It's hard to know how to review a game like Perfect Dark, which was first released ten years ago on the N64, and now has a new home on Xbox Live Arcade. Having played the hell out of it when it was first released, I can't pretend not to have a whopping case of nostalgia for it - but then again, so will most players who are likely to be interested in it. So do I judge it as a current day release, or a beloved favorite? Well, let's try both.
For those of you new to this particular party (and honestly, it's a real shame if you missed out on PD the first time around) the game revolves around Joanna Dark, a brilliant, but untested secret agent and her mission to save the world from evil corporations and aliens. Although the story starts off relatively straightforward, it all goes quite weird fairly quickly. You can play through the story missions three ways: by yourself, co-operatively with a friend, or competitively. The first two modes are exactly what you'd expect, but in "Counter-Operative," you try to complete your mission while your friend does his best to hunt you down and kill you.
At the time of Perfect Dark's release, the option to play through a game's campaign with a pal was relatively rare, so having not one but two ways to do that was a plethora of riches. The ubiquity of online gaming renders these modes merely quaint, however, and even putting co-op and counter-op aside, the story missions haven't aged particularly well. Level design has grown by leaps and bounds during the past decade, and it shows in Perfect Dark's fairly rudimentary approach to the single-player campaign. It's by no means terrible, but if you're brand new to the game you're not likely to be terribly impressed.
The graphics don't help, either. Perfect Dark looks as good as it possibly could, but N64 games never were very attractive to begin with. You'll find yourself stuck more than once because you didn't recognize that a particular patch of color was supposed to be a door or elevator, and the characters are basically just collections of blocks with faces. It's somewhat unfair to criticize Perfect Dark for showing its visual age, but animations have advanced to the point that watching a character wave around mitten hands while its voice comes out of a face that's apparently overdosed on Botox is a bit off-putting.
Perfect Dark's solo campaign may not fare that well in a modern environment, but its multiplayer still holds up remarkably well. It's a bit primitive in some ways - have fun trying to jump - but it's still a hell of a good time. If offers the deathmatch, capture the flag, and king of the hill modes you'd expect, and really excels when it comes to customizability. You can hop into a quick, ready-made match, or tweak the time, teams, arena, and weapons to your specific whim. There are loads of guns to choose from, too; all manner of pistols, automatic weapons, rockets, grenades, and gadgets, most of which come with an alt-fire. (Try the fly-by-wire on the rocket, you'll love it.)
By far the most fun feature in Perfect Dark's multiplayer are its bots, or "simulants," as the game calls them. Though you can load up bots based simply on difficulty level, it's far more fun to tap into the sims created around specific personality behaviors, such as the Cowardsim, which runs away, or the Turtlesim, which has a prototype shield that's a real bitch to get through. My personal favorite, though, is the Vengesim, who will hunt whatever player killed it last. There are a whole bunch, though, which makes mixing and matching a big part of the fun. Just don't expect a cakewalk - you may have honed your skills on modern shooters, but those simulants are alarmingly fast and accurate.
Perfect Dark was jaw-droppingly amazing when it was released, so technologically advanced that it required a special peripheral - Nintendo's Expansion Pak - to play the majority of the game. What was once astounding - features like individual reload animations, the ability to shoot out lights, and motion blur - have become commonplace, so much of what made Perfect Dark special has been lost to the inescapable march of time. The game also created a refined and robust multiplayer experience in the days before the internet, offering seemingly infinite options for replayability (provided you could get some friends into your living room), but finding a good multiplayer game isn't exactly difficult these days.
Bottom Line: Between the storyline missions and the Combat Simulator, you get a lot of content for the price of admission to Perfect Dark. The missions are decent, but the multiplayer is the real reason to play this game.
Recommendation: If you loved it the first time around, you'll have loads of fun with it this time, too. If you're a complete newbie to the exploits of Joanna Dark, Mr. Blonde, and Elvis, you're best off trying the demo first.
Susan Arendt named her character in Mass Effect after Joanna Dark.