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On paper, Damnation for 360 has some great ideas for story and gameplay. Unfortunately the game itself bungles all of these strong ideas with incompetent and uninspired execution, resulting in muddled tedium.
Cowboys battling across an alternative 19th century America, fighting steam-powered robots. Great mechanisms of brass and iron must be mastered or destroyed. Turbo-charged motorbikes take the place of horses, tearing across the plains of the old west. Majestic airships glide over cities that expand the aesthetic of the west to a Science Fiction scale. Put like that, the story of Damnation sounds great.
The gameplay ambitions are also strong, seeking to combine the third person shooting of Gears of War with the platforming and exploration of Tomb Raider, lofty aims that suggest a sort of steam-powered Crackdown, the kind of game I would love to play.
Well, if I want to play the game Damnation claims to be, I'll just have to wait, because all that promise evaporates almost as soon as the game starts. After a long, action-packed but nonetheless quite boring cut scene, I was finally allowed to take control of lead character Rourke.
This is the first and most significant failure of Damnation's attempt to involve me in its pulpy western world.
Now, the very least I expect from a cowboy character is that they be quick on the trigger, but Damnation's control system is so clunky and fiddly that aiming and firing is a tedious process of standing still and dragging the cross-hairs across the screen until they line up with the enemy, then desperately tapping the trigger in the hope that they'll die before filling Rourke with bullets. Should I try and dodge enemy shots, I lost my bead on the target and had to do the whole standing still/slow targeting thing again.
Not that the control system is good enough to allow you to weave and dodge much anyway: Rourke moves with the grace and agility of a broken shopping trolley laden with breeze blocks. On foot, he lurches around bumping into scenery, and climbing and jumping are just a matter of tapping one button and watching him do a pre-canned move.
This is the first and most significant failure of Damnation's attempt to involve me in its pulpy western world, the lack of a significant physical connection to the action. The control system felt like I might as well have been manipulating the controls with my hands in a basin of thick soup. This would be just about acceptable in an adventure game, but in an action game the palpable sense of inaction is unforgivable.
This is the worst of Damnation's missed opportunities, but far from the only one. There's no exoticism to this alternative universe, with the fusion of western and SF elements represented by drab, generic settings, and leather costumes that could come from any action game. A fantasy version of the old west is an excellent opportunity for bold characters, rich settings and explosive action. Instead, we just get a parade of video game cliches, grey little men walking around the same old warehouses and outbuildings.
Damnation isn't just unambitious though, it also feels shoddy and unfinished.
Damnation isn't just unambitious though, it also feels shoddy and unfinished. Spotting the varied ways that the game engine tries to paper over these cracks is one of the few fun things about the game: companion characters sometimes lag behind, then appear ahead of you as if by magic; drive off on the motorbike without them, and they'll magically transmit to the passenger seat; and make an imprecise jump, and you'll jerk on to the object you were leaping towards, with no covering animation.
Other shortcomings are covered over by restricting spectacle to cut-scenes. Even though the cut-scenes themselves are quite boring, they seem to include far more of the story than the busywork the player gets to do.
Damnation annoyed me far more than other bad games I've played because, unlike other duffers, its story and gameplay ideas have so much potential. Steampunk is a great genre for lavish worlds and interesting adventures, especially when combined with the uncouth edge of a western. Damnation takes this potential and fumbles it. Very disappointing.
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