Near Perfect

Perfect Dark Zero isn't a bull's-eye, but it hits the target.

Dec 7, 2005 at 4:00 am
In less than a decade, first-person shooters like Doom and Halo have grown from a niche genre to a cottage industry. Whether it's our love for their immersiveness, competition, or just old-fashioned bloodlust, the popularity of FPS games shows no sign of waning.

They've become so much of a draw, in fact, that people will buy a brand-new, outrageously expensive console just to play a great game. Microsoft learned this with Halo, the killer app that not only moved many an Xbox, but also spawned a blockbuster sequel and a big-budget movie deal. So when Microsoft first announced the Xbox 360, many expected that on launch day, Halo 3 would help history repeat itself.

Well, it turns out that Halo 3 is still in the offing. Instead, Microsoft brings us Perfect Dark Zero. While it isn't as groundbreaking or well designed as Halo -- or reason enough to buy a 360 -- it's definitely not a misfire.

So what does PDZ do right? The most important parts of an FPS: the feel of the game play and the multiplayer options, with enough tweaks here and there to distinguish it from the competition.

One welcome change is the elimination of jumping -- an FPS staple -- in favor of an evasive roll. Not only is it more effective as a defensive maneuver, but it eliminates the ridiculous sight of gun-wielding competitors bouncing around like fleas to make themselves harder to hit, a widespread phenomenon in other games.

Another notable addition is a "cover" move. Anytime you're near an object, a press of a button lets you hide behind it. From there, you can lean out to fire a few shots when needed, then duck back to safety when things get hairy. It seems simple, but it's wickedly satisfying to empty a clip into chumps who foolishly charge the corner where you're hiding.

And the weapons -- oh, the weapons. PDZ's armory is like porn for the militia set. From the bizarre Psychosis Gun (which blurs the victims' vision and makes them mistake friends for foes) to the ferocious SuperDragon (a deafening machine gun with grenade launcher), the game offers more than 20 unique firearms. More impressive than their sexy looks or booming sound effects is the fact that they're all surprisingly well balanced, meaning that even pistol-wielders will stand a chance against heavily armed opponents.

All this -- the controls, the cover mode, the weapons -- makes the multiplayer game great fun, whether you're playing with friends in the same room or online through Xbox Live. On this front, PDZ scores a rout.

Unfortunately, the visuals are a mixed bag. The character designs range from goofy-looking to dog-ass ugly, and odd graphical glitches scattered throughout the game make it feel unfinished.

Also, after you've sampled the excellent multiplayer modes, the single-player adventure feels like an afterthought. The story and characters are terminally bland -- but the biggest flaw lies in the level design: Most of the game's maps are so large and intricate, it's hard to figure out where you're supposed to go next. Much boring wandering ensues.

So while PDZ isn't the well-rounded package it could have been, it is an excellent choice for fans of the FPS genre. Though not the star of the Xbox 360 lineup (that distinction goes to Project Gotham Racing 3 or Xbox Live itself), it's certainly a sweet way to kill time until Halo 3 gets here.