How can something that gets so much wrong feel so right? Darkest of Days is undoubtedly full of some fairly dated issues, yet I really do feel it’s got enough imagination and style to stand out in its own way.This first becomes apparent as it hits you with an arrow to the stomach. Down on the ground, desperately trying to hold off the Injuns while their bestial war cries fill the air and horses kick up dust around you with a large wooden shaft obscuring your vision is certainly up there with the great cinematic intros. Everything feels a bit low budget; from the way units seem to slide about in the distance – though intriguingly it seems to work like Total War I think, turning units into pixels while near by units are rendered three dimensionally, allowing for huge NPC numbers – to the slightly Quake era player movement. But 8monkey Labs really seem to have got the atmosphere down right, particularly the sound effects and sound track.
With the battle all but lost, and General Custer going down in a blaze of glory, you’re pulled from a good scalping by a future-suited man emerging from a particularly pretty time bubble, and spat forth into a Portal-esque lab. Despite having just been pulled out of 1876 to 2076 (or thereabouts, I guess) your character seems un-phased by being thrown back into the action and tasked with rescuing a chap who’s taken a step out of history, appearing at a battle he shouldn’t have been at. It’s really quite a loose premise, and positively B-movie in depth, but it gets things going.
The Battle of Antietem you are thrust into is really quite a spectacular experience, though you definitely sense that once you veer off the path the cracks begin to show. Armed with a Springfield Musket, you join a line of infantry charging through a cornfield and into bloody combat. It’s not a thoroughly realistic representation of musket based combat, but it is quite a show all the same, replete with obscuring smoke (I’d like it to remain in the air a bit longer, mind) and ranks of men folding into the dirt around you. I particularly like the appropriation of the Gears of War style reloading, and hurriedly trying to avoid a longer reload while being volley fired is a particularly thrilling experience. What I think Darkest of Days offers is a genuinely imaginative take on the FPS. The huge numbers of units, combined with a particular wish to reverently capture the atmosphere of battle in settings normally confined to the obscurity of low budget turn-based strategy is a genuinely refreshing experience.
This doesn’t absolve it of committing numerous cardinal sins of the FPS, mind. Invisible walls. Dodgy AI. It’s really all there. Once you veer off the obvious path to new objectives, things become suddenly quite barren. I decided to take a quick trip to where the Confederate lines were meant to be, only to find yet more cornstalks – upon exploring deeper, I met an invisible wall, while couldn’t help but noticed that the rendering of cornstalks was a little erratic, often appearing or disappearing at random. A few occasionally strange design choices are made – the “Aura” of men you have to incapacitate rather than kill (changing history baaaad) looks a little year 2000 and breaks immersion. I like the reloading mechanic, but the interface it operates on too takes away from the immersion, destroying an otherwise minimalist UI.
Regardless of issues, I couldn’t help but enjoy the demo, and can see myself looking to get the game at some point, depending on price. It’s clearly a low budget game, and I don’t think it quite warrants a high budget price. But if the full game maintains capturing the atmosphere of its various settings throughout further levels, I think it really could be this years greatest guilty pleasure.