Part 4 of the Conquering the Pile of Shame Series
This game. From the very start of Damnation I had SO MANY QUESTIONS that went not only unanswered but were blatantly ignored. When a game introduces a fantasy or alternate history type of world they normally slowly immerse the player into to increasingly unbelievable scenarios until they become normalized, at which point the game can throw virtually anything at you without a huge fuss. Keeping this point in mind, Damnation is set near the end of the American Civil War during that part of history where the North built giant autonomous robots and were pumping their soldiers full of a super-soldier serum to make them both blood crazed and incredibly resilient, so pretty much historically accurate, right? Oh, and they also ride everywhere on motorcycles that use rocket boosters and zeppelins to get across the country in a matter of minutes. Still with me? This game pretty much starts at 100 mph and then just ramps it up from there. But while the story cranks it to 11, the actual gameplay sits at a lukewarm 4.
The interesting thing about Damnation is that the above story points were all introduced in the span of 5 minutes in the first cut-scene the player sees. While I will admit that overloading the player with new concepts is a form of introducing a fiction story, Damnation had about 30 new concepts (including some kind of weird magic that inexplicably gets transferred to the main character) that it just throws in your face with no background or explanation whatsoever and expects you to just roll with it. It feels similar to being left out of an inside joke and having everyone look at you with disdain and irritation as you try to explain you missed the first part of the conversation and could really use a brief recap of the whole situation. Most games, if they are somewhat historically based, offer a quick “history up to now” type of thing that serves to let the player follow the track of events that split the game reality from our own. That way the player isn’t completely lost in the mire of sort-of-historical jargon and culture shocked. I will admit that the story is ridiculous and really doesn’t make a lot of sense, even to someone who has studied history, but the concepts in the story are actually pretty cool.
When it comes to entertainment I am a sucker for alternate history: you can sit me down and I will watch The Man in the High Castle or Twilight Zone for pretty much the rest of time. However, when it comes to video games, I love when the alternate history involves completely stacked and improbable odds, like in the case of Wolfenstein: The New Order and more recently Wolfenstein: The New Colossus. These two games are an alternate version of World War II in which the Third Reich gained access to future technology and weaponry that dwarfs even what we have today. The concept is moderately in line with the Damnation story, but the presentation was done in a much slower way. In the first Wolfenstein reboot, you start in a bomber headed towards what you are told is a Nazi base. Shortly into the flight, you are assaulted by the enemy…who incidentally has what are essentially space-ships and they rip your squadron to shreds. While the introduction to the world happens over the span of about two chapters, the game starts you out in a plot vacuum. Most are familiar with World War II and some of those people would have a basic understanding of what a plane from that era would look like, but Wolfenstein coddles the player for at least the first few minutes before throwing in unbelievable history; yet by that point the player has already immersed themselves in the story and is willing to suspend disbelief. The real issue with Damnation is the immersion time was non-existent and the suspension of disbelief did not have enough time to build to a sustainable level before the plot was underway. As a player, this instantly shut down my desire for the story and can really be chalked up to a lot of bad director choices which, honestly, is such a shame. The era of the Civil War is so underused (mainly because it’s an American thing that other countries don’t particularly understand and weren’t involved in) in video games and even less so in alternate history; unless you count C.S.A.: The Confederate States of America, which I certainly don’t. With the exclusion of the magical element in this game, Damnation could have been a very interesting Wild Wild West type of story that involved trying to stop an evil dictator from taking advantage of a cultural schism and destroying both sides while they are weak. However, what we are left with is a bland and predictable story that never really surprises you. Well, once you adjust to the motorcycles and katana-saber wielding ninja assassins, that is.
Stiff and clunky are the words that come to mind when it comes to the actual gameplay of Damnation. I played Damnation with both a keyboard and mouse and a controller and neither setup felt comfortable to play with. The controller felt more fluid and how it should be played but the shooting was so inaccurate that I could barely aim straight without dying. The movement is not fluid at all and often feels like piloting a small RC boat that can’t move or turn that well. But in the midst of all of this a few things were either hilarious or actually impressive, namely the climbing animation and the environments themselves. I have tried a whole bunch of times to describe in words how the climbing works in Damnation but it has been so difficult to describe without referencing other things. It feels similar to the climbing in Uncharted, if Uncharted had been in the early stages of development but was released on accident. However, the animation for climbing is hands down the greatest thing in this game, as you can see below:
SEE WHAT I MEAN? Who climbs like that? “Excuse me everyone, let me just hoist myself up and backward while slamming back some Creatine and protein shakes because I clearly have gainz for days.” It’s such a ridiculous way to climb but it almost perfectly sums up how this game operates: it tries to make you feel like the big, strong, good guy who is gruff and has a shady past, but really just succeeds in creating a cartoonish caricature of that man. That said, Damnation does have something pretty neat going for it- the environments. Even though the game was made in the more recent past and the environments are rather bare, they are surprisingly large and detailed where detail is actually to be found. All of the buildings are hollow and have walkable interiors that you can look at and climb through. Even further, most of the buildings are used for the platforming in the game, of which there is a surprising amount. Where most games in the age of Damnation would prop up pictures of mountains or trees to make the player assume the world was larger than it is, Damnation actually has fairly expansive levels that last around a half an hour or so a piece. While the actual game portion of Damnation is lack luster and boring, there is at least a little sightseeing and climbing to be had.
Damnation exists in a bygone era in gaming, being almost 8 years old now (which is a very long time in video games) and unfortunately falters in a huge variety of ways. But, even with the terrible gameplay and incredulous plot, it’s still a fresh take on the alternate history genre that is saturated with so many other points in history. Damnation tried to be something radically different from the other games around it, and while it ultimately failed in doing so, we can see a few redeemable aspects that can have an impact on the modern gaming climate. When all of the Triple-A, big budget games that come out now are basically a monetary black hole, trying to suck every last nickel and dime out of the average consumer and subtly punishing the players who resist, we need the kind of reinvention that Damnation was attempting to instill. A good majority of people only look at the greats, the games the brought us where we are today, but what about the failures? What about the games that shut down companies but were created because someone actually had a passion and an idea? Personally, I would prefer a terrible game with a vision and heart than an excellent piece of gaming that was pumped out because of a quota.