The plot of Perfect Dark Zero is mostly just an excuse to put you in a series of intense shootouts all around the world.
It's fortunate that the action is as good as it is, since the story in Perfect Dark Zero--which involves a power-hungry businessman's search for some sort of powerful artifact--feels surprisingly tacked on. A combination of voice-over mission briefings and rather unimpressive cutscenes using the in-game character models try to drive the plot forward, but it's easy to get lost in the details, and it's harder to care. Despite some good voice acting, the characters just aren't developed much, not even Joanna's relationship with her gruff father. The story takes a few decent twists, but it seems to be kept down to a minimum so as not to get in the way of the shooting action. It's too bad, though, since a better story would have helped make the mission mode more cohesive. As it stands, the missions are generally excellent, but they do feel somewhat disconnected, especially since the game pushes you back out to the mission-select menu in between each one. A very brief ending also prevents Perfect Dark Zero from having much impact from a storytelling standpoint. But on the plus side, there's a good chance you'll want to dive right back into the campaign as soon as you've finished it for the first time.
Perfect Dark Zero's cooperative play mode is easily one of the best things about the game. You can play through the entire campaign cooperatively online or in a split screen, and the tactical shooting is even more fun when you're coordinating with a friend. However, what's really great about the co-op mode is that it does more than just throw a carbon copy of Joanna Dark into each level with you. Instead, player two will control some other character, who may begin the mission in a different place and be forced to overcome different obstacles from player one. For example, one early mission has Joanna high up on some rafters overlooking a city street where her father is fighting for his life. When playing solo, you must defend Jack Dark by sniping at his enemies and cutting a path for him to proceed. But in co-op, player two controls Jack directly.
These types of scenarios don't fundamentally change the fact that the both of you will end up running and gunning side by side, but they help keep things fresh and they also foster communication between the players. What's more, the headset support works great, letting you speak to your partner without interruption during missions and in between them (during the relatively brief loading times and everything). And the game is still plenty challenging in co-op mode, offering both players a lot of targets to shoot at. Should one player fall in combat, the other player can revive him just as long as the coast is clear. In one nice little innovation, you'll always be able to find the other player in a co-op game just by following some yellow waypoint markers to his or her location. For that matter, similar waypoints also appear to help guide you to your next objective. At first this seems like cheating (and you can toggle it off if you want), since you're clearly shown where you're supposed to go. But it's a great feature that's simply there to keep you from getting lost in some of the big levels, and it's justified in the context of gameplay by how Joanna's off-site support staff is able to frequently bring her updated intel and status reports.
Lots of different multiplayer variants are available, including all the usual suspects as well as some fun new game types.
Whether you play solo or cooperatively, the mission mode presents some of the game's greatest thrills. But the combat arena mode offers plenty of fun and variety as well. Multiplayer matches in Perfect Dark Zero aren't wildly out of the ordinary, but the excellent weapon selection, flexibility of options, high-quality maps, and smooth online performance (we never experienced any lag in several days of playing online) make for a rock-solid competitive shooter. Game types are split up into "deathmatch" and "dark-ops" themes, each of which features a number of unique variants. The deathmatch variants all let you play with bots, and that includes killcount and team killcount for your typical multiplayer shoot-outs, as well as capture-the-flag and territorial gains, the latter of which forces players to fight for control over certain key points on each map. You can determine the weapon loadout, number of players, and many other variables for each match.
As for the dark-ops variants, these all feature a Counter-Strike-style rounds system, so you'll earn money as you play and will get to spend it on armor and the weapons of your choice in between rounds. Eradication is the simplest dark-ops variant, pitting one team against another in a fight to the finish. Onslaught puts one team on offense and one on defense, and the defensive team must make a stand in a fortified position. The defense team may purchase weapons, while the offense team may not. But members of the offense team respawn if killed, while members of the defense team only get one life. The infection variant is kind of similar, but it's a free-for-all in which human players must fend off infected players who look like skeletons. Human players can purchase weapons, while infected players are stuck with whatever they can get their hands on. But any human killed by an infected player joins the infected...making it that much tougher for any remaining humans to survive the round. Finally, the sabotage variant tasks the offense team with trying to incur as much collateral damage as possible by damaging key objects in the environment, while the defense team must prevent this by any means necessary. You can only play dark-ops matches with other human players, though the bots found in the deathmatch variants seem like they could have been smart enough to handle these slightly more complicated battles, too.
Not every combination of map, game variant, and number of players leads to spectacular results, but many of them do. The killcount and capture-the-flag modes, being the most conventional, are probably the least remarkable, while the more-novel modes like onslaught and infected are really quite fun, offering tense but fast-paced thrills. All modes benefit from giving you a helpful onscreen map and radar, which briefly detects foes that fire their weapons in your vicinity and lets you get to where the action is. The game records your progress as you play successive matches, and many of the unlockable achievements are tied to long-term multiplayer accomplishments, like playing 1,000 deathmatch games. And since you can heavily customize any multiplayer games you set up, down to which combination of weapons will be available for players to choose from, Perfect Dark Zero should have plenty to keep you busy over the long haul.
Holding out for an Xbox 360 just got tougher.
As mentioned, Perfect Dark Zero is very impressive from a visual standpoint, but some of the multiplayer match types do bring out some of its graphical rough edges. Team-based matches color code friends from foes, but the monochromatic uniforms look rather garish. You'll also see some downright crazy rag-doll death animations, like when characters are killed sometimes they'll bounce or slump in impossible ways--effects that are likely to be just as amusing as they're distracting (but they do detract from the presentation slightly). You might also see the game's frame rate take a dive during particularly hairy multiplayer shoot-outs, though this also happens on occasion in the mission mode. Other visual details in Perfect Dark Zero really stand out, like the stylized gouts of blood that spurt out whenever you score a headshot, or the way killed enemies' weapons leave their grip and clatter to the ground. The game performs about as well if you're playing alone or in a split screen with three other players, and it still looks fantastic on a standard-definition television. The audio has no real weak points apart from a few hokey voice acting performances, but the weapon fire and musical score easily drown this out. There's no music during multiplayer matches, though, unless you provide your own using the Xbox 360's slick custom soundtracks feature. Also, if you've got a surround-sound system, you'll enjoy the tactical advantages of hearing all the great audio happening all around you.
Taken as a whole, Perfect Dark Zero is decidedly one of the best, fully featured Xbox 360 games so far, and it's a compelling reason to spring for the system if you've been on the fence. While the game doesn't reinvent the first-person shooter, which has been a mainstay of action gaming for more than a decade, it delivers one of the most highly refined and spectacular examples of this brand of gameplay to date. From its ravishing good looks and totally first-rate audio, to the believable feel of its outstanding weapons, to its wealth of single- and multiplayer options, Perfect Dark Zero delivers just about everything you could hope for from a first-person shooter.