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Codemasters takes shooters to the vertical dimension, but there's very little to recommend about this Gears knockoff...
They say imitation is the sincerest form of flattery; if that's the case, Blue Omega took their adulation of Epic Games to an all-new level with Damnation on Xbox 360 and PlayStation3.
Damnation begins with lots of action as the two protagonists arrive on the scene amidst explosions and plenty of bikes flying through the air. It's hard to take the steampunk inspired story seriously, with characters that would be more fitting as extras in the Mask of Zorro. But then again Gears is never going to win any award for its dramatic storytelling, and all a shooter really needs to deliver is strong and compelling action.
Now let's get our main bugbear out of the way to begin with. We understand that when a game becomes popular others will attempt to replicate its success; it's only natural that others want a piece of the pie. But, Damnation is something else. The worn, gritty, mechanical look is closely reminiscent of Gears of War, but then again so are many shooters, particularly those powered by Unreal Engine 3. It's when you pause the game and spot an identical 'Dymo' font that you realise Blue Omega are just taking the piss. The blatant similarities continue. You'll spend most of the game with two allies alongside you; the greyscale bleed-out effect is nigh-on identical; collectables come in the form of something that looks very similar to Cogs; when your allies fall under fire they'll crouch helplessly on the floor just like Dom and Cole. The only problem is, Damnation never comes close to replicating Gears' qualities; instead it poorly emulates the gameplay and makes a number of strange choices for new features.
So what does Damnation bring to the table? A vertical shooter is how Codemasters and Blue Omega describe it, but all this amounts to is a Tomb Raider-esque ability to hoist yourself onto ledges and swing down ziplines. When the emphasis is on action such a decision seems to be demonstrate precious little thought into why this feature would actually benefit the game, particularly when the enemy AI never really takes it into account. In reality, it just adds further problems to what is already a hum-drum shooter. As a third-person shooter, Blue Omega has decided to remove one of the most crucial elements of any modern third-person shooter and decided the game doesn't require a covering system. Instead you'll have to resort to awkward presses of the crouch button in a clumsy attempt to seek cover behind objects. Without a cover system there's also no blind-fire; it's like we've taken a step back to 2004.
The main objective relies upon finding your way to the end of the level; sounds simple, but actually proves to be anything but, as you attempt to do so without a map, checkpoints, and umpteen buildings to scale before you. It smacks of a desperate attempt to pad out each level in the game, dragging the teeth-pulling experience even further into new dimensions of pain as you clamber up onto ledges you've already visited just to try and find where you need to head. The trick is to stick close to your AI controlled teammates as they'll often hone in on the destination with GPS-like accuracy - just make sure to keep close from the beginning of the level as they'll sprint off without you otherwise. They're not entirely dependable however and will often find themselves needy of your assistance. The difference between Damnation and Gears is that the latter provided a visual clue as to where your allies had fallen, but Damnation insists you wander aimlessly around the stage until you find them - or move onto the next checkpoint where they've miraculously managed to heal themselves.
Blue Omega has also been keen to point out the opponent AI, which embraces the same abilities of the main character. Our experience suggested the opposite. Sure the opponents will use rails and climb up onto to ledges, but it's so infrequent that you have to question whether it's AI or merely scripted events. More concerning is the fact that such knowledge of the environment evidently comes at the cost of the basics, namely knowing when you're standing right next to them. On numerous occasions we'd turn around a corner and stand right next to an enemy, waiting deliberately until they noticed... and waited, and waited. An Achievement alludes to the fact that there's a stealth mechanic in the game, rewarding players for killing a certain number of enemy troops without alerting them. The fact is, Damnation is a third-person shooter, the emphasis should be on the action and so this concept comes across as little more than a smokescreen to disguise the game's atrocious AI.
Further confused design choices are demonstrated by the way in which Damnation handles death. Although getting shot by an opponent punishes you with the horribly frustrating checkpoint system, which are few and far between, it seems as though Blue Omega got a little confused over the difference between being shot to death and jumping to your death. Evidently realising that falling to your death can happen quite a bit, your character will instantly respawn on such occasions. This leads to the strange situation when you're close to death in the middle of a gunfight, where it's better just to jump to your doom and restart instantaneously with full health!
Even the most basics of camera and controls Damnation gets wrong. There's a floaty feel to the camera that doesn't suit an intense shooter, which is further compounded by a strange delay whenever you rotate the camera. Gunplay feels spectacularly underwhelming, leaving you to question whether you're using peashooters instead of the game's array of pistols, rifles, and shotguns.
The game's visuals are a poor attempt to emulate Gear's worn, gritty, mechanic style. There's a hideous disjointed abruptness demonstrated when characters switch between different animations. Although nowhere near as poor as the game's other faults, the background music and voice acting are so unassuming that you almost forget it's even there, playing away to itself in the background.
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