Privateer 2: The Darkening PC Gamer US Review

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Privateer 2: The Darkening

The long-awaited sequel to Origin's space-smuggler game tops Wing IV in just about every way.

When I was just a wee lad — eons before the advent of the PC — one of my favorite pastimes was a pen-and-paper roleplaying game. Its title escapes me now, but it was a solo game that cast the player as Duke Springer, a Han Solo clone out to win fame and fortune in a sometimes-hostile galaxy. If memory serves, the game had no plot or long-term goal to speak of — the point was simply to amass a fortune smuggling goods from planet to planet, and pour the money back into your starship. There was plenty of space combat, of course, but the real highlight was creating a hotrod of a space freighter, with all the coolest weapons and defenses.

Eventually, I got heavily into PC games, and Duke Springer's adventures went into a drawer on top of my ancient Dungeons & Dragons books — but I never completely forgot that game. When Origin released Privateer about four years ago, it was as if old Duke had come back into my life. Sure, I followed the story to its conclusion — it took me about 100 tries to destroy that damned alien fighter — but what really kept me playing was the desire to buy a bigger, better starship and trick it out with the best guns, missiles, shield generators, and other gadgets.

To tell the truth, I enjoyed it more than any of Origin's Wing Commander games. Not even Wing Commander III and IV, with their 3D, high-resolution combat sequences and real-live film stars, grabbed me the way Privateer did.

Now — finally — Privateer 2 is here, and it has better-looking battles and more Hollywood bigshots than even WCIV boasted. But the biggest thrill it delivers is a return to the lone-wolf, hotrods-in-space gameplay that made its predecessor such a blast.

Although the gameplay is very similar, Privateer 2, which was originally titled simply The Darkening, is set in a very different universe than the original's. While Privateer took place on the fringes of the Wing Commander games' conflict between humans and Kilrathi, The Darkening seems to exist in an altogether different place or time.

Most of the cast and crew of the video sequences — and much of the game's development team — are English, so The Darkening has a distinct flavor of British science fiction. Echoes of Dr. Who and Blake's Seven are evident in the set and costume design (although The Darkening looks like it had a bigger budget than any five seasons of those shows), and the influence of Douglas Adams' Hitchhiker books are unmistakable in the game's occasional touches of humor. This may turn a scant handful of gamers off, but I found it a refreshing change from the grim, Blade Runner-influenced atmosphere of so many current science fiction games.

The game's screenplay was written by Star Trek novelist Diane Duane, with dialog punched up by British comic book writer Peter Milligan. The benefits of bringing in honest-to-goodness professional storytellers are clearly visible in The Darkening. The game, has a solid, involving plot that develops smoothly toward a satisfying conclusion, and while a few of the actors' lines are just a trifle too cute, the dialog is the sharpest you'll find in any PC game. Of course, the best script in the world might as well be hieroglyphics scrawled on paper towels if it's not delivered properly — fortunately, most of the acting is also far above the gaming norm, thanks to the best cast a computer game has ever had. The hero is played by Clive Owen, a charismatic Englishman who has appeared in several British features and U.S. television movies. The supporting cast includes a Who's Who of excellent character actors, including John Hurt, Jurgen Prochnow, David Warner, Amanda Pays, Mathilda May, David McCallum, and Brian Blessed. Oh, and Christopher Walken's in there, too. Of course.

Gameplay is excellent, too. The Darkening's new and improved 3D engine yields graphics considerably more impressive than those in any current space combat game, including Wing Commander IV. Bethesda's The 10th Planet and LucasArts' X-Wing vs. TIE Fighter may top The Darkening eventually, but Origin's latest is the one to beat for now. The screen shots don't really do it justice; to appreciate the game's visuals, you've got to see them in motion — fighters warping in, laser fire cutting through space in the distance, and starships exploding in huge balls of fire. Most importantly, the animation is as smooth as silk on the recommended 120MHz Pentium — in fact, we found it perfectly playable on a Pentium 90.

Best of all, there's a lot more to do in between movie clips than buzz around space shooting up enemy fighters. As Lev Arris, a pilot-for-hire desperately trying to solve the mystery of his past before it catches up with him, you'll need constant infusions of fresh cash. That means being a businessman as well as a badass; you're paid a bounty for every starship you destroy. To bring in the big bucks, you'll want to make trade runs between planets and accept escort and combat missions. You'll also find yourself searching public records occasionally to find clues to your true identity.

And you'll need to improve your ship, of course. The Darkening gives you considerably more options for doing that than Privateer offered; I counted 18 different fighters you can buy, seven different guns, and nine kinds of missile. There are plenty of other gizmos you can use to spiff up your ride, too: afterburner and shield enhancers, coolant units, repair droids, nukes, mines, decoys — even a computer virus that can infect enemy ships. With all these goodies to choose from, you'll be sorry to see the game end before you've had a chance to try 'em all.

Heck, you'll be sorry to see this game end, period. It's not without its flaws — the difficulty system sometimes seems to penalize you for making too much money, for instance; and there are a few bugs that weren't squashed before the game was shipped — but The Darkening is still the most fun you can have in a starship. Never mind the next Wing Commander game — let's hope it's not another four years before we see Privateer 3.

Dan Bennett