Perfect Dark – otherwise known as the game that isn’t GoldenEye 64. Blatantly trying to replicate the stylish spy drama of the 1997 classic (now in 3D!), Rare went right over the ridiculous edge in Perfect Dark, throwing together hilarious death animations, ridiculous ambient dialogue, talking computers, first-person death rockets, andgrey aliens in American flag t-shirts to create one of the most bizarre first-person shooters in not-so-recent memory. But make no mistake, that doesn’t mark Perfect Dark as a hair-brained knock-off of a beloved classic to be shuffled off into obscurity along with your Dino Crisises and Fear Effects. In fact, I’d sooner call it the Othello to Goldeneye’s Un Capitano Moro: a copy, but a better copy, and one that everyone should remember.
Right from the beginning, Perfect Dark’s straight-faced approach to its ludicrous concept just makes it more fun than Goldeneye could hope to be. Playing as exceptionally British secret agent Joanna Dark, you infiltrate the headquarters of a rival security agency, DataDyne, to rescue a genius scientist and help him defect to your side. Sounds all good and spytastic so far, but then you realize the good doctor is actually a floating laptop with wings and a set of eyes straight out of uncanny valley, and he knows the truth about dataDyne’s inner workings. The firm is actually run by giant extraterrestrial chicken-raptors disguised as Scandinavians who plan to destroy the Earth, and if you want to stop them, you have to go deep undercover to rescue a little, grey, oddly patriotic alien named Elvis.
The game tells you all of that with a completely straight face – a really straight, given the lack of facial animations – which makes it feel even more magical. It’s not sitting there prodding you to get the joke about over the top spy and sci-fi movies. In fact, there might not even be a joke to get. It embraces that ridiculousness wholeheartedly, in a way that feels so genuine you almost can’t make fun of it, because it really is throwing itself into the deep end and inviting you to come along in a loveable, friendly fashion. Every new, ludicrous addition to the story adds another punch of life where a simple spy game with repeating textures would otherwise get dull.
But this isn’t a game that exists just to be silly, as good as Rare is at that sort of thing. It’s a fully realized, smooth and satisfying shooter too, where every piece of the gameplay is tuned to maximize satisfaction. The cacophony of an assault rifle filling the room with bullets sounds so right, and the way the casing of an alien handgun stretches and sticks to your fingers like metal jello is both mesmerizing and lovingly crafted.
The actual shooting feels just as good now as it did fifteen years ago, so even where graphics clearly broadcast its age (even after the Xbox 360 redesign, which has less block faces but a distinct lack of lip movement), it handles like a much younger, still incredibly vibrant shoot-em-up. Plus, it adds a strong hit of creativity lacking in many contemporary shooters. Where they focus on an arsenal that’s technically brilliant but ultimately mundane, Perfect Dark’s designs still feel fresh – when was the last time you saw an automatic rifle you reload by scanning the ammo, or a glorified ceiling fan that acts like a gatling gun?
The real Perfect Dark experience comes through in couch co-op, where you and a pack of friends can drop into predesigned multiplayer levels or throw together your own, concocting a veritable buffet of weaponry to test out on those you care for most. It’s not a unique feature by shooter standards to be sure, but that brilliant weapon design turns every level into a carnival of deadly hilarity.
Nab the alien Farsight sniper rifle and you can blast your buddies through walls; booby-trap the entire level with mounted laptop guns and the whole place becomes a lethal obstacle course; or, my personal favorite, switch the Slayer rocket launcher to first-person view and zoom around the arena cackling as your friends spot themselves on your screen and run screaming for their lives. And for an extra challenge, you and all your friends can customize a character based on a variety of in-game models, meaning you can put a giant alien head on a too-tall human body. I like to call it target-practice mode, and I love it to this day.
In some ways, Perfect Dark has been bested – if you want a shooter that feels real, from the kick of its shotgun to its gritty-dark war story, there are better, newer, prettier options out there where you don’t have to avoid locking eyes with the world’s creepiest MacBook. But if you’re looking for something unique and stupidly fun, don’t let the crimson-stained death screen fool you – Perfect Dark’s in a league all its own.
Each week, we’ll be highlighting the best last-gen classics and retro titles you can play right now on your Xbox One, PlayStation 4, and Wii U. For a full list of backwards compatible titles, be sure to check out our coverage for Xbox 360 games on Xbox One and Every PS2 game on PS4.