To fully understand what Damnation is about, you have to forget about Gears of War 2. Forget about the fact they're both third-person shooters. Forget that they both use the same satisfying over-the-shoulder aiming method. Forget that both have the same darkened 'ruined beauty' visual style that is the Unreal Engine's trademark. (Although later levels, set in sun-soaked mountains and sun-starved tundras do much to take the engine out of its comfort zone.) Forget that the logos are somewhat, ahem, similar. (It's a work in progress.) Forget even, that Damnation is staring down the barrel of a release date crunch with GOW2 this winter. Because despite all of that, Damnation and GOW2 sit at opposite ends of the third-person shooter dinner table.
There is no cover system in Damnation. This is an old-school balls-out fast-paced shooter in the vein of Quake 3 or Unreal Tournament 2004, and in actual fact began life as a mod for the latter title. Damnation was as an entry into the 2005 'Make Something Unreal' competition, eventually finishing in a very impressive second place. (The winning entry, Red Orchestra by Tripwire, was eventually given a full release on PC via Steam.) Then a first-person shooter, Damnation opened eyes with its unorthodox steampunk-Western style, but its real draw was the ease with which the fast-paced combat was fused with an exploration element more in keeping with traditional platform games such as the Sands of Time. Several years and many tweaks later, Damnation is poised to enthral a wider audience.
Lead Designer Jacob Minkof cites Sony's Ico and Shadow of the Colossus as inspirations, and this is obvious in the level design. At the very beginning of each stage, the entire level is laid out in front of you. Consider the opening level. Our hero, the Van Helsing-esque Hamilton Rourke, stands atop a cliff edge, staring at the solitary bridge that divides America in half. (To sum the plot up, this is an alternative-history America in which a civil war between the Confederate and the Union factions has decimated the country.
An industrialist named Prescott, who has been selling weaponry to both sides, has decided to take advantage of the times and take control of the country himself, and his private military are now thundering towards your side of the divide. So if we were you, and, er, you were Rourke, we'd head to that bridge and blow it up, pronto.)
So, from atop the cliff-face, we can chart our route to the bridge. We can see that the only hospitable route to our goal is through a ghost town packed with Prescott's forces, which is... you know, great. Turning to our left, we can see that there's a zip-wire leading directly down to the village, so from this vantage point we can plot our course thoroughly. Not all levels are this linear, though. In later levels, you'll be able to see up to three miles into the distance. It gives the game a terrific sense of scale.
Since this is a game about exploration, there are numerous different routes you can take through the levels, all of which converge at certain points. Rourke is an athletic guy and can wall-kick his way up surfaces, shimmy up poles and clamber onto platforms directly above him. However, at some point in Damnation's development, Blue Omega reached the point where they had to decide if it was a platformer or a fast-paced shooter, and they went for the latter. As such, the game is very forgiving when it comes to the jumps - there is a predicting mechanism in place that allows you to make jumps without the need for pixel-perfect accuracy, and holding down RB acts as a modifier that lines Rourke up for his next jump.
As a result, you can vault, leap and spring around the environment with comparative ease, allowing your brain to concentrate on the swathes of enemies intent on clipping your wings. It's an edge you'll need, as in later stages, you'll find that your opponents have been partaking in a special Prescott-developed serum that heightens their reaction time and - even more worryingly - bumps up their overall speed as well. You'll have to keep on the move to keep these maniacs at bay.
So there, in a nutshell, is Damnation. Doesn't sound much like Gears at all, does it? One thing they do have in common is that they're both Grade A fun - and, if you decide you're only going to need one shooter this winter, well, you'll going to be damned if you do, and damned if you don't. More soon.