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If Xbox wants an Xbox Game Pass great, The Initiative's Perfect Dark must avoid the series' past mistakes

If there’s one thing we don’t want from a Perfect Dark reboot, it’s another Perfect Dark Zero.

Rare’s legendary N64 first-person shooter, Goldeneye, marked its 25th anniversary last month. However, at the risk of raising blood pressure worldwide, I’ll dare to say that it’s not the jewel in the British developer’s FPS crown. That accolade goes to its spiritual successor: Perfect Dark.

With the announcement of a series reboot at The Game Awards in 2020, Microsoft’s newest studio, The Initiative, has been given the momentous task of bringing the franchise to modern audiences, with a little help from Tomb Raider industry veterans Crystal Dynamics. Ignoring for a moment that The Initiative sounds concernedly like one of the shady organisations that Joanna Dark would be taking down, the new triple-A studio has its work cut out in creating a debut title that manages to deliver the nostalgia that long-time series fans will want, as well as enough modernity to satisfy new players — something that Rare failed to do with Perfect Dark Zero back in 2005. If they want to be in with a shot of satisfying both audiences, they’ll need to learn from Rare’s mistakes.

Perfect Dark Zero was a good-looking game on release, but this only masked its many issues under the hood.

Firstly, we need a cool-as-heck story. Very little has been shared about the reboot so far, but the cinematic trailer confirms the theme of ecological disaster. We see Earth from space, rife with storms, fires, and floods. We’re told of corporations offering “solutions”, but series fans will know that corporations have long played complex roles in Perfect Dark’s lore. We also know by the end of the trailer that dataDyne is still a featured antagonist, as the camera pans across dead soldiers to show Joanna standing atop a dataDyne super-structure, looking out over a storm ravaging the Great Pyramids. Setting itself deeply within the fictional side of sci-fi, Perfect Dark has always played with the idea of an alternative future.

The OG was a wild blend of X-files and 007, with the warring alien races of the “little grey men” Maians and vicious Skedar battling it out on Earth, backed by these mega-corporations like horses in a race. Perfect Dark Zero leaned even further into the absurd (without being half as much fun) with a plot to locate an artefact that granted the user supernatural abilities. Look, it’s 2022, and this level of silliness isn’t going to fly in the spy genre like it once did; we can expect a more mature approach. Taking something as important and real as a global ecological disaster and turning it into a futuristic spy thriller is a fantastic idea. But this can still be done without grounding us so firmly in reality that it feels like a grim continuation of real life, can’t it? Perfect Dark Zero suffered greatly for its omission of aliens.

They were a fantastic element of the first title and a big part of what made Perfect Dark exciting; it would be wonderful to see the Maians and Skedar return in some way. But even if they don’t, aligning with the theme of corporate global rule and private militaristic power will be key to honouring Perfect Dark’s legacy.

Fan favourite Elvis isn't likely to make a reboot appearance, but it would be amazing.

With that in mind, it’s also important to note the significance of that dataDyne super-structure depicted in the trailer. This gargantuan facility is shown from the outside as a shining, impenetrable monolith. But as the camera flies through a hole cut into its perimeter, presumably Joanna’s point of entry, we’re shown the chaos that’s been wrought inside. This is a joyous throwback to the opening mission from the first game, where Joanna must infiltrate a high-security dataDyne facility of similar proportions. It’s reassuring to see that, even at this early stage of development, The Initiative wants to capture that same energy.

Of course, where it goes from there is anyone’s guess. The OG had us infiltrating Area 51, sneaking our way across the rain-soaked streets of Chicago, thwarting a terrorist plot on Air Force One, and travelling to alien home worlds. PDZ by comparison was neutered and forgettable. It would be great to see some more exciting locales explored in the reboot, and the Great Pyramids visible in the trailer could serve as just that.

Oof, looks rough out there. I'll save the world tomorrow.

As important as those settings are, so too will be the structure in which they’re delivered. Perfect Dark made every level feel like a miniature playground. Much like Goldeneye before it, you’d have a selection of objectives, which would be more complex depending on your difficulty setting (massive win if they bring that back), and though you’d have a mission briefing, most of it would come down to exploration, and assessing the spy tools at your disposal.

Gadgetry was a huge part of what made Perfect Dark such a wild sci-fi adventure, and if the reboot intends to continue that fun, it will need to be structured in a way that provides the same level of creativity and high-octane spy thrills. The player will need to be trusted to work out when to use their CamSpy to eavesdrop on a conversation, their Data Uplink to hack a security system, or their IR Scanner to identify cloaked enemies — something that PDZ failed to capture, with damning linearity and handholding at every turn.

Will the new boxart be this, uh, 'iconic'?

The final ingredient in a successful Perfect Dark reboot will be in how it implements its combat mechanics; Perfect Dark had incredible fluidity. The auto-aiming employed was a necessity in making FPS games playable on a Nintendo 64 controller, but the remaster in 2010 showed us that it wasn’t reliant on that original controller design to work — actually, it was better than ever. PDZ, by comparison, was stiff as a board, with floaty weapon play, a sub-par cover system, and painfully slow movement. It was notoriously underdeveloped at release, but this was a result of Microsoft pushing for PDZ as an Xbox 360 launch title.

The good news is that The Initiative already confirmed back in 2020 that this is a key design concern for the team. "[You'll be] sliding under things, jumping over things. We really wanted to play up the physicality and being in the world, getting some of that camera movement that we see watching body cameras, GoPros, and trying to get that excitement of moving in places and in ways that you and I don't," said ex-Design Director Drew Murray. Drew may have now left the studio, but it sounds like they’re coming out swinging to address PDZ’s number one issue — a great sign that they’re building the reboot with the series experience necessary to recognise its strengths and weaknesses.

The new game certainly looks the part
The Carrington Institute: forever iconic.

We recently discovered that Joanna Dark’s original voice actor, Eveline Fischer, is on board — and that’s great! Similarly, there are some other classic features that I’d love to see in the reboot. The revolutionary Counter Operative multiplayer mode, for example. Or an explorable hub world like the original game’s Carrington Institute, filled with secrets. But these would all be gifts for original fans; they aren’t necessary to create a great Perfect Dark game. This isn’t Rare’s franchise anymore, and it’s a case of capturing the ethos of the series without accidentally getting stuck in the past. What we’re talking about here are concepts that transcend console generation.

By examining where PDZ went wrong, and what makes the N64 original still so loved today, the developers will have a real shot of releasing something that pays tribute to Perfect Dark’s origins whilst establishing its own fresh identity.

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