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Genre: Action
Min OS X: 10.6

Darkest of Days
October 4, 2011 | Richard Hallas

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Mac OS X: 10.6.5 | CPU: 2.16GHz Intel processor | RAM: 1 GB | HD Space: 5 GB Graphics: 128MB video card (GeForce 8600, Radeon X1600 or newer) | Internet: Connection is required for software registration.

Darkest of Days from Virtual Programming is an intriguingly different addition to the traditional first-person shooter genre, in terms of both its premise and its technology. Released for the Xbox 360 and PC just a couple of years ago, it brought with it both an unusually interesting story conception and a dedicated new graphics engine.

The story behind Darkest of Days is, in one sense, very traditional sci-fi fare: it involves the tried-and-true idea of travelling back in time to fix things without disrupting the course of history in a radical way. In dramatic terms, this is by no means a new idea, but it does offer a lot of scope for variety in terms of settings and action. The innovation in Darkest of Days, though, is the game's attempt at historical accuracy: the developers reputedly tried very hard to achieve a high degree of historical realism in terms of recreating famous battles, and this in turn led to the need for a whole new game engine, known as Marmoset, to cope with the hordes of people taking part in those conflicts. Modern 3D games typically throw only a handful of enemies at the player at any one time; the big achievement of the Marmoset engine is its ability to handle literally hundreds of computer characters simultaneously, each with its own independent intelligence, all without in any way impacting the gameplay (or so the claim goes). That sounds both a technically challenging goal and a bold boast to make, and we'll see whether the game lives up to the hype shortly.

Storyline: Jack Finney meets Steven Spielberg
The Darkest of Days storyline ought to be both a game-producer's and a filmmaker's dream, as it blends epic historic battles with time travel across five different periods. The player takes the role of Alexander Morris, a soldier fighting under General Custer in the Battle of Little Bighorn. At its outset, the game begins with Custer being killed and Morris wounded, whereupon Morris is suddenly and unexpectedly rescued by a mysterious individual who takes him through some kind of portal. Thus, the central character is snatched from the jaws of death in 1876 and whipped away to some distant future setting. One of the neater premises of the story is that time-travelling agents are people, like Morris, whose deaths have not been recorded, and who have thus been lost to history. (At the same time, one of the less convincing aspects of the story is that Morris takes this rescue, and his passage across time, completely in his stride, with nary a wobble in his grasp on reality.)

Morris awakens in a futuristic organisation called KronoteK, and a fellow escapee from linear history, Agent Dexter, works with him to undertake a series of missions as directed by "Mother", an overseer of sorts who appears as nothing more than a close-up pair of eyes staring through a view-screen. KronoteK has developed time travel technology, and is apparently dedicated to researching and protecting history; but its founder, Dr Koell, is missing. At the same time, disturbances have begun to appear in the timeline, and key historical figures are finding themselves in danger. It has thus become necessary not only to locate Dr Koell, but also to repair the damage that's being done to history by forces unknown.

Thus, the scene is set for a series of missions that take place over five periods in history: the Eruption of Mount Vesuvius in Pompeii, 79AD; the American Civil War, 1862; Custer's Last Stand, 1876; World War I, 1914; and World War II, 1941. The missions are assigned in a futuristic room, which is all you see of KronoteK; in terms of action, all you see in the game is the historical settings. The weapons are mostly historic, too: most of the time, the weapons you use are authentic to the period you're in, so expect to be patient when fighting with single-shot muskets. Of course, as the game progresses, things don't go to plan, story-wise, and you end up having to fight for various different sides and occasionally using anachronistic weaponry to your unfair advantage.

My personal feeling about the story is that it's a good effort (better than in most games) let down by the need to devise a mission-based structure for the gameplay. Within the various settings of the game, the player is exposed to as much variety as possible, and experiences real battles that actually happened, sometimes from both sides. This is quite innovative, but it has also meant that the story needed to tie all these experiences together is rather spun-out and contrived. It's all too easy to forget which side you're supposed to be on, quite aside from the fact that friends and foes are sometimes relatively difficult to distinguish from one another. (Luckily, though unrealistically, shooting allies seems to have no effect.) However, the basic premise of the story is a good one, and particularly exciting to those of us who enjoy sci-fi and time-travel stories. It's just slightly unfortunate that the approach ends up falling between two stools. On the one hand, the sci-fi element is a little intrusive, in that you just dip into period battles like a temporal tourist: you jump into the middle of a famous battle, fight for a bit on one side or the other, and then hop out again, without ever really getting a feeling for the motivations of the two sides or knowing what's at stake for them. And sometimes you can use anachronistic future weaponry, which of course throws historical accuracy out of the window. On the other hand, given that this is indeed sci-fi, and there are no theoretical limits to what you might do, it seems a shame in some ways that more advantage is not taken of the sci-fi elements. Use of future technology is very limited, and for most of the time in the game you'll be using muskets and other quite primitive weapons. So the story falls down the crack between historical reenactment and second-rate sci-fi. Pity, really, because the basic idea is great. Even given the shortcomings, though, this is still a more interesting game, story-wise, than most in this genre.


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