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Damnation is a third-person shooter set in an alternate past. The American Civil War has turned out differently, technology has developed in new directions and you are pitched into this steampunk world and charged with saving the country. The gameplay has been hailed by the publishers Codemasters as an evolution for the genre. In actual fact the blend of third-person action, climbing and jumping with the odd vehicle section thrown in is entirely familiar stuff.
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The storyline in Damnation is complex with lots of characters and plenty of cutscenes. America is in the grip of a dictator. A rich industrialist by the name of William Dean Prescott runs PSI (Prescott Standard Industries) and employs an army of robots and soldiers hopped up on green serum. Technology has developed based on steam rather than electricity. You play as Rourke, a veteran soldier who has now joined a guerrilla resistance movement called the Peacemakers. You don’t really need to know any of this because each mission is a simple linear challenge where you have to shoot and climb your way through an environment without getting killed.
The game is third-person with standard WASD controls. You use the space bar to pull off various jumping actions and grab hold of chains, ropes and edges. Once you have a hold of something you hit space again to pull yourself up or you can hold left Shift and hit space to jump off backwards. This system allows you to jump through windows and scale walls quite quickly when you get used to it. Unfortunately, even when mastered, it never feels fluid enough. Considering the major selling point of the game is the vertical climbs this should feel a bit more engaging but I found it felt like a dated Tomb Raider. The death slides are nice and the puzzle side of figuring out your route as you go is quite fun but there really isn’t much depth to it.
The steampunk weapons come in a wide variety of flavours but they are essentially variants on familiar shooter game guns. There are various pistols, shotguns, machine guns, a rocket launcher, a sniper rifle and you can throw trip mines. The limited ammunition encourages you to change guns frequently and you can only carry three at any one time. Aiming and shooting is simple and this feels like a fairly standard third-person shooter.
There are also some vehicle sections in Damnation and you can jump on steam powered motorbikes to race through maps with enemies firing away at your dust cloud. The vehicles handle fine and these sections are fairly short and basic with little challenge to them.
Another power at your disposal is the ability to see enemies through walls. You can hold the Z key and see the outline of the enemies ahead. Once you attack they tend to move and so this was of limited use but it does give an idea of numbers. You are accompanied on your missions by various companions but they aren’t much help, to be honest. You can revive them when they get shot down, which will happen a lot. It was also a bit disconcerting to find them struggle to navigate through the map and they sometimes respawn right next to you.
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The art style is definitely steampunk and from a visual point of view some of the weapon and vehicle design is really good. The setting and style conjure memories of the awful film Wild, Wild West. There are also robots that look like basic Terminator models. The one truly impressive thing about Damnation is the huge open environments and some of them look great. You can see your destination in the distance as you work your way towards it. There are buildings cut haphazardly into the cliff face and while the layouts are obviously convoluted they do look inspiring.
The character design is less engaging. Rourke is a typical anti-hero with leather and metal patches and an Indiana Jones hat. Your main female ally, Yakecan is wearing the most hideously lewd and impractical outfit ever. She is liable to instantly turn off female gamers. The rest of the bunch are clad in western style cowboy outfits apart from the seer, Akhahando, who is clearly meant to be a native American.
The cutscenes have been crafted with skill and they look much better than the actual gameplay. However if you can tear your gaze away from Yakecan’s joke breasts you’ll find a visual style which struggles to hang together in a convincing fashion. There is nothing really wrong with the individual designs and the vehicles and weapons in particular are very good, but the environments are too clearly constructed for the gameplay. You can also tell that this is a multi-platform release and the graphics lack the level of sparkle or polish you would expect on a high end PC.
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The music is reasonably good but like most of the rest of the game it lacks a unique touch. It sounds like familiar movie theme music. The sound effects are fine, there isn’t much in the way of ambient sound and most levels are filled with propaganda broadcasts from PSI which is something that has been handled much better in other games. With such a complex and ambitious story Damnation really needed good voiceover work and sadly they didn’t get it. Winslow is probably the worst offender but all of the characters sound bored and they frequently deliver lines badly with the wrong emphasis.
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Don't Believe the Hype
Damnation is a great idea implemented badly. The story is just silly, the dramatic tension they strive for is never achieved because the characters look daft and the dialogue is badly scripted and terribly acted. The shooter gameplay is average at best, the AI do not pose a challenge and the clunky camera often leaves you shooting walls. There are certainly plenty of flaws with this game and the attempt to create something genuinely fresh in the genre has to be discounted as a failure.
Despite the weaknesses in Damnation the gameplay is quite enjoyable at times. The levels themselves and the weapons and vehicles all look interesting and some of the sections are enjoyable to play. The addition of a co-operative mode is good and the multiplayer options should extend the life of the game. Damnation is set to get roundly panned and this is partly because of the ill advised hype that surrounded its release. Damnation is actually quite fun but to suggest it represents an evolution for gaming is to invite ridicule.