Damnation? With a title that's an open invitation for cantankerous reviewers to be cruel if the game isn't up to snuff, Blue Omega Entertainment must have some major cojones. Still, I'm glad it's there: imagining up puns with the name was actually the most fun I had with Damnation. It's bad, you see. Under no circumstance does anybody actually need to play Damnation. It's monotonous from the minute it starts to the second it closes, a rare example of a game that starts bad and gets worse. There's no moment of design redemption on show, and no temporary, fleeting periods of initiative or spark. It's simply a dire game that's been poorly made.
Plus it's so rancid it doesn't even need a pun.
It opens with aplomb, however, with a ragtag bunch of renegade heroes blasting through a robot army in an alternate post-Civil War America. The star of the show is Hamilton Rourke, attempting to stand out (and failing) from the crowd of generic heroes by wearing a Stetson and having two last names. His face resembles a buffer, squashed version of The League of Gentlemen's Steve Pemberton, and he valiantly fights for truth, justice and the American way. Sort of, anyway, as he's pitted against Prescott, a rather nasty chap who champions the establishment of dictatorial New America and jacks everybody up on a miracle serum, with side effects of green eyes and going completely batty. The rest of the cast include a wise, grizzled, bearded confidant and a Native American lady with barely-covered honkers who shouts a lot. There's more, but the cast of Damnation have an uncanny knack of effortlessly combining into a tedious, homogeneous blur, although the lowlight is a crazy Mexican sidekick who keeps threatening to murder everyone.
The script is as wonky as the character designs. One of the first bits of dialog in the game is a quip about jumping through what is called some of the last remaining glass in the world, only to have you immediately come up against a veritable swarm of glass windows for the entire game. A minor niggle, true, but immediate proof of the grating inconsistencies and sloppy direction that plague Damnation.
It's the sort of game that you genuinely want to like, though. The steampunk western concept is a winner in itself, despite being lazily implemented, and the underdog team at Blue Omega fill you with hopes of indie design teams creating excellent titles. Damnation's accolades both begin and end as a winner of a $40,000 USD prize in the 2004 'Make Something Unreal' contest. I can only assume they've been spending their winnings on Pringles, shoes, and DVD boxsets as the game looks, feels and plays like it hasn't been updated in the last five years: the only discernable difference to its state in 2004 is that Blue Omega have nicked off with as much of Gears of War as was possible without risking a lawsuit.
They've even, brazenly, pinched the font.
It's certainly possible for modding teams to create commercially successful properties, so there's no excuse as to why Damnation's execution is so painfully flaky, consisting as it does of a decidedly amateurish interpretation of Unreal Engine 3 smoothed over disturbingly broken foundations. I can only assume that Blue Omega purposefully left out a snap-to cover system, as well, considering they were more than happy to plunder everything else from Gears of War, but the feeble amount of health you're given means staying out in the open is impossible. Instead, you're forced to squat behind various objects, none of which providing total protection from your assailants, and all without the game giving you the means to shoot from cover; bullets often end up just hitting whatever you're perched beneath even if the reticule says the shot is a good 'un. Fighting is either agonising, due to the game's ineptitude, or just simply boring. Without the rigidity of an actual cover system it becomes a broken, cumbersome mess that simply doesn't work: you simply can't imitate Gears of War and leave out its most central gameplay mechanic.
Not to mention that the enemy AI is laughable, often forgetting to react to your volleys of gunfire and completely failing to respond to their comrades being taken down from afar. The game compensates for its own clumsiness by throwing adversaries at you en masse, artificially increasing the difficulty by forcing you to react to threats that often come from two or three directions at once. To combat this frustration, Rourke is equipped with some kind of kooky wallhack power, giving him the ability to see where all the enemies on the map are by holding down the left bumper for a couple of seconds. It doesn't really mesh together, though.
Sadly, your AI companions are even more remedial than the enemies. They follow you around in a predictably Gears-esque fashion, only regularly getting stuck in walls and getting incapacitated at seemingly random times. They fall over a lot, because they're so badly designed, so Blue Omega have afforded Rourke the ability to resuscitate them with his mind, effectively removing any tension from these moments. There are, also, plenty of broken scripted events where you're told to do stuff like hide whilst your partner flanks or creates a distraction, but in reality you simply disregard that and just shoot everyone. Nobody else will, that's for sure.
Combat, which makes up the bulk of the game, feels like a shooting gallery. You spring up, fire off a few rounds and then duck down again. The technology is about as complex as a carnival game, too; in a gunfight heads jerk awkwardly back and forth, with everything else often remaining static. Characters are animated with as few frames as possible, running around murky, grey areas with stretched, uninspired textures. Everything culminates in an overall product that would have looked average on a PS2, yet for some reason Blue Omega regularly manage to cause the Unreal Engine to grind to a halt; poor programming resulting in an oft-juddery framerate.
When you're not shooting stuff you're roaming around Damnation's simply baffling architecture. The idea is that Damnation's grand, spacious levels explore the vertical plane, and from their self-aggrandising press releases you'd assume Blue Omega invented the idea of looking up. But the bold 'verticality' claim has been bettered elsewhere, regularly, and for many years now: Uncharted is a far superior example of combining exploration with Gears of War style combat; God of War and Tomb Raider better handle the idea of exploring colossal areas; Crackdown and inFamous both have a better grasp on scaling buildings with grace; Assassin's Creed, Prince of Persia and Mirror's Edge all provide a far better sense of vertigo. It's really nothing revolutionary, just a desperate, puffed-up PR sentiment.
Blue Omega aren't developing anything new here, they're just trying to claim they have. There's no explorative impetus, and Rourke simply fails to move with any kind of style or agility. The levels in Damnation, whilst big, often revolve around running around the same, repetitive environments, getting lost in their maze-like familiarity and then finally climbing high enough to move to the next area. But they all lack any sense of wonder. The poor creative direction ensures that the game feels like a mishmash of level ideas, merely a series of ridiculous architecture weakly stitched together. Progression in Damnation feels ludicrously disconnected, and the meagre attempt at narrative fails to tie the storyline together in any convincing fashion. Poor vehicular sections that exist simply to pad everything out don't help, either. The game ultimately becomes a series of poor, traversable arenas linked only by their drab setting and shared banality.
None of the design appears to be in sync. Damnation strikes you as an unconfident, unconvincing effort, and the only possible conclusion is that Blue Omega lack a basic grasp on the fundamentals. Blue Omega have proudly stated that much of Damnation's content has been outsourced: the result is a badly managed travesty of game design. With no cohesive, creative vision the game simply falls flat. Epic in ambition alone, Damnation should never have been published, and somebody, somewhere, should have been polite enough to take the source code and delete it a long time ago.