How The West Was Lost

I have to admit that like a lot of other people, I was looking forward to Damnation. I love games set in the old West, and the addition of an alternate timeline and a steampunk theme made this one even better, at least on paper. The fact that the game promised to use vertical elements in the level design also was intriguing.

Unfortunately, the final game didn’t come out anywhere near my expectations. And that is too bad because all the elements were in place where it could have been good. But they just never came together.

The story, such that it is, follows several people who fought in the Civil War, but mostly centers around one man who is the main character. He’s pretty much your typical gunslinger. He has a nice backstory with a missing wife, though some of the other characters have more interesting ones. The overall plot is that a military contractor invented superweapons (this is where the steampunk angle enters) and armed both sides. These weapons were very destructive and ended up really destroying a large part of the U.S. Flush with money from those sales, the contractor decides to take advantage of the weak governments and take over the country for himself using even better weapons and a private army. The main character joins a band of heroes trying to stop this from happening.

My biggest problem with the game was discovered very early on. Regardless of what aspects or storytelling you want to put into your shooter, the game first has to survive as a shooter. Bioshock was great because of plot and atmosphere, but also because the game mechanics of the shooter engine were top notch. Turning Point: Fall of Liberty failed because the shooter aspect of the game was horrible despite everything else being really cool. And Damnation goes dangerously close to Turning Point in that aspect.

For a game centered on technology, you would think there would be tons of cool guns, but in fact, there is a very limited selection. The revolver that you start with is the best weapon in most cases, which makes upgrading to new ones counterproductive.

But no matter the gun, they just don’t seem very powerful. They sound like toys when they fire too, which is doubly disappointing. In Fallout 3 a shotgun booms. Here, guns kind of sound like little firecrackers being setoff in distant room somewhere. But worse than that is that enemies don’t seem to mind getting shot. Plug a bad guy with your pistol several times and he doesn’t even seem to react until you get up to the secret number of bullets he needs to die, and then he just falls over. It’s more like target shooting than combat. Guys up on a high ledge sometimes don’t even react at all when you shoot them. And nobody takes cover or does anything remotely smart in combat. I actually had to reload my gun after hitting an enemy several times and he just stood there waiting for me to do it so I could finish him off. I want bad guys to go down with one or two shots unless they are bosses or something, and I want them to react to being hit. Otherwise, why play shooters?

Some guns are okay, like the sniper rifle, but this is balanced by others that are completely worthless like the assault rifle. The assault rifle is so inaccurate that long range shooting is impossible and even close-up combat is dicey. And the bullets are so weak that even if you hit someone, it’s not going to bring them down. I’ve fired an entire clip into a bad guy at medium range with no affect whatsoever. Most of the bullets missed and the ones that hit didn’t faze him. For a western shooter, this is unforgivable.

The vertical elements in the game are also off the mark, though less so than the horrible combat engine. I had visions of scanning out across a map and finding routes that aren’t so obvious, figuring that if I could go from rooftop to rooftop, I might encounter fewer enemies and be rewarded for my exploration whereas someone just running across the ground would be shooting a lot more. You know, kind of like the gameplay in Assassin’s Creed. What I got were levels where you are forced to follow set paths lined with enemies that just happen to involve climbing hundreds of feet off the ground, jumping over to a flagpole, spinning around on it, leaping to a tiny ledge and catching it and then flipping up into a window without falling to my death. I felt more like a circus performer than a renegade gunslinger. If I wanted stuff like that, I’d pop in Tomb Raider.

I will say that the jumping parts of the game are done fairly well in terms of the control method. Normally I can’t stand games that make me jump a lot because there are too many keys. By focusing on the use of a sprint, jump and ready key exclusively, the game makes the jumping part fairly easy to achieve. In fact, even though I hate that type of thing, it was actually my favorite part of the game, though a lot of this was because the shooter aspect was so badly done it allowed other parts to shine.

You almost always have people with you on missions, and unfortunately they are only slightly less stupid than the enemies. Most levels are like puzzles in a way, where you have to find the hidden path to get to a distant rooftop or cable-car or landmark. Your partner will say something like "you go ahead and I’ll wait here and watch your back" which translates to "I am going to do nothing at all and there is no real reason why I’m here." You go out and climb and flip and jump and swing on chains while your buddy stands guard over a level that you’ve already cleaned out. Then when you finally find the right way to get hundreds of feet off the ground, your friend suddenly springs to life and flips and flops up to your new position like an Olympic gymnast with a performance that makes your stumbling and bumbling look pretty sad. But they won’t move till you cross that magic line to activate them.

There are steam powered motorcycles in the game that serve as levels too. You drive along a track hitting a boost button before jumps and sometimes running up alongside of walls, letting your momentum keep you stuck there instead of falling to your death. These levels were more annoying than fun really, but at least they were rich in save points so that if you die you won’t have to go back too far to try again.

The sad part is that Damnation is not a bad game. But a shooter with a shaky shooting mechanic is like a house built on sand. Without a good foundation, everything else is kind of secondary and unimportant. And it’s not like everything else about Damnation is great either.

In the end Damnation is sort of like the nicest of the damned in terms of games. There might be elements that you enjoy here and there, but overall, it’s still not a game that you want to waste too much money on. And it will fall well short of your expectations just like the game fell well short of its potential.

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