Meet the next-generation shooter, same as the first. With Perfect Dark Zero, the long-awaited prequel to the Nintendo 64 sensation, fan favorite Rare (Conker, Kameo: Elements Of Power) tries to recreate the Halo phenomenon, christening the new Xbox 360 console with a signature FPS, underscored by a deep online component. It's meant not just as a game, but as a culture—something that players will return to months or even years after it hits the market. In that regard, the creators of PDZ have perhaps taken their assignment too literally: The game functions so much like Halo and other genre favorites that a revolution seems unlikely, but it's an accomplished refinement, a graphically stunning spy adventure with pinpoint controls and a varied playground of futuristic environments.
The single-player mode resembles an especially confusing episode of Alias, minus the bad wigs and questionable international accents. Globetrotting from China to South America to Africa, you play Joanna Dark, a raven-haired super-agent assigned to sabotage some vaguely sinister conspiracy involving dataDyne, one of the world's largest corporations. Enemies include dataDyne CEO Zhang Li, an old man kept alive by green fluids pumped into his skull, and his sexy daughter Mai Hem, but as in Alias, even your friends are capable of unleashing a deadly pandemic for a little scratch. With an arsenal of future-tech weaponry at your disposal, including guns that shoot disorienting psychotic darts or project holographic images to distract henchmen, you infiltrate numerous high-security compounds—sometimes through stealth and diplomacy, mostly through force. Good as the single-player missions are, the online game is considerably more expansive, offering not just the expected free-for-alls and team contests like Capture The Flag, but also more original strategic games, plus a co-op mode so you can go through individual missions with another player.
Beyond the game: It's fairly astonishing that a game six years in the making couldn't come up with a coherent storyline—the first chapter of a Perfect Dark novel, included on the limited-edition DVD, doesn't help matters—but a game this pretty doesn't need much augmentation. Particularly gorgeous is an early mission at a Hong Kong nightclub, a feast of sight and sound with a lovely exterior view of the bay and a resounding neon pulse inside.
Worth playing for: In a break from the expected infiltrations and shoot-'em-ups, the DeathMatch boss battles owe as much to traditional fighting games as they do to first-person shooters. A showdown against Mai Hem, who uses a machine to replicate herself into multiple representations, is a great test of skill and agility, especially when stone-statue guards come to life in her defense.
Frustration sets in when: Manning a hovercraft for land-and-sea dogfights sounds like more fun than it is. With your partner on the machine-gun turret above, you have to steer the craft in order to get a good angle on the target, but trying to orient the camera while maneuvering to an optimal spot is a maddening chore.
Final judgment: Don't be fooled into paying an extra 10 bucks for the limited edition, which offers little more than a tin shell, some lame concept art, and other marginal special features. Otherwise, Perfect Dark Zero is a worthy addition to a genre that could do just as well without it.