock-still, not even reacting as I shot him. It's this kind of thing that just makes Damnation feel like Amateur Hour. For a game selling itself on a traversal mechanic that's supposedly innovative for shooters, Damnation sports one of the choppiest, ugliest sets of climbing animations I've ever seen. It's like someone broke Lara Croft's legs, dislocated her left shoulder, made her gain 378 lbs and still decided to put her through her paces. And we're talking last-gen Lara, not Nouveau Lara.
The steampunk elements in the game don't do enough to make Damnation feel any less lugubrious or clunky. Indeed, the most steampunk thing about the game is that it feels like a barely functioning relic from an alternative reality that shouldn't exist.
This review is based on a retail copy of the game provided by the publisher.