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Nobody Does It Better: Why GoldenEye & Perfect Dark can still teach us a thing or two about game design

Rareware's N64 shooters GoldenEye 007 and Perfect Dark are fondly remembered as part of gaming history. But are there lessons in their successes and failures that we still haven't learnt from today?

Xander Markham, Blogger

March 6, 2010

15 Min Read

Leaving aside how often they still get referenced as a benchmark for quality, one of the most interesting things about the legacies of Rare's N64 FPS' GoldenEye 007 and Perfect Dark is the games they have been associated with over the years. The TimeSplitters series has often been mooted as GoldenEye's next-gen successor, mainly because the team was comprised of Rare alums from the time and one of the games' opening levels featured a Dam.

The marketing for EA's much-reviled GoldenEye: Rogue Agent claimed to be following in its namesake's footsteps through 'run and gun' gameplay, although the suspicion lingers that the adoption of that sacred name was still little else than a marketing ploy. Perfect Dark tends to get a mention in any review of an anticipated sci-fi shooter, from The Conduit (which IGN's Matt Cassamassina explicitly stated reminded him of Rare's game, and not just in the choppy frame-rate) to more seminal titles like Halo and Half-Life 2.

The reason I point this out is because, while they all fall under the broad genre bracket of the first-person shooter, a cursory examination of those associated games reveals a chasm of differences between each of them. TimeSplitters is a linear, relatively slow-paced shooter whose levels are punctuated with diversionary set-pieces (provide sniper cover for an ally; track an enemy to his hideout etc.) and is more known for its broad sense of humour than its gameplay. Rogue Agent was the polar opposite, its mechanics barely stretching beyond moving forward with fingers squeezed around the shooting button and relying on its strained Bond references and varied locations to keep players from becoming bored (although, judging by those review scores...).

For Perfect Dark, Halo's focus was on big battles, Half-Life 2 was a measured, narrative-driven experience and The Conduit somewhat similar to Rogue Agent, albeit with a slightly greater focus on plot (not that it made any more sense). For as much as their names evoke a fond fog of nostalgia, there doesn't seem to be much agreement on exactly what Rare's two N64 shooters specifically did so well.

Having recently played through both games again (blowing in the cartridge slots... those were the days, etc.) as 'research' for this piece, it struck me very quickly that the reason there seems to be such uncertainly is because the games manage to validate each association for the person who made it, yet none of them for someone else.

Both games were released during a five-year period, between 1995 and 2000, when gaming was in a constant state of reinvention. The PlayStation had brought console gaming into the mainstream, while the likes of Mario 64, the original Half-Life and Ocarina of Time were blowing apart the boundaries of expectation for what a gaming experience could offer. Like the pioneering newborn 3D environments, game design was no longer a question of forward or back: it was up, down, north, south, east or west, a brave new world wide open for exploration.

GoldenEye 007 might be primarily remembered for bringing deathmatches to the TV-huddled gaming masses, but as important as that was, its achievements in the single-player missions have been largely forgotten or overlooked, despite being just as, if not even more, important than the split-screen revolution.

Ignoring the technical deficiencies and some of the obscure design choices that mark the title as being from a time of birth rather than growth (how did anyone know to use that innocuous screen on the back of the guards' hut to 'Install Covert Modem' in the Dam? Or work out the floor tile code for the Golden Gun in Egyptian?), GoldenEye's gameplay demonstrates a staggering degree of versatility that few, if any, games today even attempt the challenge of matching.

The game's stealth system is well-known, although many people whom I've spoken to about the game seem to remember it as identical to the enforced 'stealth sections' that marked the most tedious parts of many subsequent action games. What goes forgotten is that engaging GoldenEye's stealth mechanics is entirely the choice of the player: while it is more advisable in certain missions than in others, you never fail for attracting attention or choosing to adopt a more gung-ho approach to mission completion.

In fact, while several of the missions are clearly designed to be tackled using a stealthier approach, the level design rarely less than completely accommodating to the action player, providing as much cover and as many explosives to huddle enemies around as you could ever need. The player is allowed to seamlessly move between the two styles at will: sneak around a mission capping headshots with silenced weapons and you can go largely undetected with minimal resistance.

