In the months leading up to its release, Damnation was a game that really sounded like a winner. It was described as a title whose gameplay mixed elements of climbing, platforming, exploration, and shooting wrapped perfectly in a steampunk Civil War era setting. The concept alone was intriguing, which made me fairly excited to see how the game would finally turn out. Unfortunately, the finished product fails to take advantage of its own interesting concepts and instead winds up just feeling like an unfinished and half-baked mess.
The premise behind the game’s unique backdrop is that steam power is discovered during the Civil War era. In turn, this allows for rapid advancements in technology that otherwise wouldn’t have been possible at the time. More specifically, this is mostly just applied to war-related technology such as more advanced weaponry, robotic prosthetics for soldiers, and even fully functional steam-powered robots. As expected, these advancements also come at the price of extending the Civil War by several decades and causing even more pain and devastation to the country and its inhabitants. While the steampunk twist is an interesting idea, it just comes off feeling like a lame excuse for having more modern weaponry and vehicles in an otherwise old-time setting.
The story of Damnation is one that revolves around the main character named Hamilton Rourke. You play as Rourke, a member of a rebel gang trying to stop an evil industrialist named Prescott from taking over the country. With the aid of a never-ending supply of steam-powered robots and serum-controlled troops, Prescott is seemingly unstoppable. However, for Rourke, stopping Prescott comes secondary to tracking down his missing fiancée, which oddly enough winds up having something to do with Prescott. Basically, the story itself is largely laughable and extremely clichéd, and the spoken dialogue doesn’t do it any favors either. Listening to characters converse is rarely anything but painful, be it due to the terrible dialogue or how it’s delivered or, more often than not, both.
Of course, most players won’t really care about the storyline because they likely won’t get a chance to experience it all. This is because the gameplay in Damnation is borderline broken on top of being horrifically repetitive and wildly uninteresting. Since this title is listed as a shooter, I’ll start with just how bad the simple act of shooting is. Players will control Rourke from a third-person perspective and have access to two larger guns, a pistol, and a handful of mines that can be thrown and detonated at all times. No matter which weapon you are using, except for the sniper rifle or anything that explodes, it will take way more rounds than it should to take out even the weakest of enemies.
The gunplay in Damnation is among the sloppiest and most unsatisfying I’ve ever experienced. Even at a close range, the bullets you fire seem to spread out as though they were meant to create an outline around whatever you are shooting at rather than actually hitting the target you are aiming for. Zooming in can slightly help with this problem, but it is still pretty unreliable and makes shooting even more cumbersome, as you’ll need to depress the right analog stick every time you try to take aim at an enemy. If you manage to get more than twenty feet away from your target and don’t have a sniper rifle, you might as well give up any hope of taking them out before you run out of bullets.
Thankfully, in situations such as these, the game’s ludicrously brain-dead A.I. actually comes in handy. When positioned on a high ledge or a decent distance away from your enemies, they will often just stand around while you to pick them off one by one. Since you can basically only do this using a sniper rifle, perhaps that’s why you can only carry twelve bullets for it at a time. Things don’t get much better when in close proximity, as they will just resort to running from one position to another, stand out in the open, or somehow remain blissfully unaware of your presence. It’s pretty sad when you walk straight up to an enemy, who is facing in your direction mind you, and unload ten to fifteen bullets into them without any reaction whatsoever. Sadly, this isn’t a rare occurrence either, happening to me at least a few times every level.
Luckily, the platforming and climbing in Damnation work better than the shooting, but they feel just about as interesting. Each area in the game begins with a camera pan of roughly where you need to go to reach the next area. Unfortunately, since every area is so large, takes so long to traverse, and everything in them looks so incredibly similar, it can often be difficult to have any idea where you are going.
Players will need to keep their eyes open for bright orange ledges, ropes, chains, windows, ladders, and the other rebels who travel with you in the levels to desperately try to figure out where to go. The actual act of climbing and platforming is pretty solid with Rourke pulling himself up on ledges, shimmying, sliding down zip-lines, wall jumping, and climbing ropes with relative ease. There’s even a nice feature that has you holding down a shoulder button in order to jump away from walls, making sure that you don’t perish unintentionally when trying to simply get around the environment. Sadly though, even though it somewhat works, the platforming gets stale quickly, since levels tend to drag on infinitely and you are basically just doing the same thing in every area of the game.
There are also a ton of technical issues that seemingly attempt to dash any remaining hopes of having fun with Damnation. The game’s framerate will frequently drop, making the action lurch. Players are often forced to wait through lengthy load times that spring up in some of the most inconvenient times. In particular, I always seemed to have these loading interruptions in the middle of jumps during every segment that required me to ride a steam-powered motorcycle between areas. Perhaps the worst offenders though are the glitches that necessitate a system restart to deal with. I was lucky enough to both have the game refuse to load the next area after a cutscene as well as just plain getting stuck inside a mountain while playing.
If you can manage to find anyone willing to put up with the prevalent and persistent gameplay problems, Damnation also offers up a few multiplayer options. You can play through the campaign with another player either online or split-screen, although cutting the screen in half makes finding enemies and your next destination that much more difficult. There are also some incredibly basic versus modes present consisting of deathmatch, team deathmatch, king of the hill, and capture the flag, but good luck finding anybody playing this game online; you’ll need it. Even if you do manage to find a few people to play against, the vertical nature and vast sizes of the included maps will make rounds feel more like games of hide and seek than competitive multiplayer.
In the end, Damnation really is a sad story. The game had an interesting concept and a good amount of potential but it just never came together. It is really unfortunate to see it fail in just about every aspect because even if it had gotten one thing right, be it platforming, shooting, multiplayer, or its storyline, perhaps it could have still found an audience happy to check it out. However, as it is I can’t imagine anyone enjoying their time spent with this game.
RATING OUT OF 5 RATING DESCRIPTION 1.8 Graphics
With its bland environments and characters, you’ll have a hard time telling it apart from an early PS2 era title. 2.2 Control
The platforming is somewhat passable, but the gunplay is incredibly sloppy. 1.7 Music / Sound FX / Voice Acting
Painful voice acting clashes with terrible sound effects to ensure your ears won’t soon forget the experience. 1.5 Play Value
Although the campaign is an adequately lengthy experience at around 6-10 hours to complete, you’ll tire of it well before that. The included multiplayer options and co-op don’t help matters out either, as you’d actually need to find someone else willing to play the game, and both are still just as flawed as the single-player experience. 1.7 Overall Rating – Avoid
Not an average. See Rating legend above for a final score breakdown.