It’s probably GoldenEye we think of first when it comes to Rare’s FPS output, but in truth its spiritual successor, Perfect Dark, bettered it in every way that mattered. Running in the same engine as Bond’s treasured N64 outing, here was a game whose story took you from an elaborate government training facility to an evil scientist’s skyscraper HQ to slums to test labs full of captive aliens before you had time to catch your breath – or to examine the plot closely enough to notice some flapping great holes.
This was a game that expanded the run-and-gun (and occasionally laser stuff with your watch) toolset of Pierce Brosnan into something that seemed immersive and sim-literate. Sitting in the arsenal alongside traditional if fictional firearms like the KF7 Special and the ZZT were freewheeling, bonkers concepts like the Laptop Gun – utterly deadly in multiplayer – and the Psychosis Gun, an entity still not officially recognized in psychiatry manuals, which warps the target’s sense of reality and thus renders them harmless. An array of mines, explosives, experimental alien weaponry, and outlandish melee objects gave you a real artist’s palette of weaponry. It was definitely more cartoonish and overtly ‘fun’ than Ion Storm’s Deus Ex, which was released alongside Perfect Dark in 2000, but Rare’s game was no less serious about giving the player options.
However, based on the first few weeks of January at least (this article was written towards the end of that month), it was spectacularly wrong about what the world would look like in the year 2023. Eleven more months is a long time, but a lot’s going to have to happen in order for Rare to come out of this looking like Nostradamus.
In Perfect Dark’s 2023, two giant global corporations, The Carrington Institute and dataDYNE, are at war, not least because the two are also representing the interests of two warring alien civilizations. The Maians are allied with Carrington, and look like every kid’s drawing of an alien. The Skedar, on the other hand, are in the mold of the aliens that haunt David Icke’s conspiracy theories – reptilian giants with the power to appear human, and are allied with dataDYNE. I had a good long look through the news in January, and none of this was ringing a bell at the time.
Jo's bizarre adventure
You’re Jo Dark, a female protagonist who doesn’t like to go on about it. Your scores in the Carrington Institute’s training facilities have earned you the nickname ‘Perfect’ Dark. 'Adequate Dark' would have been a whole different game, and wouldn't have shifted as many units down at Electronics Boutique. Your British accent rivals the great Lara Croft herself for plumminess, but when it comes to movement and combat there’s no contest. Jo Dark would saunter off, leaving behind her an absolute bloodbath.
What proves memorable about Jo is the sheer breadth of her actions. Ducking under laser alarms, pistol-whipping unsuspecting guards, stealing sensitive documents and materials, hacking bots, engaging in all-out firefights – and all potentially within a five-minute sequence. But what proves even more memorable, about the game itself, is the high-camp tone and giddying pace of it all.
While Deux Ex’s JC Denton wanders Liberty Island at his own pace, methodically picking off NSF terrorists (or are they???) amid a huge open space and approaching the HQ building from any number of angles after any number of hours might have passed, Jo Dark’s knocked out two guards before she even hits the floor of the dataDYNE building. As the player, you’ve got the time and space to think about your next move and experiment with gear, but the game’s always lurching you into another unique scenario.
Three levels in, just when you think you’ve got the measure of this game about infiltrating interior spaces in a science lab, you find yourself propelled into the outskirts of a sun-drenched villa. Now you’re on the streets of Chicago. Now Area 51, by way of a booby trap-laden G5 Building that a Mission Impossible director would be proud of. It’s as though the developer is just so excited about all the ideas it has, and all the stuff it wants to show you, that it keeps dragging you forward to the next thing like a sugar-addled kid at Disneyland.
And while GoldenEye’s control scheme makes playing it in 2023 feel like changing a lightbulb with your feet, time has been much kinder to Perfect Dark. Translating the mappings to a modern gamepad is very doable, and while there’s some lolloping imprecision that’s endemic to turn-of-the-millennium console shooters, after a few minutes in the Carrington Institute you’re basically up to speed and settling those eponymous scores.
Then there’s the multiplayer. What a joyous cacophony of sci-fi guns going off and bots being obliterated that is. They’re absolutely savage too, those bots. In the world of Perfect Dark they’re called Simulants, or Sims. Will Wright could not be reached for comment, but anything above a NormalSim is going to kill you before you even see it. And the DarkSims? Forget about it. One of them has actually already killed you; you just don’t know it yet.
What, if anything, did Perfect Dark correctly predict about our year 2023, then? Well, it took things a bit far with corporations acting as puppets for interstellar lizards, but corporate warfare is a fact of life in the modern age. Much of the political pressure being exerted on a rogue state when it breaches protocol now comes from supply-chain disruption, and global conglomerates pulling out of operations in that state.
What about shady defense contractors? Points are probably due here, because defense contractors would go on to play a huge role in the post-9/11 conflicts and beyond. They weren’t part of the zeitgeist in 2000 the way they are today, so well done Rare for that bit of soothsaying.
The most profound takeaway from revisiting Perfect Dark, though, is a message from the past to the future, rather than a message about it. It’s hard to describe the sense of sheer unabashed enjoyment in this game, so much so that one wonders how we veered so far away from this approach in the intervening 23 years. What was wrong with fun?