By Mark Brooks
Updated June 16, 2000 at 04:00 AM EDT

After three long years of keeping gamers hanging, John Romero finally unleashed Daikatana May 23. The glowering, fast-living, long-haired Doom creator — one of the inventors of the beloved/reviled ”first-person shooter” genre — Romero is the closest thing the game world has to a rock star, so it’s been easy to think of Daikatana as the digital equivalent of that Guns N’ Roses album that’s been years in the making. But as any rocker knows, you turn into a dinosaur if you wait too long. Daikatana is Japanese for ”big sword” — but after all this time, it ends up speaking a little too softly.

The behind-the-scenes stories here are the stuff of legend. Since Romero’s company, Ion Storm, first announced the game in early 1997, there have been blown budgets, missed deadlines, creative overhauls, and corporate meddling — not to mention reports of massive staff walkouts and firings. Then there was the humility factor: Early advertisements claimed Romero was going to ”make you his bitch.” It might be pleasant, then, to report that Daikatana is a disaster of Waterworld-ian proportions. It’s not. You could even call it the Game of the Year — if the year were 1997.

At the start of the game, you assume the alter ego of martial-arts teacher Hiro Miyamoto, who must go on a world-saving quest for a superpowered sword that gives its wielder the ability to travel through time. The game’s 24 levels — all awesomely huge — are split between four distinct eras: a very Goth-looking Kyoto, circa 2455 c.e.; ancient Greece; medieval Norway; and 2030 San Francisco. You spend most of your time blasting or slicing and dicing all forms of biomechanical baddies while running through mazes and hunting for buttons to push, doors to open, and other items to advance subplots.

If it all sounds terrifyingly ordinary, it is. Unlike such plot-heavy blasters as Half-Life, Daikatana hews to the philosophy carved out by Doom and its successor, Quake: Bring item A to area B so you can unlock door C — and whatever you do, shoot everything that moves. Worse, given advances in gaming artificial intelligence, far too many enemies in Daikatana act like artificial idiots, charging straight at you with little interest in dodging your fire (the bad guys who have problems navigating around corners also spoil the escapist fantasy somewhat).

There are signs of innovation with the introduction of characters like the questionably named and stupid-cliche-spitting Superfly Johnson and the gun-toting babe Mikiko Ebihara. But while both of these assistants help you out during brutal combat sessions, they seem to have received failing grades from the Robin and Kato Sidekick School, responding to canine commands like ”Stay,” ”Attack,” and even ”Fetch” (okay, ”Pick up”), but just as often getting lost or jumping to their own deaths. It’s an idea that could’ve worked but instead becomes a major source of irritation: If either ”helper” dies, your game is over.

Despite the sheer mediocrity of Daikatana, people not interested in anything but simply blasting everything on the screen may very well enjoy themselves. Discerning players, however, will find this to be a time-travel experience that goes in the wrong direction. John Romero may be a rock star to some, but on the evidence of Daikatana, he’s still playing arena metal with Axl. D