Privateer 2: The Darkening - PC Review, December 1996
A multi-million dollar budget, a galaxy of big star actors, a whole universe to explore - not your average modern classic.
This isn't supposed to happen. Any game built up this much is just a step away from a mighty fall. So why is The Darkening good enough to be considered one of the finest ever computer games? Why does it induce so many long-forgotten sensations, the sort of thrills and maddening moments that everybody always say made the game's of the '80s so damn special? Just why is it so hard to actually stop playing this thing long enough to eat meals or catch up on sleep?
There's a lot of history to consider before wading into deep space, guns ablazing. There's the original Privateer, of course - a game with an ambition t revive the combat-cum-trading styling of Elite, all using the game engine and world of Wing Commander. Even old WC was indebted to Elite There's a lot of rose-tinted retro-talk that goes on, but it's important to remember that Elite really justified its legendary status. No other game since has inspired quite the same sense of awe. Until The Darkening came along.
The other thing about The Darkening is that it uses the same raw materials as the ultimately disappointing Wing Commander 4. With that title, Origin seemed to have taken the inter-active movie lark about as far as it could go. Splicing quality movie footage with all-action gameplay looked like a dead end. A very pretty dead end, but a dead end all the same. And yet here's The Darkening, taking those very same elements and transforming them into the building blocks of greatness. You'll believe a game can feature FMV and still be fully interactive. Oh yes.
This is the game that cost five million dollars to make, but its the rock solid game beneath that gloss that makes it so special. The game structure may have its roots in a game that's over a decade old, but compared to the rigidly structured PC games around now, it feels like a breath of fresh air.
The idea is simple - buy a spaceship to fly between various planets and space stations, trading goods using rented cargo escorts, hiring wingmen where necessary, battling it out with pirates (or the military if you're involved in black market goods), and taking on special missions with big rewards. Save enough credits and better weapons, and you can buy superior missiles and space craft. And, naturally, with more spending power you can buy more goods for trade, and make even bigger profits. Provided an keen eye is kept on the news bulletins, that is.
This being a science fiction game, there's lot more to this planet hopping than a simple bit of navigation. Travel involves warping between space jump points, any of which could have pirates lying in wait or some other health hazard. Trouble means not being able to activate the jump drive, so it's then a matter of letting the weapons doing the talking... or running like crazy. All simple stuff, but the freeform blend of trading, mission work and expertly handled dogfighting means The Darkening is almost infinitely varied. And it's something of a looker, too.
Using a souped-up version of Argonaut's BRender 3D system, the deep space scenes of The Darkening really are something else. The various spacecraft are wonderfully detailed, and fleshed out with some great texturing and light sourcing. Watching a pirate shuttle ram straight into the forward shields, as explosions light up its underside is really something else - particularly when the nearby star can be seen glinting just beyond, its light creating brilliantly convincing lens flare effects. Real-time graphics just aren't supposed t look this detailed or move with such grace/ There is some slowdown when another space craft fills most of the screen, but it's almost inevitable given the level of detail on show here. Only the explosions are disappointing. From a distance they have a photo-realistic quality, but shoot something up close to pieces and he explosion is tiny.Tch.
But stacked up against this one, pedantic niggle are countless moments of real cool and unparalleled slickness. Like the glossy scenes and menu system that accommodate trading morphing images, shiny animations and all. Or the way the high quality FMV is used as unobtrusively as possible, kicking in only to further the plot or to portray stuff like the landing sequences. Or the satisfying blend of various soundtracks and location-based themes, along with chunky gun noises and radio chatter.
And, unlike the clunky Wing Commander games, everything fades in and out as smoothly as a very greased-up thing, CD and ard drive delays being almost non-existent. Along with Command & Conquer this is a prime example of how to add lavish presentation without spoiling game flow.
It's the scale and freedom offered by The Darkening which really consolidates the game's position as a bona fide classic, though. It's hard to imagine any other game this vast, yet so detailed. Using the basic building blocks of trading and deep space combat, a mini-universe of frightening complexity has been created. Special government work, arms running, and missions with some very strange twists in the tail all lie in wait. And all the while there's that central storyline, should you wish to find out exactly what's going on with our Lev. And chances are you will.
The visuals and structure may initially peg it as a close brother of Wing Commander 4 or some FMV-fest, but don't be fooled. The Darkening is very interactive, and very different from any of its relatives. Like Quake before it, this game takes familiar themes and techniques and pushes them to the next level, refining gameplay to the nth degree. It's also probably the most polished PC game ever, and the most rewarding, ambitious and addictive computer game for a good few years. Talk about making an offer you can't refuse. (MR)