Unleash a volley of machine gun fire and the game hits action mode, sending every guard in the area (and several generated extra ones) converging on your location. But that too can be rectified: if you manage to dispatch those enemies carefully and quietly, the game resets itself to stealth mode and you can carry on as you were (sometimes if you're running low on ammo, you can even run away and eventually be forgotten about by a number of guards in the group). The only way to completely break your cover is to sound an alarm, at which point all hell will break loose and the terrifying black-clad security men will arrive (in another subtle piece of design, the colour of their hats designate the amount of health they have).

Naturally, this lends itself to certain tactical possibilities, which the game is only too keen to encourage. Advantages can be gained by quietly infiltrating one section of the game, before unleashing hell and drawing out all the guards from another. While more action-oriented than the likes of Rainbow Six, GoldenEye is as tactical a shooter as there has ever been. Although certain levels, like the Silo, enforce linearity as to provide a thrilling race to the finish against the clock, many of them are designed as open playgrounds where it is up to the player to determine the manner in which they wish the tackle that particular mission's objectives.

Of course there is a 'best' route through each one (could there ever not be?), but players are not penalised from choosing a different path with anything more severe than having to adopt a different manner of play or to have the game be slightly more difficult. More often than not it's a choice between a quicker route that is more challenging, or a slower one that gives you the equipment or the means to soften out the more difficult sections.

Visiting an enemy arms cache before destroying a computer network in the Cache might take you on a more circuitous route, but it gives you access to a rocket launcher and mines that make taking out the twitchy drone gun in the network warehouse a piece of cake. Clear the lower decks of the Frigate before the more easily accessible bridge and you can not only lower the risk of being interrupted while clearing the most difficult room in the level, but also use loud weapons to attract guards out of that room without fear of them appearing from elsewhere.

In that same way, the level design is often almost invisibly subtle in relaying its mechanics: the opening Dam level teaches you everything you need to know about sniping without a single on-screen instruction, while the Facility is a 101 crash-course in stealth, tight enough to encourage careful thought but without the later punishment of alarms to deal with (a concept introduced in Bunker I, when the first guard you meet makes a beeline for an alarm button, instantly giving you a sound to be feared for life if he reaches it).

While Facility is the most famous level in the game, for my money it's Bunker II (despite being tainted by the exploit of guards never firing through the windows which you can stand behind and wait), which if played properly is a phenomenal piece of precision engineering, with the player needing to be stealthy despite spending most of the level with one of the loudest guns in the game.

If Heavy Rain's QTEs felt tense despite having plenty of built-in leverage, Bunker II makes every shot an agonisingly tense decision as to when and how to pull the trigger. It's in those moments that GoldenEye really shows why it deserves its acclaim: it presents the players not with puzzles and pieces to be fit in pre-determined places, but problems, where it is up to you to make the pieces and engineer a solution of your own ingenuity. The game's variety comes as an organic development of the player's choices, rather than the developers'.

Some of the game's less favourably remembered mechanics also show much subtlety under the bonnet that actually strengthen the playing experience, despite players' usually remembering them as a source of frustration. The lack of checkpointing is often called outdated or needlessly harsh, yet it gives a sense of consequence to the players' mistakes and gives levels like the fast-paced Silo and stealthy Bunker II a genuine tension and excitement that would be badly missed were the player allowed to save after every corner.

Considering missions are rarely more than ten minutes long, the actual difference between restarting a GoldenEye mission and rebooting from a checkpoint in a modern game is actually quite negligible, but the psychological impact of returning to square one makes for a potent threat.

While GoldenEye's 'spiritual successor' Perfect Dark proved to be a more schizophrenic single-player game, as a technical achievement it is a game of stunning depth and innovation, even if it sometimes hangs together less well as a whole.

Where GoldenEye was a design phenomenon but something of a mixed bag from a technical front (the game is not short of bugs, the fogging is thick and sometimes detrimental on the bigger levels, and the graphics, despite my affection for them as somewhat reminiscent of the chunky Soviet propaganda artwork style, are decidedly average), the game's 'spiritual successor' Perfect Dark proved to be just the opposite: a technical marvel, albeit a schizophrenic one which was not always successful in moulding its vast ambitions together.

Perfect Dark builds on the foundations GoldenEye lay with gusto. The number of game modes is increased to include co-op and counter-op (player two takes control of the level's guards) as well as the standard single and multiplayer. The deathmatch mode is subject to an even greater makeover, with the addition of more maps, customisable weapon sets, character creation, challenges and bots whose AI holds up remarkably well even today.

