The technological successor to "Goldeneye 007" and "Perfect Dark," of which it is a prequel to the latter, Rare's Perfect Dark Zero (PDZ) was touted as the Halo of the Xbox 360 launch lineup. On that note, PDZ is a decent game at best, one which does not play anything like Halo nor achieve any of the soaring successes of the Halo franchise. Instead, PDZ is a middling stealth shooter in which you play a Lara Croft-like protagonist who spends as much time lurking around most levels as she does dominating them with firepower and muscle as in a more typical shooter.

Given the generally lackluster nature of PDZ, it's hard to remember how impressive the original Goldeneye 007 and Perfect Dark were in their day. Developed for the Nintendo 64, both titles were trendsetters in console-based first person shooters in an age dominated by DOOM clones. Goldeneye (1997) was, of course, a James Bond title, and it proved that consoles could handle an original 3D first person shooter. Meanwhile, Perfect Dark (2000) took a modified Goldeneye engine, lost the James Bond theme, and pushed a world of its own on happy users. This world, like an action-heavy version of "The X Files," featured government conspiracies and an Area 51 alien angle.

The star of Perfect Dark, Joanna Dark, returns in PDZ, which is a prequel to N64's Perfect Dark. Rare, acquired by Microsoft in 2002, originally planned to ship PDZ for the original Xbox. But delays and a desire to ship a tier-one launch title for Xbox 360 forced the change. Interestingly, Rare also created Kameo (see my review), which is the best of the original Xbox 360 titles and one of the strongest Xbox 360 titles overall. (Call of Duty 2--see my review--is the other, though that title is available for the PC as well.)

As noted above, PDZ does not live up to the high standards of its predecessors or to Kameo. Indeed, I originally intended for PDZ to be one of my very first Xbox 360 reviews, but I had a heck of a time getting into it. However, I've returned to it again and again over the past few months, and have sampled its Xbox Live-based multiplayer mode as well, and the game does have its moments. However, large swatches of PDZ feature some of the least engaging gaming I've ever suffered through. Let's find out what went wrong.

Plot

If you're not familiar with Perfect Dark, no matter, as the game takes place before its predecessor. It's 2020, and you play Joanna Dark, a mercenary secret agent who accomplishes various missions, together with several computer-controlled compatriots (including, oddly, her father), to earn a living. The single player version (Solo Agent) of the game plays out over 13 missions plus a level 0 starter mission where you can learn how to use the game's control system (that starter mission is actually repeated--yawn--later in the game).

In each mission, you are presented with a set of objectives, though you typically pick up one or more objectives on each level during game play as well as the plot unfolds. Each mission starts with a lengthy briefing and, in my opinion, an overly long cinematic that sets the stage for the level. There's a similar cinematic at the close of each mission. The problem with this approach is that, in PDZ at least, the cinematics are typically a lot more exciting than the actual game play. And they're often so long that you get tired of waiting for the action to begin.

In the futuristic world of PDZ, the weapons are varied and actually quite interesting, but the enemies are brain-dead and annoying, spouting stupid dialog and horrible voice acting. A cohort named Chandra is particularly annoying, with a bad accent and deplorable dialog. Even worse: When you witness non-player characters conversing, their lips don't even move, let alone in concert with the dialog. So much for taking advantage of Xbox 360's next generation graphics capabilities.

Chandra leaves your team mid-way through the game, thankfully, and you join up with the Carrington Institute, battling against the insane dataDyne, which is aided by alien or supernatural technology, it's not clear. Who cares?

The single player experience is over quickly. The 13 levels come and go easily, especially on the easiest difficulty level, Agent. As you move up in difficult to Secret Agent, or to Dark Agent, the latter of which can only be unlocked after finishing the game at Secret Agent (grr...), things get more difficult.

Game play

I was really disappointed in the initial PDZ levels but as the game progresses, you travel to a nice variety of places, including jungles, the North African desert and, in the bizarre final mission, a fantasy location straight out of b-level PC shooters like "Will Rock" or "Painkiller." While the variety is nice, it's all been done before, and better. The jungle levels, for example, pale by comparison next to those in "Far Cry," which remains one of the best-looking and most playable first person shooters ever created. And the desert levels look like something out of Will Rock or even Unreal Tournament 2004. Been there, done that.

At best, the single player experience is competent, if confusing in some places. Since the levels are essentially wide open, even when you must travel a specific path in order to accomplish a goal, you can often find yourself way off track. When that happens, the game will provide you with an annoyingly obvious hint: The floor will light up with a path to the next stage of your quest, complete with arrows. I found myself just wishing for a walkthrough so I could finish the damn thing and get on with my life.

Worse, the enemy AI is almost non-existent. If you're used to games like Call of Duty 2 or Far Cry, where the enemy actually engages in specific tactics that change based on your location and actions, feel free to step back in time 10 years when you play PDZ. If you blow away a bad guy, the person standing next to him may not move at all. And if he does move, it will just be randomly or stupidly. The enemies are a joke.

But wait, there's more. Let's discuss the ridiculous little in-game gadgets that you must suffer through in order to get past certain barriers in the game. There's something called a demo kit, which is used to unlock doors, which is actually the easiest of these silly contrivances. The demo kit UI resembles those sliding tile games you played as a kid, but this time you must simply rotate each square to complete a path from point A to point B. But at least you can figure it out. The other two gadgets, the locktopus and the data thief, are even worse, with inscrutable user interfaces that border somewhere between silly and painful. Whenever the need to use one of these stupid devices comes up, the game just grinds to a halt.

