Review: Damnation

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Damnation doesn’t deserve to be a called a game. It’s a rough draft that, like the essay you wrote in fourth grade, should remain frozen in time, a reminder of how far you’ve come. Fourth grade essays should not be, as is the case with Damnation, a starting point for something complex, aimed at an audience more discerning than those of your 10 year old classmates. I have to believe that at some point everyone involved with the project realized the inevitability of this game’s mediocrity. It clearly aimed to be more than the underwhelming sum of its parts. Players will notice the enormous environments, the different styles of gameplay and the interesting choice of a Steam Punk Western setting. But, ambition and clearly limited resources aside, this game never had a prayer. Its ideas, even if they were properly executed, are five years old and have since been eclipsed by more modern gameplay innovations.

As an experience, Damnation is something of a blast to the awkward past. I’ll quickly mention that the game’s premise is that the civil war never ended, which resulted in a Steam Punk future where everyone wears cowboy hats. It’s a third person shooter before cover systems were invented, a platformer that borrows only the basic innovations of Prince of Persia: SOT and a game saturated with bloom lighting. Damnation‘s brittle skeleton shows itself immediately in the first act, when one of your squad mates tells you to take cover and you run forward expecting to stick nicely to one of the walls that seems designed for the purpose. But the mechanic doesn’t exist, and the game ends up playing like an awkward FPS: combat involving nothing more than a combination of running and strafing.

The platforming feels strange as well. Although mechanics, like hanging from ledges and wall jumping, are familiar, the enormous set pieces and carefully placed environmental cues that define a great 3D platformer like Prince of Persia: SOT are conspicuously absent. It’s interesting how aimless and even empty the gameplay feels without these elements that are taken for granted in better games.

The “last gen” experience this game offers is brought full circle by the game’s graphics. While the Steam Punk Western setting has some originality, comparisons to the failed Will Smith star vehicle Wild Wild West notwithstanding, the game is so thoroughly inconsistent in its visuals that players will hardly notice. Textures, not something I’d normally harp on, range from the stretched and blurred, which might be more at home on an N64, to the horribly pixelated. The character models are serviceable, and could even live up to the moniker Gears clone, but they end up fading into the bland backgrounds, washed out by the pervasive bloom lighting that saturates the entire game in an unfortunate corona.

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But maybe, this is just a matter of opinion. Perhaps an otherwise competent game is just being bashed around by a jaded reviewer who has gotten lost in his own esoteric and snobbish concerns. Still, even if this was true, the game’s bugs and broken gameplay far override any bias carried by the reviewer. It’s the technical errors and generally rough state that take Damnation from being merely ill conceived to inexcusable. For instance, the protagonist, Hamilton Rourke, will often continue moving forward a few feet even after the player has stopped doing so. There are other problems that afflict everything from enemy AI to shooting accuracy. To go into them in more depth would only be a waste of time because it’s evident these problems weren’t design choices, but glitches that were left unaddressed.

The environments also reveal how unfinished this game is. The levels are enormous, but largely empty, with enemies and action being concentrated in very small bursts throughout the game. Ironically, true to the game’s Western setting, the levels end up being ghost towns. The feeling that the game is half finished is a problem of the worst sort because it ends up defining the experience. The very baseline of competency, that a game functions on a technical level, doesn’t exist in Damnation.

There are plenty of other features that I’m not mentioning, but their success is so reliant on the fundamentals Damnation lacks that they never get off the ground. Multiplayer, both of the co-op and versus variety, can’t elevate the single player experience because the controls are flawed. As a result there are also very few people to play online with. The variety of weapons hardly matters either because shooting enemies is a chore with all of them. And the plot? See Unskippable for the final call on that.

Lifeless is the word that best describes this game. Damnation feels like the ashy remnants of a spark that ignited in 2004. This makes sense, considering the game’s origins as an Unreal 2004 mod. Players can see the charred bits of a few great ideas and impressive ambitions. But at some point between conception and the store shelf, this game turned into a quick buck for a publisher and the reevaluation it needed, along with the resources it most definitely deserved, were pushed to the wayside. The flaws of this game go beyond taste and mere opinion. They are fundamental and make even experiencing, much less enjoying, Damnation a challenge.

The Bottom Line: Damnation is an emaciated wolf in sheep’s clothing. On the back of the box this game looks like a Western Gears of War and has all the features one would expect in a modern game of that ilk. But after playing it, it quickly becomes evident that the bugs are numerous and gameplay ideas only half formed.

Recommendation: Don’t buy or rent this game. It’s doubtful Damnation would’ve been a good game even if it was polished, but the rough state of the game makes it nearly unplayable and at best frustrating for even the biggest fans of third person shooters and Steam Punk Western motifs.

Tom Endo would classify Damnation as a Regretti Western.

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