Coming off the back of a Gamescom where Xbox mostly focused on well-known titles that’ll be out pretty soon, it looked like we’d be waiting quite a while for a further update on some of Xbox’s bigger and more mystery-shrouded upcoming games. Every now and then we get a little surprise, however – and such was the case with Perfect Dark, where Xbox’s Matt Booty briefly deigned to talk about the hotly-anticipated reboot during a PAX West panel.
Booty, who is the head of the now-sprawling Xbox Game Studios portfolio of development houses and games, talked about how any reboot of the Perfect Dark franchise would have to be handled “very carefully”, noting that properties such as this “don’t always age well.” And, you know, Booty is right. But the next thing he said is curious – and for my money, it’s wrong.
“What I think is super cool about Perfect Dark, what’s super cool about Joanna Dark, is the super agent fantasy, the spy, the sort of Bourne Identity, James Bond kind of thing there,” Booty explained.
“That’s always a cool meme people wanna lean into – but again, we gotta make sure that comes forward in the right way, so I’m just gonna stick to ‘very carefully’.”
Wrong is probably unfair. I think everything that Booty says is accurate… but it’s only accurate for around half of the original Perfect Dark. Or, to put it another way – Perfect Dark is a spy game, and it is ostensibly about a female James Bond. But that’s both literally and figuratively only part of the story, and any reboot of the franchise needs to embrace all of the original to channel what made it so beloved.
I’m talking, of course, about Perfect Dark being a little bit weird. It’s not just Bond or Bourne, and that’s even true from the very start. The game’s opening cutscene takes place on a futuristic flying transport zipping through a neon-lit futuristic city straight out of Blade Runner. Your mission is to rescue a mysterious Doctor in the clutches of an evil corporation – though when you discover the doctor, he’s not a person at all, but rather a sophisticated AI encased in a sort of flying laptop. Perfect Dark is full sci-fi.
It’s camp as hell, too. From the visits to Area 51, where you rescue a wise-cracking ‘grey’-style alien called Elvis – who later goes on to wear a stars and stripes waistcoat. Soon, Perfect Dark feels as much Halo as it does GoldenEye, with Agent Dark finding herself on hostile alien spaceships, ultimately launching an assault on the hostile alien homeworld. Nothing is held back.
Don’t get me wrong – the spy stuff is a huge part of Perfect Dark. I also think that the traditional espionage-driven missions are the best in the game. The opening trio of DataDyne HQ missions are excellent, as is protecting your boss Carrington in an assault on his private villa. Chicago remains my favorite, defined by a highly exploitable level design, a thick rain-soaked atmosphere with unforgettable music, and Jo skulking around in a Deckard cosplay trench coat.
But nevertheless all of this is only part of a wider game, and I genuinely attribute much of what makes Perfect Dark a great game – and a better game than GoldenEye, don’t bother commenting otherwise – is its breadth. It uses the spy and espionage stuff as a springboard into a wider, madder story – and in doing so elevates itself beyond being just a Bond clone with a different lead. At the time, I imagine this was the point – Rare likely wanted to both evoke and differentiate their new hero from Bond and their work on GoldenEye – and the full-fat sci-fi setting and extra-terrestrial shenanigans allowed it to do just that.
This isn’t the be-all, end-all, obviously. More important to me is that this Perfect Dark reboot isn’t just some Tomb Raider-esque aggregation of currently popular trends, but that it examines the structure of the original game (in particular its open-ended but mangeably-sized, multi-objective missions) and finds a way to successfully adapt that into modern game design. The closest recent touchstone is IO Interactive’s excellent Hitman reboot series, obviously – and that studio now finds itself working on Bond – so it seems Joanna and James’ futures remain intertwined.
What we’ve seen so far of the new Perfect Dark is interesting. The trailer, though CG and short, lays out a clear sort of world state. The planet is ravaged by terrible weather and natural disasters, and humanity now cries out for help from the very mega-corporations that probably caused the problems in the first place. We see hints of drone surveillance, we catch a glimpse of a laptop gun (itself representative of PD’s brilliant weapon alt-fire modes), and there’s talk of secrets as a camera zips through a clearly top secret laboratory. So far, so good.
All this could just be a near-future sci-fi story, though, and remain relatively grounded. I can easily see a version of this game that plays this relatively straight, as a dark cautionary sci-fi tale about the combination of the ongoing climate apocalypse slow-burn and the unchecked power of corporations, ironically bankrolled by bloody Microsoft. We will discover something like, shock-horror, the corpos actively sped-up and instigated disasters to expand their sphere of influence, and all that. I really hope it isn’t just that, though.
While it wouldn’t be as much of a surprise as in the original game, where the alien influence really comes out of left-field, I really do hope these corporations are mining their climate change solution technology from beyond earth, or are even hatching secret deals with nefarious aliens behind-the-scenes. This is the schlock I want to see. It’s a core part of what Perfect Dark is to me. It was largely missing from Zero, owing to it being a prequel, and it was honestly one of my larger problems with that game’s story.
So, yes. You’re right, Matt Booty – one of the cool things about Joanna Dark is the super-spy fantasy of it all, and about her as an answer to 007. But that’s only part of Perfect Dark’s appeal – and some of the campier elements, while perhaps not as sexy on paper today as in the late ninet
ies, are a vital piece of the series’ identity. I hope they remain in the reboot.