One of the worst aspects of this game is the saved game functionality. Put specifically, there isn't one. Instead, you simply are forced to either restart the entire mission (which is miserable if you died quite a ways through it) or, if you pass a non-communicated half-way point, you can start at a mid-way checkpoint. The checkpoint system would be fine except for two things. One, you lose your stats for the mission, and two, you start over without the guns you originally had and must make do with a low-end pistol. This can be problematic when you're in a particularly tough spot.

Do you want more? You can crouch but not jump. The zoom feature on the sniper rifles is too touchy, causing you to zoom immediately to the highest possible zoom level. And when you do so, you lose the target because zoom doesn't actually zoom towards where you were aiming for some reason.

My single biggest complaint about PDZ, however, is its use of Achievement points. As you probably know, each Xbox 360 title can hand out 1000 Achievement points, and its up to the game maker to determine how these points are dispensed. The way they are given out in PDZ is criminal. If you play through the entire single player game--the entire game--you get exactly 10 points, or just 1/100th of the possible Achievement points. How does that compare to other games? In Call of Duty 2, completing the game would get you 150 points, but even at the easiest skill level, you'd get at least 200 Achievement points overall for finishing. In King Kong, you get 200 points for finishing the game, but you'd actually get all 1000 points by that point, because King Kong hands out Achievement points for completing various levels as well. 10 points is an insult, and the fact that PDZ doesn't even give out a few measly points for, say, getting halfway through the title, is just criminal.

Put simply, PDZ game play in single player mode is OK, but not fantastic. There is precious little original content and the game, and the parts that are original, like the gadgets, are typically horrible.

Graphics and sound

The graphics in Perfect Dark Zero range from decent to excellent, depending on the scene. Much of the game looks like it could be rendered adequately on an original Xbox, but PDZ does do a good job of taking advantage of some next-generation graphical features. For example, in many scenes, the background is actually faded to show perspective, and the smoke and explosion effects are well done.

That said, there is a weirdness to the PDZ rendering engine that makes it better for displaying city scenes and other places in which metal predominates. When you get outside, objects like rocks and mountains take on a weird plastic sheen that is vaguely reminiscent of DOOM 3 (though in that game, that effect is actually seen on metal objects). It's not horrible, but it's certainly noticeable.

The sound is largely terrible. The music is awful, and if you're a real masochist, you can actually purchase the soundtrack online. The voice-over acting, as noted before, is just horrible as well, both because of the actors used and because of the horrid dialog.

Multiplayer

Perfect Dark Zero supports two multiplayer modes, DeathMatch and DarkOps, both of which are selected via the Combat Arena option on the main PDZ menu. You can play either of these games types locally (vs. bots or in split-screen mode with other players on the same Xbox 360), via System Link, or over Xbox Live.

Deathmath is exactly what it sounds like, and you can choose between Quick Deathmatch and Custom Match options. There are four Deathmatch game types: Killcount, which is a free-for-all; Team Killcount; Capture the Flag; and Territorial Gains. All but the latter should be familiar to any first person shooter fan. Territorial Gains is a team game type in which you attempt to capture and hold several hills. The winner racks up the most time in these territories.

DarkOps is a round-based multiplayer game type that favors tactics over balls-out action. There are four DarkOps game types, and like the Deathmatch options, most of these should be pretty familiar to anyone who has spent any time online in various multiplayer games. In Eradication, for example, each player has exactly one life and the game goes until there's one player standing. Onslaught has a team defending a base against the other team; the team that defends the base the longest wins. Infection is a free-for-all game in which only players who are infected can get points (by staying alive). You become infected by dying. And in Sabotage, two teams face off against each other and try to cause more damage to the other team's territory.

So how is PDZ multiplayer? Surprisingly, it's pretty good, but it can't hold a candle to the action found in games like Halo 2 or Call of Duty 2. Your character moves too slowly, as if in molasses, and the feel of the game is just off, in a way I haven't seen since DOOM 3 multiplayer. That said, the multiplayer game types are, if not original, at least familiar and fun, and the locales are usually decent. I like that you can practice multiplayer against bots, as with the PC-based Unreal Tournament titles, which is advisable for anyone planning to compete against real humans on Xbox Live.

Oddly, the graphics in the multiplayer version of the game seem to be significantly detuned from what appears in the single player version, probably in a bid to keep up frame rates. That's understandable, but multiplayer PDZ looks more like an original Xbox title than it does a game designed for the Xbox 360. If you compare the graphical quality of this title to, say, Call of Duty 2 multiplayer, the contrast is shocking.

Basically, PDZ multiplayer is marginally better than the single player experience. But as with that single player experience, there are better multiplayer games out there.

Conclusions

Perfect Dark Zero isn't a total disaster, but it certainly doesn't live up to its pre-release hype, and I just can't get excited about it. A decent first person shooter at best, PDZ only occasionally shows off the graphical prowess of the Xbox 360, and it's not a title I'll be reaching for again and again as I do with Call of Duty 2. On the other hand, those who haven't yet been swayed by the plot-driven greatness of Half-Life 2 or even the Halo series might find the PDZ single player experience worthwhile. And the game certainly has a huge following on Xbox Live, though I can't quite claim to understand that appeal either. My recommendation is to skip this title and seek out better alternatives, of which there are many: Halo, Halo 2, Half-Life 2 (all for the original Xbox), and Call of Duty 2 for Xbox 360 all spring immediately to mind.