Perfect Dark Zero's stunning presentation, excellent assortment of believable weapons, exciting tactical firefights, and fully featured single- and multiplayer components combine to make it easily one of the best first-person shooters this year and one of your best options in the Xbox 360's starting lineup.
You don't need to be familiar with Perfect Dark for the Nintendo 64 to easily get into Perfect Dark Zero, starring the spunky red-haired hired gun, Joanna Dark. Though she and her dad are technically bounty hunters, the game has got more of a high-tech superspy feel to it, from the futuristic weapons to the fancy gadgets you'll get to use. Perfect Dark Zero's story spans more than a dozen big missions, and may be optionally played through cooperatively with a friend.
The campaign is longer than average at about 12 hours, and its multiple difficulty settings, unlockable weapons, and the outstanding co-op mode should keep you coming back to it after you reach the conclusion the first time. Perfect Dark Zero also features a "combat arena" mode that contains most of its multiplayer options, some of which may be played with and against computer-controlled bots in addition to (or instead of) other human players. There's a wide assortment of different modes supporting up to 32 players online, including conventional free-for-all and capture-the-flag modes, as well as some great Counter-Strike-inspired team-based match types. In short, this is big game with a lot to it.
However, it's not just all the different modes of play, but rather the sheer attention to detail that separates Perfect Dark Zero from other first-person shooters out there. It's a gorgeous-looking game, especially if you play it on a high-definition display, and the beauty's more than skin deep. Most every weapon in the large arsenal of available pistols, submachine guns, assault rifles, and heavy weapons looks extremely authentic, right on down to their steely sheen and white-hot muzzle flashes. You've never seen a better-looking assortment of guns, and the near-future setting gave the designers license to include lots of familiar hardware, with some surprising special abilities. What's more, some excellent character animation helps make the guns feel as powerful as they look. Enemies recoil realistically depending on where they're hit, no matter if you hit them in the hand, the foot, square in the chest, in the back, or wherever else.
From a gameplay standpoint, Perfect Dark Zero is highly refined. It doesn't stray too far from convention, but it features some interesting twists in weapon and enemy design, making for a much more entertaining experience than the average shooter. You can carry up to four different weapons, but larger guns take up more inventory space, which means you could pack several pistols but only one machine gun at a time. It's a good system that makes sense, though it's tough having to choose from all the great options that are available.
The type of weapon you're carrying influences your running speed, which is something to consider. There's no jump button, but you are given some tactical options, like taking cover behind obstacles and executing quick rolls at the touch of a button. The cover system is implemented quite well, letting you take position behind any barrier or at any corner at the touch of a button, while seamlessly switching your perspective to a third-person viewpoint, which gives you more situational awareness. You automatically peek out from behind cover when you fire, and it's a deliberate-enough process that doesn't feel overpowered. As for the evasive rolls, they're great for quickly ducking out of harm's way, but you'll take extra damage if you're shot while rolling, so you'll have to think twice about tumbling around too much.
Perfect Dark Zero's winning combination of pure run-and-gun action and tactical realism is also captured in the well-designed health system, which lets you soak up a good amount of damage but doesn't let you get cocky about it. Each time you're shot in succession, your health drops just as you'd expect, though Joanna can take a surprising amount of punishment at the normal difficulty setting. If you avoid taking any more damage for a couple of seconds, your health meter instantly jumps back up. This seems like Halo's recharging energy shields at first, but the difference is your maximum health gradually gets depleted the more damage you take. So, typically, the later into a mission you are, the more carefully you'll need to tread.
That's especially true since you'll often have to start a mission over from the very beginning (or maybe from a checkpoint halfway through) if you're killed or otherwise fail. You can't just quick-save your progress after every few steps like you can in many shooters. There are a couple of missions that are demanding of some trial and error, where the lack of an in-mission save feature might be frustrating (there's one particularly punishing late-game mission that forces you to complete your objective in a certain amount of time or start over). But this design choice mostly just forces you to stay on your toes, and it also helps extend the length of the story mode without feeling cheap.
The story missions offer a lot of variety, both in terms of mission objectives and tactical situations. You'll experience plenty of up-close, in-your-face shoot-outs that are perfect for shotguns and high-powered pistols, not to mention melee attacks. But the game also packs in lots of medium- and long-range shooting, sometimes pitting you against surprisingly large numbers of entrenched foes. There's some hacking, lock-picking, and demolitions thrown in there for good measure, each involving its own quick little minigame. There's a good bit of stealth, which lets you get the drop on your enemies before all hell breaks loose.
The foes you'll fight throughout the missions in Perfect Dark Zero won't necessarily shock you with their tactical prowess, but they do a pretty good job of weaving to avoid your fire or just keeping their heads down. In general, they believably behave like action movie fodder, creating danger often just through sheer numbers. What's interesting about them is that many of them are armoured, clad in helmets or full protective gear. Anyone who has been playing first-person shooters for a while is by now accustomed to aiming for enemies' heads, and while headshots in Perfect Dark Zero are as deadly as you'd expect against unprotected opponents, helmeted foes can withstand a couple of shots to the noggin before going down. Even at the standard difficulty, your foes tend to be highly accurate at long range, which would seem unrealistic were it not for the scopes on their weapons.
It's fortunate that the action is as good as it is, since the story in Perfect Dark Zero -- which involves a power-hungry businessman's search for some sort of powerful artefact -- feels surprisingly tacked on. A combination of voice-over mission briefings and rather unimpressive cutscenes using the in-game character models try to drive the plot forward, but it's easy to get lost in the details, and it's harder to care.
Whether you play solo or cooperatively, the mission mode presents some of the game's greatest thrills. But the combat arena mode offers plenty of fun and variety as well. Multiplayer matches in Perfect Dark Zero aren't wildly out of the ordinary, but the excellent weapon selection, flexibility of options, high-quality maps, and smooth online performance (we never experienced any lag in several days of playing online) make for a rock-solid competitive shooter. Game types are split up into "deathmatch" and "dark-ops" themes, each of which features a number of unique variants. The deathmatch variants all let you play with bots, and that includes killcount and team killcount for your typical multiplayer shoot-outs, as well as capture-the-flag and territorial gains, the latter of which forces players to fight for control over certain key points on each map.
As for the dark-ops variants, these all feature a Counter-Strike-style rounds system, so you'll earn money as you play and will get to spend it on armour and the weapons of your choice in between rounds. Eradication is the simplest dark-ops variant, pitting one team against another in a fight to the finish. Onslaught puts one team on offense and one on defense, and the defensive team must make a stand in a fortified position. The defense team may purchase weapons, while the offense team may not. But members of the offense team respawn if killed, while members of the defense team only get one life. The infection variant is kind of similar, but it's a free-for-all in which human players must fend off infected players who look like skeletons. Human players can purchase weapons, while infected players are stuck with whatever they can get their hands on. But any human killed by an infected player joins the infected...making it that much tougher for any remaining humans to survive the round. Finally, the sabotage variant tasks the offense team with trying to incur as much collateral damage as possible by damaging key objects in the environment, while the defense team must prevent this by any means necessary.
Taken as a whole, Perfect Dark Zero is decidedly one of the best, fully featured Xbox 360 games so far, and it's a compelling reason to spring for the system if you've been on the fence. While the game doesn't reinvent the first-person shooter, which has been a mainstay of action gaming for more than a decade, it delivers one of the most highly refined and spectacular examples of this brand of gameplay to date.
Keep up to date with the latest games news, reviews and features by signing up to CNET.com.au's free Games Spotlight weekly newsletter. Sign up now!