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First Impressions

by Ion Storm

Here at GamesFirst! we  like to do a first impressions piece when a big game comes out.   And as we all know, it’s very important to make a good first impression. So it’s puzzling to us that Daikatana--a game that arguably brings more negative baggage to its release than any game ever--seems to go out of its way to make a bad one. Playing through the first act of Daikatana is astonishing, like watching your future brother-in-law show up to meet the folks drunk.  

Look--as anyone who reads the newsgroups knows--it’s hard not to have an opinion about Daikatana before playing it. It’s taken four long years for the game to make it to the table, and during that time Ion Storm built themselves a pleasure-dome in Dallas and embarked upon a PR campaign that redefined the term hubris.  Several members of the development team left in a soap opera-like huff, and John Romero died. No. Wait. He was just rumored to have died. Whew. But I was determined to stay objective about Daikatana, and even after the demo flopped, even after I was less than impressed with the game at the last two E3s, even after my friends all lost interest in the game, I was determined to judge Daikatana on its own merits. Now I’ve played through the first act of the game, and all I want to do is forget the whole ugly mess.

So far it’s not just a bad game--it’s a weirdly bad game. It’s got all the usual problems bad games have, like subpar graphics, lousy AI and pathing and crashes. But Daikatana throws in some truly odd bad stuff, too--like a nightmare save game system, a monochromatic palette that makes Quake II’s look like a rainbow, and a hero (named Hiro) who is ostensibly Japanese but who speaks in a standard Deckeresque American accent. Worse, some oriental bad guys speak in a “Me rikey velly much” stereotypical accent--and others don’t. Add to this the fact that you’ll spend most of the first act shooting inexplicable mechanical skeeters and frogs, and you’ve got to wonder if anything  in the next three acts could possibly redeem this game. 

Graphically, the game is seems dated and extremely blocky, and animations are stiff and limited. I mean, I know we’re not using the Unreal or Q III engine here, but I’ve seen some pretty terrific graphics wrung out of the Quake II engine (think Kingpin), and Daikatana is nowhere close. Everything is angles and edges, and whoever picked the “wall of green” look for most of the first act was misguided. Look, there are studies on this kind of thing--and they all conclude that people just don’t want to stare at fluorescent green expanses for long periods of time. That’s why we moved to CGA monitors back in the 80’s. Ion Storm could have looked that up, but then again they could have just asked someone off the street. They did neither. Even worse, this monotonous palette affects gameplay--it’s very hard to pick out the mechanical skeeters from the background. This may be a conscious design decision, but it’s a bad one--mostly because it’s just not fun.

And there are bug problems as well. My game crashed to the desktop twice during the first act, and NPCs and MoBs often behaved, uh, strangely--sometimes creatures would get stuck on obstacles, sometimes animations would go into hyper-jittery mode. Even worse for game play, aiming and ballistics can be problematic. While launching magnetic C4 canisters, I found that if aimed anywhere near a wall, they would stick in midair. I don’t mean they’d stick to the wall; I mean they’d just hang there in the middle of space. Then they’d blow up and kill me.

The interface is pretty simple, when it works (more on this below). But it’ll take you a while to figure out how it operates, because the manual is short (only seven pages dedicated to gameplay) and unhelpful. I mean, for God’s sake Ion Storm you had four freakin’ years to draw up a manual, and nowhere in it do you include the keystrokes on how to allocate experience points or issue orders to your sidekicks? No, dear gamer, you’ll have to winkle that out by looking at the keyboard configuration under “Options”, and then you’ll have to figure out the aforementioned controls are listed as   “HUD previous” “HUD next” and “HUD use”. By the way, there is no mention of a HUD (heads-up display) anywhere in the manual. OK, it’s not impossible to figure this stuff out, but it takes some time and is a pain in the ass and the gamer should not have to do it.

As for AI, well, ugh. Enemies sometimes try to evade, but too often they’ll take a “damn the torpedoes” approach.  I’m hoping that as the game progresses, the AI gets savvier, but I’m not betting the house on it.

I’m sure that when Daikatana was first conceived in those dark days after Pearl Harbor, stuff like sidekicks and adding RPG elements to FPS’s were novel ideas.  But these once “revolutionary” features are now pretty standard. Half-Life’s Barneys and Kingpin’s thug buddies were sometimes stupid, but at least marginally helpful. Unfortunately, the same can’t be said for Daikatana’s sidekicks. There’s no sugar-coating this: so far, their implementation is wretched. Here are some examples of sidekick retardation from actual gameplay: Sidekick and I must move through big sliding door. I order sidekick to stay. I move through door and shoot stuff. Next thing I know, sidekick has moved directly under door, decides to stay there as it closes and crushes him. Sigh. OK. Reload. This time order sidekick to follow. Again I move through door, shoot stuff. Again he moves directly under door, is crushed. Reload. Third time’s the charm; this time we make it through door. High fives all around.  But unfortunately there’s another treacherous door in the room, this time a swinging one. Sure enough, he stands in doorway as it swings shut and is killed again. Need more examples? OK, he also likes to shoot me and/or move into my line of fire during combat. Pathing’s a problem, too--once, while following me through the obligatory air vent maze, my sidekick decided that following was less interesting than pacing back and forth. Hmmm; OK, order him to do something else. But now for some reason I can’t access the order menu, even though I’m standing right next to him. Since I can’t move past him, only option is to frag him and try again. Again, same thing happens. Since you can only save at beginning of levels or when you use a “save gem”, this gets very old very quickly.

I’m trying to figure out how this game went so wrong. I figure maybe since the game took four years to produce, each of the acts reflects the technology of each of those years. So act one looks and plays like a game made in ’96, act two like a game made in ’97, and so on. But I know this is just a pathetic rationalization by a guy whose job is to play the whole damn thing.  At this moment, my co-editor and ex-friend Al is playing the Diablo II beta, Shawn and Sarah are playing Perfect Dark, Normandy 1944 is sitting on my desk, and I’m stuck playing what may well be the most disappointing game of the century.  We’ll have a full review up after I finish the game--but to be truthful, if I didn’t feel obliged to play the whole thing, I’d return it to the store. I can’t imagine anything in the next three acts making up for the absolute misery of the first act. I can imagine a lot of folks feeling the same way, though.

Look, I came to this game with an open mind; I’ve got nothing against John Romero or Ion Storm, and wish them the best. But thus far this is a truly bad game, and you should know that before you buy it.

--Rick Fehrenbacher