I’m a sucker for pulp and I’m a sucker for steampunk. These are factors which often lead me to buy things, read things and play things that I’m otherwise not so sure about. Sometimes that leads me to find hidden gems, sometimes it means I play awful games because I’ve been suckered in by a love of genre. Damnation falls somewhere in the middle, in no way is it as much of a disappointment as Dark Void was but it’s still a little confused and doesn’t shine like it could.
In this world the American Civil War went on for much longer than in real history and ended up smashing the USA into numerous different, smaller states. Profiteering from the war and from stolen inventions, ‘Lord’ Prescott turns his war money into a grab for power of his own, Prescott Standard Industries becoming a state of its own and turning its inventions and its juiced up troopers (made tougher and more powerful through a chemical cocktail) upon the shattered remnants of the other, fragmented states.
You play the part of Rourke, a traumatised and bereaved survivor of the Civil War and of the depredations of Prescott, the defacto combat commander of a small group of freedom fighters made up of the noble scion of Terre Verde, a Native American shaman/healer (with actual magic powers) and the scientist whose inventions Prescott largely stole. They fly around in an airship, attempting to thwart Prescott’s expansionist aims across several different terrains, sabotaging his mining operations, helping those who are resisting his expansionism and doing all they can to oppose him.
As Prescott sets his sights on finalising his control of the continent things accelerate out of control and the rebels are left with no choice but to make a desperate, last ditch attempt to deal with Prescott and bring an end to his evil Empire.
Gameplay is mostly third-person, over the shoulder and while the game is ostensibly a shooter a huge amount of the game is spent leaping and climbing since, for some inexplicable reason, Prescott has built everything in precipitous locations and with deadly falls in all directions. While this is pretty and visually interesting, without a compass or a goal/direction pointer it becomes incredibly frustrating trying to find your way around the levels though, fortunately, when you plummet to your doom you start up again exactly where you fell off, whereas when you get shot to death, you start from the previous checkpoint, making it – perversely – more worthwhile to throw yourself off a cliff in a difficult fight rather than to slug it out if you think you’re going to die.
Combat can be a little frustrating as most weapons are wildly inaccurate and don’t seem to do a lot of damage. While that’s consistent with the idea that the enemies are juiced up on drugs and – therefore – stronger and tougher and better able to resist harm, it makes combat a little too methodical and slow, save the situations where you’re using the sniper rifle and can squeeze off a headshot.
There are brief interludes where you mount a bike or trike and race along canyons and cliff walls at dangerously high speed, making jumps over deep holes in the ground and ploughing through gangs of enemies and sending their bodies tumbling. Because of the need for high speed and not being able to go slowly you don’t feel particularly in control during these sequences, which makes them unwelcome.
The landscapes are, largely, the iconic landscapes of the Old West as seen in endless cowboy movies – Deserts, canyons and mining towns but some variety is brought in with the snow-clad mountains of Prescott’s mountain factory/castle. The visual look of the game is consistent and fairly good though it verges on the dieselpunk, rather than the steampunk, mixing and matching some aspects of both. I also tend to think of Steampunk as being more of a Victorian, city aesthetic, rather than a Western one (even though it’s the same time period).
There’s some black humour mixed in, particularly in the announcements through PSI loudspeakers about ‘potted meats’ and how happy everyone will be as slave labourers for the company and while this is at odds with the – somewhat – more serious tone of some of the rest of the game it works well and draws you into the nature of Prescott’s hellish industrial dystopia.
You don’t really get to spend any time in any ‘normal’ areas, everything is war torn or ruined, or filled with drug-crazed cannibal savages. You don’t get a sense of what’s being lost or what you’re fighting FOR, only what you’re fighting AGAINST.
The relative crudity of the graphics count against the otherwise atmospheric vistas and jagglies and a few other graphical issues are not what you really want or expect from a new generation game, detracting from the atmosphere. Overall the game feels like it’s an old generation game for the PC rather than a new(ish) game for the PS3. Stylistically they’re fine, the weapons and outfits are a little anachronistic (very immodest for the women) but with the mechanical devices this isn’t an issue.
Not a brilliant example of either the steampunk genre, or a third-person shooter/platformer the game’s background and ideas could have been executed much better, the ideas outstripping the execution.