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Gaming was, for a long time, mostly a single player experience. At the arcade, you dropped in your quarters, played for a few minutes and moved one. At home, you’d play a bit or pass the controller to your sibling or friend and cheer (or holler) your way through. Then came split-screen play and everything was different. From racing and fighting to full-on shared adventure titles, split-screen play made gaming a shared experience like no other and suddenly we were challenging our friends or fighting alongside them. In the mid-90s, myriad titles erupted onto home consoles, keeping gamers huddled together for long session through the night. Just one more level, one more race, one more fight.
In 1997, Rare, a gaming studio who had been making games for Nintendo since 1986, released a first-person shooter based on a film of the same name called GoldenEye, and to say this was a game-changer would be a massive understatement. A one-time on-rails game, the team shifted to a free-roaming shooter based on the story from the film and in the process introduced stealth, head-shots and reloading mechanics and was the very first home console first person shooter. And as great as all that is, it was the tacked-on multiplayer thrown on at the end of the game’s development that wholly changed the face of console shooters forever.
Players had seen nothing like it and they fell into with total abandon. With four-player split-screen action, it was mayhem from the first day players discovered it and it still tops the list of greatest shooters of all-time. Needly to say, I played a lot of it. A. Lot. It wasn’t long after that fans were clamoring for more. Rare had intended on making a sequel based on the next James Bond film, Tomorrow Never Dies, but were outbid for the rights and so had to go in a new direction. Re-skinning much of what they had developed, they introduced Perfect Dark to the world in 2000, and suddenly that ol’ GoldenEye magic was back. Maybe even a little better.
Perfect Dark is another free-roaming first person shooter, this time with a female protagonist named Joanna Dark, an agent for the Carrington Institute, a secret research and development organization working with an alien species called the Maians who are at war with the Skedar. The Carrington Institute is also in a kind of war with its chief competitor, dataDyne, a massive defense contractor who are aligned with the Skedar, hoping to use the borrowed alien technology to open a mysterious craft resting at the bottom of the sea. Dark’s first mission is to extract Dr. Caroll (an AI in a hovering laptop) from dataDyne, who wishes to be free of the company once he’s learned of their nefarious and corruptive policies. Dark then learns that Carrington himself has been kidnapped though she rescues him and Dr. Carroll gets stolen and taken to the G5 Corporation, a front for dataDyne. Dark then learns that they plan to kidnap the President of the United States in order to get access to an deep undersea exploratory research vessel called the Pelagic II, but before Dark can handle that, a Maian spacecraft crashes near Area 51. Dark heads there and meets Elvis, a Maian who joins Dark in the adventure involving a clone of the President and an alien invasion. You’ll have to play to find out what happens. But here’s a clue: Awesome. Awesome happens.
As great as the story is, it is the gameplay, especially the split-screen, which this time, allowed players to cooperatively play the campaign missions as well as multiplayer combat maps. What’s so great about Perfect Dark is how fast-paced but accessible it is, how well-designed the maps are and how it isn’t just running and gunning. Skill is a key of course, but one can also just hop in and “get it” straight away (mostly). And you don’t just have to play against each other. Perfect Dark lets you pick teams and then populate those teams with a staggering number of computer-controlled enemy (or friendly) AI ‘bots’ called Simulates, from easy targets to well-protected and armed opponents. In other words, chaos. And it isn’t just ‘easy’, ‘medium’, ‘hard’ bots. Look at this list of options:
Then, once you choose the difficulty setting for the sims on the map, you have even more choices to make. You can give each sim their own identity:
Anyone who’s heard of Perfect Dark knows about the fantastic collection of weapons available in the campaign and in multiplayer, from pistols and shotguns, rifles and automatic machine guns, to cool technology like the laptop gun, a machine gun disguised as a laptop that can be fired manually or as a mounted turret. There is also alien tech weapons like the Phoenix, which shoot energy orbs, and the Mauler, a hand canon that deals incredible damage by charging five shots into one. But all that means nothing if you get your hands on the FarSight XR-20, a sniper rifle that not only gives the player the ability to see through walls, floors, and ceilings, but also shoot through them. Over-powered? Probably. Unfair? Definitely. Trippy fun that will have your friends cursing? One hundred percent.
Many games lose their staying power once they’ve been played. A few years later, they don’t have the same appeal. Some games transcend that sentiment and replaying them again is more than just a walk down memory lane. It is genuinely fun. Perfect Dark is just that, a fun action shooter with some funny sci-fi that is also challenging and rewarding. It has great characters, outstanding dialogue, a well-realized dystopian-ish setting, excellent music, and best of all, core shooting gameplay that is some of the best the Nintendo 64 had to offer. Currently available on Xbox One in the amazing (remastered) Rare Replay pack, which features both Perfect Dark and the follow-up, Prefect Dark: Zero (along with 30 other classic games), now is the ‘perfect’ time to try one of the greatest shooters ever made or go back and do it again.