Perfect Dark Zero uncovered

It's perhaps a good thing that Perfect Dark Zero's star Joanna Dark is the younger, fresher equivalent of the leading lady who so deftly picked up the GoldenEye gauntlet with the original Perfect Dark on N64, and ran with it.

For many, Perfect Dark 64 became an instant FPS pin-up; for some, it's a love so strong that they didn't so much place the game in their hearts as keep it in a rolled-up carpet in the basement.

Of all of Rare's franchises, Perfect Dark is one of its most prominent, this prequel one of its most anticipated and - in the cutthroat arena of first-person shooters - most capable of showing the studio's ability to continue cutting the edges of the genre.

There's an exceptional weight resting on Dark's slender shoulders, as her past is explored to provide answers regarding the genesis of her involvement with the Carrington Institute and the DataDyne Corporation, and the events leading up to Perfect Dark.

Not that it matters. We meet four members of the Perfect Dark Zero team - Duncan Botwood, senior game designer at Rare and multiplayer designer on PDZ, producer Richard Cousins, lead designer and project lead Chris Tiltson and software lead Kieran Connell - and their priority isn't one of mollifying the snowballing expectations that have built around this extremely long-awaited follow-up.

Much like the team behind Kameo, their priority is one that's simply earnest: "We just want to make a good game," answers a soft-spoken Tilston when asked about whether or not the team feels such pressure.

Which is fortunate: two of the four (Botwood and Tilston) worked on the original Perfect Dark, so, unlike Dark, they're certainly not any younger.

We're at Rare's studio on a Saturday, not a typical slot for a press visit, but it's likely due to the intense crunch occupying the team's weekdays.

They haven't so much travelled to work in order present Perfect Dark Zero as simply left their desks. It's hardly uncommon, of course, for a development team to work weekends at any point in a game's gestation.

What is impressive, though, is Rare's multiplayer testing setup: several rows of makeshift workstations that have taken up residence in one of the building's larger rooms for the duration of giving PDZ's deathmatch modes a thorough inspection.

Currently, the game allows for a maximum of 32 players, a number that has tumbled from the first-mooted 64 to 50, and now down to its current capacity where it looks to be locked. "We had to settle on this number to get Perfect Dark Zero finished in a compressed time frame," says Tilston.

"It's basically issues with testing. It's possible that there may be a patch in the future, because there's underlying technology for more players in the game."

Botwood elaborates: "It's a logistical exercise. We have so many options within these modes that testing all possible permutations to a worthwhile level means we can produce a quality game with 32 players, but 50 is something we've tested, and we know that amount of players works, but they're just not currently as stable as 32, so that's what we're looking at for launch."

Into this dedicated multiplayer test farm, and seemingly out of nowhere, some two dozen people enter, drafted in from somewhere, somehow to provide a suitably crowded multiplayer session.

Plenty has already been made public about this facet of PDZ. We get to play through a pair of levels, both of which have multileveled buildings as bases on opposing sides of the map.

The first offers carpark-like buildings positioned directly across from one another - sniper's havens with plentiful pillars for cover - in an urban environment.

The second is a large, snow-lined pit, pinched in the middle to produce some narrow corridors that link either end, each containing a pagoda wrapped in a spiral walkway.

Both levels are filled with peripheral pathways, a design trait that's most visible in yet another stage: the subway. This collection of platforms and staircases is hemmed by numerous backrooms, utility corridors and below-ground shafts, a prospective hot potato of Capture the Flag strategies.

But there's plenty of open air to be had elsewhere, such as in the canyon stage, a huge arena with an intricate villa as its centrepiece, jet packs to ride, and distant, elevated ridges from which to cause long-distance grief.