John Romero's Daikatana (Windows)

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Written by  :  Ian McLean (11)
Written on  :  Aug 11, 2009
Platform  :  Windows
Rating  :  3.17 Stars3.17 Stars3.17 Stars3.17 Stars3.17 Stars

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A deeply troubled effort that hints at greatness

The Good

I like most other people who followed PC gaming at the time was waiting for Daikatana with bated breath. It was to be John Romero's crowning achievement; indeed the misfired media blitz that Eidos launched in which Romero indirectly proclaimed us to all be his 'bitches' smacked of rockstar-esque confidence and bravado. By its release, the media and consumers alike were chomping at the bit to find every single flaw they could find and try and tear Romero's baby (and ego) to pieces; and indeed, they found many flaws. But not all of it is justified, and with the benefit of hindsight perhaps it's time to sit down and take this piece for what it is.

There is a lot to like about Daikatana. The idea of having a squad of sidekicks to accompany you most of the way through the game was new and original among FPSes of the day, and for all the flak they get, I applaud Ion Storm's steadfast insistence on their inclusion. It's one of the many things that sets Daikatana apart from any FPS before and to a degree, since.

People have criticised this game in the past for its use of the Quake 2 engine, which even in the year 2000 was already showing seams, but I really have no complaints about it here. Ion Storm did not just use it stock; volumetric fog, alpha transparency, weather effects, enhanced particles, decals and animated skyboxes have all been integrated seamlessly and make the title much more visually interesting than its Quake 2 engine moniker would have you believe from the outset. Texture detail is low (lower than that of Unreal, which preceded it by two years), but the artwork itself is varied and well enough defined that I have no problem overlooking that.

Daikatana features plenty of variety; the weapons are hugely varied and plentiful, as well as enemies. The stark contrast between the different time periods is fantastic, and the two middle chapters are pulled off beautifully.

Ancient Greece feels fresh, colourful and enchanting. Chopping down spiders and arachnids with your sword is a fun experience the first time around, and some of the decoration is good enough that even in the current day of games, you can still stop and admire the creativity and detail that went into the place. Medieval Norway is a work of frostbitten beauty, and complemented by Will Loconto's soundtrack which sets the scene perfectly. The slow falling of snow, the rolling clouds, frozen rivers and quaint medieval huts all lend to an immersive, almost romantic mood. These are without doubt the best parts of the game, rivaling its competitor of the time, Unreal, for the most beautiful vistas ever experienced in an FPS game.

The weapons, even when you know they're filling bog-standard FPS roles, are all highly creative (albeit grievously unbalanced -- I'll get to that below) and it's obvious that Ion Storm have worked hard to differentiate Daikatana from the average space-marine-killing-aliens-with-a-shotgun mould. The discus of Daedalus in the Greek episode, the shotcycler in the Japan episode and Norway's ballista were all one-of-a-kind implementations of weaponry, and a joy to use.

And finally, it's subtle, but when you're getting around, Daikatana just feels good. From the weapon and view bobbing, footsteps and the sounds as Hiro is running and jumping all over the shop lends a sense of urgency and complement the game's fast pace nicely. The audio is superb; weapons sound meaty and the ambience is of a high standard. (on that note, those who've played Daikatana's far superior sister title Deus Ex, will notice that the two projects actually appear to have borrowed sound assets from each other fairly liberally.)

The Bad

Unfortunately, for all of its great ideas, and despite its insane development cycle, Daikatana still manages to come off as a severely undercooked product. Most obvious, is that the weapons are highly unbalanced. Upon retrieving the game's eponymous sword you'll actually find very little use for any of the other weapons. The developers appear to have tried to compensate for this by making most of the other weapons totally, ridiculously powerful; most of the time that meant for me, I actually had no idea what most of the weapons were like until I decided to pull them out for boss fights, and upon doing so the boss in question was vapourised almost instantaneously. Compounding the problem of the Daikatana itself, is that the sword, as it gains power through the game, starts taking on so many flashy pyrotechnic effects that you literally cannot see where the hell you are going while you are toting it.

The whole presence of your buddies in the game, if a noble concept, is annoying in practice; not just their AI, which has been sufficiently lambasted in numerous other reviews, but also just their general demeanour. Both Mikiko and Superfly come off as thoroughly unlikeable douchebags, and indeed my only motivation to keep them alive at all was the fact that you cannot complete a level without them alive and standing next to you at the exit.

The cutscene dialogue between all characters is hilariously bad and no one has any real backstory asides a totally perfunctory and contrived motivation for wanting to save take over the world. Indeed, the game's evil overlord Mishima seems to have absolutely no reason to enslave the earth except for 'because I can' and Hiro literally takes on the quest to stop him for no reason other than the fact that a random old guy came to his door and asked him to. I'm not expecting Academy Award-winning performances and storyline from an action game, but the cutscenes are generally quite long and I'm left wondering why they even bothered at all if they're not going to explain a bloody thing.

Your AI sidekicks frequently get stuck on corners, ladders, each other and basically anything that is not a straight, empty corridor. To add insult to injury, they've been given just enough character to express annoyance at your babysitting, but not enough brains to take care of themselves.

When Mikiko gets stuck in an infinite loop of her climbing animation at the bottom of a ladder, I have no choice but to displace her myself by shoving her out off of the ladder. "Stop pushing me around!", she says. There is nary a 'thankyou' or 'sorry' to be heard anywhere in the game when you actually try to stick up for your buddies. In fact, there is never any point in which any single character shows any sign of humility, vulnerability or indeed any kind of emotion at all other than tough-guy bravado -- further lending to your dislike of them when you have to leave them for a few minutes while you crawl up a vent to open a door, and the game ends halfway through because they stood stock still while a trio of mosquitoes and frogs nibble at their toes 'till they die. These are by no means isolated incidents and will be the first thing that drives you away from the game.

Another thing is the first and last chapters, which are not only too similar to each other, but also extremely drab and boring to play through, and full of elementary design mistakes. Hunting from level to level for hours on end looking for a keycard or cog to put into a machine is not fun. Walking down the hallway only to have the ground explode under you without warning and throw you into a pit of deadly spikes is not fun. In one of the Norway levels I spent something like three hours searching for a freaking key for a door and it was only after getting bored out of my mind and hitting things randomly with the sword that I found the ice on the surface of a fountain was breakable and the key was hidden in the water that I could continue. Why did the game provide absolutely no clue to this? Why couldn't one of the characters say "Hey Hiro, maybe you can break the ice there?" Why didn't they make the ice transparent or put a crack in it, indicating it could be shattered? These kinds of oversights are glaring, infuriating, and frequent.

The Bottom Line

Overall, this game is a moderately satisfying product, spearheaded by a passionate and visionary face of the gaming industry, that is dogged by a great many problems; to some, those problems will be too severe and too frequent to enjoy the effort that has gone into it. Those of us who are more patient may be able to extract some quality entertainment that is buried beneath its failings. For sure, this game did not live up to the hype surrounding it.

Ultimately I'm convinced that the biggest problem with this game was simply its timing. Released earlier, before 2000, in a world of lower standards, it may have fared better as people could more readily embrace its creative and original and gameplay mechanics. Released later, perhaps folks could glossed over its use of the aging Quake 2 tech that constitutes its base, and enjoyed a highly solid FPS with a unique aesthetic and personality.

As it stands, it's caught in somewhat of a no-man's land, nowhere close to where it needs to be either way, and suffers greatly for it -- ironic, given the game's running theme of time travel. Approach it with an open heart and an open mind, however, and you will find enough meat on this title to keep you satisfied.