It's hard to believe the two games share the same console generation, let alone the same engine: using the N64's notorious memory expansion pack, Dark has advanced lighting (areas go dark when light sources are shot out), enemy corpses which stay in place until the player leaves the area, graphics that are significantly more detailed and in better resolution than anything on any console at the time could come close to and an expanded narrative with fully voice-acted cut-scenes.

Without a film licence to fall back on to cover a muddily told story (could anyone work out what was going on in GoldenEye without having watched the film first?), Rare opted to give great prominence to the new story and world they had created for the game. The game's more advanced technology allowed them to do significantly more with their cut-scenes than simply provide an overview of the level before zooming into the back of James Bond's skull.

Each of Perfect Dark's missions are given full intros and conclusions, plus several scenes occuring in the midst of play, which last minutes at a time in contrast to the handful of seconds that GoldenEye allocated to bookending its levels. While Half-Life had shown the gaming world that a cut-scene could be hidden in regular gameplay to preserve immersion, Perfect Dark took the opposite road and demonstrated how cut-scenes could be made something to enjoy and look forward to in their own right by using a certain amount of well-placed artistic flair and dedication.

Rare used their cut-scenes to give greater weight to the actions performed by the player during their missions, with the capable voice-acting and solid editing enhancing the sense of place and character. The Area 51 infiltration is made more exciting by starting with a build-up from boss Daniel Carrington, opening with fuzzy footage of the level that makes it seem more mysterious, and also marking the first appearance of an alien character, giving the player questions to encourage them to progress and a goal to work towards.

The cost of this focus on narrative is that the game is much more linear. In many instances, this is not a bad thing and allows Rare to build up several exciting set-pieces, especially the third mission's escape from the dataDyne building which features both a blackout and a gunship attack that would not have had nearly as much impact had the player been given more rein to tackle the level in a direction of their own choosing.

Ironically it is the game's less linear levels which feel pedestrian, as GoldenEye's balance between stealth and action has been necessarily abandoned (using silenced weapons or machine guns make little difference, and alarms only serve to bring a handful of easily dealt-with additional enemies to your location) in favour of a more consistent middle-ground approach. Without that tactical edge, Perfect Dark's open levels are enjoyable but are neither as exciting as the story-driven missions where Rare are able to push the player from one set-piece to the next, or as tense as GoldenEye's tactical puzzle-boxes. It also means that when the narrative fails to engage, as is the case in the game's Skedar-based missions at the end of the game, the gameplay feels similarly uninspired and lacking thrust.

Rare do not discard player choice altogether, but funnel it in different ways. Even if the player's path is guided more exactingly, the choices that are given have a wider field of impact. A remarkable example is how interconnected each level is: when there is a choice of exit points on a previous level, players will often start the next one at a relative point (e.g. the player can board Air Force One via the cargo hold or the passenger doors, deciding where they will start the rescue mission that follows).

Less obvious choices can provide benefits for the player a long way down the line: if Joanna allows Jonathan to take her place on the Mayan vessel to escape Area 51, he will be at the Carrington Institute on a later level to help her defend it. If a player leaves an engineer alive on the Area 51 infiltration level, he can be called upon to open a locked door in the succeeding level and provide access to a hidden weapon. Lower the hoverbike into the Air Force One hold and it will be waiting for you at the Crash Site.

If Perfect Dark suffered for Rare's overreaching ambition, not least in the wildly unsteady frame-rate (which in single-player is probably more consistent than GoldenEye, but can slow to a crawl in a fully-stacked multiplayer match) and inconsistent single-player mode, the breadth of its features, however flawed some of them may be, continues to show up big-budgeted modern games' lack of imagination and devotedness to giving players full value for their money. When its issues are resolved for the upcoming port to Xbox Live Arcade and the framerate steadied at 60fps, FPS developers have much to be concerned about.

Even if both games are showing their age from a technical perspective ( the N64's single analogue controls will be especially painful to anyone used to dual sticks or, better yet, the Wii remote's IR aiming, even if GoldenEye's enthusiastic auto-aim somewhat compensates for the troubles), both Perfect Dark's ambition to deliver to its players a huge range of improvements and inventive new content, as well as GoldenEye's elegantly designed and refined gameplay and dedication to allowing players freedom enough for self-expression in their play, deserve to be remembered not only for the wonderful gaming memories they gave us in times gone by, but also as building blocks and lessons to improve and diversify the gaming experiences we deserve to expect in the future.

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