When Microsoft spent almost $400 million dollars to buy Nintendo's favorite game developer, Rare, they must have thought it was a sure thing. Rare's resumé was long on hits, including the definitive first-person shooters Goldeneye and Perfect Dark, and bringing them under the Microsoft umbrella in those heady days before the original Xbox launched no doubt felt great. As soon as Rare made yet another masterpiece, Microsoft must have thought, every dollar of that money would just go marching back into the bank like the broomsticks of Fantasia.

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Instead, Microsoft got Waterworld.

Rare's first two Xbox titles, Grabbed by the Ghoulies and Conker: Live and Reloaded, were flops. Now comes Perfect Dark Zero, released alongside the Xbox 360, and meant to be the game that gets early adopters through the long dark winter before Halo 3 arrives. But in the first half hour that I played Perfect Dark Zero I actually yelled out loud, "God, I hate this game!" One might see this as a bad sign.

One would be right. The first level features great graphics and almost incomprehensible action. I spent a full five minutes stuck at a locked door with no clue how to get past it. The door-hacking tool I'd successfully used earlier in the level was now mysteriously missing from my inventory, and pressing the button shown to me on screen only produced the message "This door is locked." Yet it was the door I was supposed to use, and when it finally opened I still had no idea how I'd done it.

Amazingly, it got worse. On a nightclub level, the game took great pains to explain to me that I was there to identify hired thugs with my sci-fi scanning binoculars, and that I should only use my gun as an absolute last resort. I got started and every thug I scanned was reported as "Target not identified." I kept trying. Did I need to scan their faces? Keep them in the crosshairs? I couldn't tell. Soon enough I blundered too close and they attacked, and my last-resort handgun and I took down 15 thugs with no consequences. Then I resumed fruitlessly scanning more thugs and after a very long time finally found one guy whom my binoculars identified, only to be told to shoot him and everyone else. Huh? This kind of senseless, poorly planned gameplay is not what you want to find in a launch title for a new console, and it sure isn't worth $400 million of Microsoft's money.

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Fortunately, the online play somewhat salvages the experience. While still living squarely in shooter-land, the maps are big and interesting, and you can play the whole single-player campaign cooperatively with a friend. Still, the truth is that after three hours of Perfect Dark Zero, I popped it out and played Call of Duty 2 instead. So should you.

editor@thestranger.com