Every year, the video game industry dedicates about a month to discussing the best games of the year. We may also discuss or vote on the worst games of the year, though generally we'd like to forget them. Sweep them under the rug. Pretend they don’t happen. But bad games do happen and they're important. Without bad games, we wouldn’t know what good games are. As the adage goes, “without darkness, there is no light.” So this is Into the Red, a feature where we discuss games with an average score that leaves them in Metacritic's red zone. The first edition of this feature was published last year, find it here.
I don’t like to review bad games. Not because they are no fun or a chore to finish but because somebody cared about that game. If there’s one thing I’ve learned over the past year, it is that no one sets out to make a bad game. We’ve been able to do some fascinating interviews with DCI and I’m ashamed to say that there have been a few times going into an interview that I thought the people making the game didn’t care. That’s simply not true. Video game developers are some of the most impassioned people I’ve had the pleasure to speak with.
In school, it is often easy to determine who pulled a research paper or project out of their ass the night before and it’s easy to criticize and critique said paper/project because of that. Nobody’s pulling a video game out of their ass the night before it’s released. Games take a lot of hard work, long nights, sweat and probably a blood sacrifice or two. So when a game comes across my screen and is bad, I hate the idea of passing negative judgment. Who knows what kind of constraints the team had, what their physical work environment was like or the hoops that had to be jumped through. Nevertheless, analyzing video games, especially those that epitomize the good and bad, is great way for us to understand what makes them so.
Last fall I picked up Damnation. It cost about $1, so I guess you could call it an impulse buy. Damnation was originally released in 2009, developed by the now defunct Blue Omega Entertainment and published by Codemasters. At one point in time, I looked forward to Damnation. Before it was released it seemed quite interesting. The games takes place in an alternate history following the American Civil War. A man named Prescott picks up the pieces of a ruined nation with super soldier serum and robots. You fight though super soldiers and robots. But then Damnation was released to the public and my interest waned. Garnering an average 4.1 out of 10 score, I’m sure it lost a lot of people’s attention.
But it’s good to ask if the popular opinion is correct. So if you’re wondering, yes, Damnation is a bad game. Yes, it’s ugly, glitchy, boring, confusing and awkward. But the far most interesting question to answer is why those flaws affect it so. Why is Damnation so bad? After spending some time with the game, that is not as simple of a question to answer.
The biggest flaw of Damnation is that it usurps its own intentions with its shooting mechanics. The point of an action game (especially shooters) is to make the player feel like an action hero. Movies, books and comics allow you to witness people perform deeds of great skill and heroism. Games allow you to accomplish deeds of great skill and heroism. Sadly, Damnation's shooting mechanics are loose and incongruent. They make you feel incompetent rather than heroic. Sometimes it feels as though your emptying an entire clip of ammunition into an enemy before he drops. Other times enemies drop much more quickly. I’ve literally seen situations in the game where it takes almost a dozen bullets of a pistol at point blank range to defeat a foe but fewer bullets to fell an enemy that across the map. This is despite the fact that the crosshair was red, indicating that the bullets should be doing damage to the enemy. Another issue is that enemies do not react to being shot at, so there's no indication on screen of whether or not you're hitting your target until they die.
The shooting is not fun and frustrating to say the least, but it’s also the biggest problem I can find. There are multiple other aspects that are “bad” but would be more appropriately labeled as “dated.” In many ways it feels as though Damnation is a product of another time. For example, enemy AI is simplistic, animations are stiff and checkpoints are fewer than they should be. But there was a time when none of these problems would even be an issue. That does not excuse them, but it does reveal something important about video games. Video games are an art, not a science.
What I mean by that is that video game creation and the skill and technology required does not always build directly off previously existing skill and tech. To put it another way, video game evolution is not linear. Just because one studio has discovered a great way to accomplish a particular aspect of a game does not mean that anyone else has. The industry has become far more open in recent years in terms of sharing these advances, but due to the secretive nature of game development, it’s not what it could be. And even if it was, because every video game is different and because different engines are used to build these games, one developer’s solution to a problem would not necessarily answer another developer’s similar problem. Otherwise a game like Damnation would never exist. And in the world of 2009, when Assassin's Creed, Tomb Raider Legend, Gears of War 1 and 2 all already existed, it can be hard to see why Damnation does exist.
If anything, it’s a great example of how quickly our standards change. Damnation is a game that I fully believe would have received a much higher score had it’ve been released close to the launch of the Xbox 360 and PS3, when he had lower standards for things like voice acting and animations. Moreover, I think Damnation‘s greatest strength is that it tries to blend genres, mixing shooting and acrobatic puzzles. Had it have been released years earlier, that would have actually been a strength. But by 2009, and even more so by now, blending genres is common, not unique.
Damnation is not a good game and there’s no reason you should play it. But I do think that it’s not as bad as the popular opinion. It feels old and clunky. More than anything it feels sad. I can just imagine how amazing its creators thought it would be when they set out to make. But then better game were made before it came out and it got lost. Survival of the fittest, I guess.
That's it for this week's Into the Red. Check back next week for our first edition of Hall of Fame. Until then, tell us what you thought of Damnation.
Jonathan is the host of the DarkCast, DarkCast Interviews, and Gamers Read. He loves books, video games, and superheroes. If he had to pick favorites, they would be Welcome to the Monkey House, Mass Effect, and Superman respectively.