If we had to choose only one word to describe Damnation then, not only would we have to double check that we weren’t paid by-the-word, but we’d probably settle on ‘Soul-crushing’ (that's two - Ed.). It would be tempting to go with the more pun-worthy ‘Damning’, but that’d be one joke more than we feel that Damnation deserves, though that may be because our sense of humour has atrophied in the barren, boring world of Damnation.
Things seemed to promising for Damnation to start with and, as we learned more about the game in the run up to release we started to actually look forward to it. Bionic Commando shook our faith in the games industry last week and we were hoping that Damnation might be an ironically titled salvation.
Pray you don't drop your hat
Unfortunately not though; despite being an epic western and steampunk game grown from a small and popular UT2004 mod, Damnation still misses the mark by a theological mile. Considering how fond we are of those individual elements it’s actually quite remarkable to see how disastrously Damnation has turned out – abandon all hope, ye who enter here, etc.
The setting and story for the game is a mish-mash of standard geek-pleasing elements, with everything from swords, sorcery and cleavage getting thrown in the mix. Damnation is set on an alternate Earth where the American Civil War (and laws of physics) took a radically different turn. The war has dragged on and on and a number of new factions have been added in, most importantly a new mega-corporation called PSI that has armies of serum-enhanced soldiers and steampowered robots. PSI is the usual big-brother bad guy; the populace are all chemically controlled slaves who listen to monotonous propaganda, but the leader of the endeavour believes it’s for the greater good. Yawn, moving on.
Opposing PSI is your small band of freedom fighters who travel around America on an apparently invulnerable blimp called the Corsair. There are just four of you against PSI’s limitless forces, but it’s balanced out by the fact that one of you is a girl who wears the most ridiculous shirt we’ve ever seen, one of you is professor and the other is the required hot-headed hardcase. The player is specifically cast as a man named Rourke, who’s desperately trying to find and rescue his old girlfriend from PSI – something that’d be sweet if it wasn’t so mug-fistedly handled. Yawn, again.
Who needs body armour, eh?
On the plot level Damnation’s problem is that it’s clearly more confused than a kitten that’s just emerged from the tumble-dryer. It’s got all the strong visual feel of a contemporary Western (a grossly underused genre), but it clutters it with too many out-of-place elements; robots, motorbikes, magicians with glowing tattoos, ninjas and WWII-style heavy artillery. On paper it should be cooler than hugging a frost giant, but in practice it’s just a bit of a mess. None of the sub-plots standout or feel very engaging and it quickly becomes apparent that the combination isn’t at all innovative, but rather a bundle of clichés formed from an utter lack of imagination. The result is more unwieldy than unique.
Comparisons to Bionic Commando, the last PS3 game we played and also the last game we hated, are pretty apt. It’s worthy bearing in mind though that, unlike Bionic Commando, the story in Damnation isn’t truly stupid, just tired. Everything in it feels old and worn out, having been done much better before elsewhere.
As it turns out, that idea is as true for the gameplay as it is for the story too...