Missed Opportunity: Darkest of Days (Demo)

Darkest of Days was actually released back in September, but I’d set it on the backburner because I didn’t have the money for it (that and it didn’t get stellar reviews). This and I only recently rediscovered it through the mention of a demo on Gamasutra’s postmortem of the game. Having played through the demo, I can say that the game is a fantastic concept that has excellent opportunity to make some real commentary about war and history, but squanders it through shallow writing, historical inaccuracies, and poor game design.

However, before I jump in and start tearing this apart, I want to say that the game was developed by a small studio with a $1.7m budget – chicken feed compared with the epic scale they envisioned. 8Monkeys should be lauded for producing such an ambitious title as an untested studio. I personally don’t care about the sub-par art assets; there’s enough there to make it manageable. What really gets me is the design and the missed opportunity. And as nobody seems to know, but what should be an obvious rule of thumb, have great audio and the visuals always look better anyway.

The Writing

The game’s premise is there is an institution of time travelers in the future who goes through time, rescuing people from the past who would otherwise be MIA, and bringing them to the future so they can be sent back to clean up history. It seems the professor who invented time travel has gone missing and the timeline has become screwed up (how they can tell, they don’t say). Such happens to the protagonist, Alexander Morris, a soldier from Custer’s Last Stand.

However, when you take a soldier from the past and send him to the future, how would you think he’d react? Wouldn’t this be some incredible amount of shock? Would he really blindly follow orders? And why would they send a dangerous and shocked man to a room where he has access to weapons? And yet we don’t get a single indication of what this man is thinking. For that matter, why don’t we get any clear reactions from other soldiers on the battlefield who see this man carrying a futuristic rifle?

Other reviews indicate that the character development is dismally sluggish to nonexistent from this point, which is a shame considering the kind of potential this narrative has.

Historical Accuracy

While historical accuracy usually takes a backseat to gameplay (Eternal Darkness with its Roman helmets is an exception), a game that is about history should at least try to remain historically accurate, correct? Well, it doesn’t seem to me like the designers did any kind of research at all, which irked me to no end.

First and most blaring, the introductory level, Custer’s Last Stand, doesn’t look a thing like the Little Bighorn. The terrain here is rocky, with trees and boulders aplenty. The real last stand hill is a grassy bump in the earth, a real godforsaken place. Granted, there is a ravine off to the side where the rest of E company made their final retreat (and were probably the last to be killed), but the place was brown and dead (ironically, the military cemetery seems to have irrigation and is a rectangle of green grass surrounded by brown stub). They could have at least made the place look like the famous painting of the battle, which at least for awhile was considered the most accurate:

Yeah, it’s not as pretty as a ravine, but it’s accurate and still interesting to look at.

Second, just like Medal of Honor: Pacific Assault, enemy casualties are wildly exaggerated: Indian casualties range anywhere from 36 (named) to 160 (estimates), but were probably very small compared with the 268 dead. Additionally, there is no Alexander Morris listed in the LBH casualties (though there is a Corporal G.C. Morris). You would think they could have picked a name from the list of dead, and conveniently there are a few poor guys listed as ‘presumed killed, body not found.’ (I found this in like 10 seconds on Google).

Third, the weapon reload time in Antietam is much faster than the real weapons. While the designers took the same route as Eternal Darkness and made the weapons much faster to reload, the speed of roughly 20-30 seconds to reload. They could have probably just gone all out and given an option to have the accurate reload times on this one (I also think they could have had some fun with the myth of jammed rifles at the Little Bighorn, but the soldiers there look like they are carrying Winchesters rather than the Springfields 1873 carbines.)

However, there are some things that Darkest of Days does very well. First, the Napoleonic warfare of Antietam is well presented with the rank fighting, even if the player is forced to move in those positions. This is further supported by the large number of soldiers on the battlefield at a given time, creating realistic-looking firing lines. It gives a very different – and more accurate – feel to the historical warfare that isn’t really communicated from the ‘one man army’ sense of most FPS titles. This could have been even better implemented through implementation of officer orders to fire in volleys.

Another thing they did well was illustrating the ‘harvest of death’ that Antietam was known for. There is one section where an wagon is filled with corpses and later on the soldiers come to a narrow cut in the earth where dozens of Union and Confederate dead lie in heaps. Soldiers will also fall in piles in front of you. The Little Bighorn level does an interesting job of this as well when the player gets shot with an arrow in the leg and is forced to fight sitting down in the dirt (there’s a few guys like that in the painting).

This is supported by soldiers who become wounded in battle, something uncommon with FPS games. However, these soldiers are limited to very low moans and subtle twitches at most (no screams or loud groans). Here was another missed opportunity to show the brutality of battle – and to continue showing it in each time period. As I stood over one of the wounded soldiers, I had to ask myself: why is this guy so quiet? And then I also asked: Is there anything I can do to help him? And perhaps the saddest part is the realization that I can’t.

Design

Game design is one of those areas that most people will hands-down say is the most important part. Here, I’ve listed it third because I feel that the narrative and meaningful potentials of the game could have made Darkest of Days stand out more than any other FPS out there, even if the game had this same level of design. However, there are still too many things going on with the level design that could have easily been fixed.

The biggest problem is telling the player where to go. The intro level does a good job of this by having fellow soldiers call out, ‘Follow us this way!’ However, all sense of direction is thrown out the window by the time we get to the tutorial – a section of the game that is supposed to let us know how to play the thing. This is further frustrated in Antietam where the player is forced to continue flipping to the map to even get a general sense of where to go. In some of these places, it would have made perfect sense to give the player an officer yelling at them, or even more of those nice yellow arrows (or at least an indication of ‘check your map! Does this guy even know where he’s going!?’). If confusion of war was something they wanted to communicate, this probably wasn’t the way to do it.

The second is giving player feedback in the battles. It isn’t immediately clear why the soldiers are shooting at you, but the real reason seems to be because I’m using the futuristic weapons. If you pull out something other than a Springfield, you become a bigger target. Couldn’t this be made more clear by having someone yell, “Hey! That guy’s a demon! He’s firing too fast!” A little feedback for the player can go a LONG way.

Third, there doesn’t appear to be any melee combat, despite having a bayonet (or at least I didn’t get an option). I also noticed an officer running around with a sword, which makes me wonder if you could pick one of those up (I’m guessing not).

Conclusion

Darkest of Days has some wonderful opportunity to explore the history of warfare and what it would have been like to be a soldier in each time period. Further, it could have really ground in the brutality of war. The game kind of gets this down through the cornfield sequence at Antietam and the piles of corpses, it doesn’t push the limit far enough, something that it extremely lacks through throwing much of history out the window. As it is, the unbelievable (and unemotional) character is just an empty husk and the battlefield a vehicle for futuristic weapons and blind ignorance. The confusion of where to go ultimately ends up sealing the nail on the coffin. Which is all really too bad – some better writing and a few changes with design here and there could have made this an incredibly memorable title that could have had something to say about war.

While I will say I’m interested in seeing how World War I trenches and World War II prison camps are portrayed, at this point I don’t think there is really going to be enough to keep me interested.

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