Perfect Dark Zero has a feeling that it doesn’t quite know what it wants to be. It’s a prequel to the much loved Perfect Dark on N64, but also wants to be more like Halo. But at the same time it wants to be a stealth game and a cheesy over the top action game. To me, it gives me the impression that Rare were working on a new IP, but ended up shoving the Perfect Dark name into it mid-development. I have no idea if that’s what happened, it’s just the feeling the game gives.
The story starts out before Joanna Dark joins the Carrington Institute, where her and her dad (who comes across more of a brother in terms of looks and voice) are freelance agents trying to save someone (and their research) that DataDyne is interested in. The dialogue is over-the-top cheesy and the plot absurd. If this wasn’t related to Perfect Dark, it would be enjoyable in a “parody blockbuster action film” kind of way, similar to what WET did with B-movie action films.
There’s even one segment where you can choose which kind of sassy response Jo gives an enemy, but this doesn’t crop up again, so it feels out of place. If this went full in with the parody action, and let you choose dialogue through the game, it could be hilarious and entertaining. The music is also wonderfully cheesy, with some brilliantly funky beats that fit the visual style quite well. A lot of the setups – such as a virtual deathmatch with a cheating opponent called Mei Hem – would even be perfect with the parody style, along with a boss fight towards the end of the game with a couple of cowboys that come out of nowhere. It’s never explained who they are and are never mentioned again.
And if the gameplay went alongside this, such as the previously mentioned WET or the more recent Bulletstorm, then I think it would be thoroughly entertaining. Unfortunately, the gameplay feels slow and sluggish. Even at 100% sensitivity, aiming feels like its on a very low setting. Stealth is also quite paramount, as enemies will hound you relentlessly if you’re spotted. They’re very good shots from a distance and it’s very difficult to tell where a shot is coming from. Your best hope is to try and funnel the dumb AI into a choke point and take them out as they come trough.
Level design also doesn’t match the style. Everything just comes across as a bit tame, with no memorable locations. Levels also don’t flow very well, so you’ll spend the whole game just wondering if you’re heading the right way until the game takes pity on you and displays arrows on the floor. Within each level, a lot of the areas look the same, making it easy to get lost.
Weapons also feel fairly weak, as enemies take a lot to go down (especially with armour that explodes off the wearer in an over the top manner). You also now have limited slots, so you’ll mainly stick with a pistol and assault rifle. There are some cool weapons in the game, but you’ll likely never use them in the campaign because you lose a vital slot for one of your main guns. The original Perfect Dark created a wonderful weapon wheel to manage all the weapons, so going to a two weapon layout feels restrictive, and you miss out on some really fun weapons.
DataDyne and the Carrington Institute also feel very different. DataDyne is run by insane over the top villains (while Cassandra was greedy but not totally insane), while Carrington Institute feels more like a mercenary gang or unprofessionals and less like a spy agency, with agents testing Jo as a sex object and not an equal, with Johnathan constantly making a pass as Jo and someone you rescue saying a dumb line like “if I knew rescue looked like this, I’d have gotten in danger sooner”. Give them new names and you wouldn’t notice any similarities between them and the versions from the original game.
The same also holds true for Joanna Dark. Take the same plot, story, music, rename some things and give it the over the top action gameplay such a story deserves and you could have something immensely fun and entertaining. Instead, the style of Perfect Dark Zero are at odds with each other, making both seem worse than they actually are. Neither part is terrible, it’s just that they don’t fit together.