The game features a single-player mode consisting of seventeen missions in which the player assumes the role of special agent Joanna Dark, an operative for the fictional Carrington Institute, as she attempts to foil a conspiracy by rival corporation dataDyne. It also includes a range of multiplayer options, including co-operative and "counter-operative" modes in addition to traditional deathmatch settings. Technically, it is one of the most advanced games developed for the N64, with optional high-resolution graphics and Dolby Surround Sound.
In September 2000, a separate game starring agent Joanna Dark, also titled Perfect Dark, was released for the Game Boy Color. Although set in the same universe, it follows a separate storyline. With the use of the Transfer Pak, the Game Boy game allows certain features within the Nintendo 64 version to be unlocked. Perfect Dark Zero, a prequel to Perfect Dark also developed by Rare, was a launch title for the Xbox 360 in 2005. Perfect Dark: Initial Vector, a novel by Greg Rucka, was published later that year.
Perfect Dark is set in the year 2023 against the backdrop of an interstellar war between two races: the Maians, who resemble the stereotypical "greys" of alien abduction folklore, and the Skedar, reptile-like extraterrestrials who can disguise themselves as humans.
On Earth, there is an on-going rivalry between two factions. The Carrington Institute, founded by Daniel Carrington, is officially an R&D centre but secretly operates an espionage group in league with the Maians. dataDyne, on the other hand, is a sinister weapons corporation with a clandestine link to the Skedar. The player is cast as Joanna Dark, a new recruit to the Carrington Institute whose impeccable scores in training have earned her the codename "Perfect Dark".
The game begins with her mission to investigate suspicious reports from a dataDyne insider. In the process, she uncovers a conspiracy between dataDyne and the Skedar: the Skedar plan to steal an alien "megaweapon" from a crashed spacecraft on the Earth's ocean floor and use it to annihilate the Maians. When the President of the United States refuses to loan dataDyne the research vessel they need to retrieve the megaweapon, they plot to kill him and replace him with a dataDyne-grown clone. Unbeknownst to dataDyne, the Skedar also intend to test-fire the megaweapon on the Earth, destroying it in the process.
With the help of other Carrington agents and a Maian nicknamed Elvis, Joanna prevents the conspiracy by causing the weapon to self-destruct. She then helps the Maians launch a counter-attack, destroying the Skedar's "Battle Shrine" and eliminating their High Priest, thereby issuing Skedar morale a crippling blow.
Spoilers end here.
Perfect Dark features many elements that are typical of a first-person shooter game, including a range of weapons to collect, enemies to defeat and distinct environments to explore. It is frequently described as a "spiritual sequel" to Rare's earlier first-person shooter Goldeneye 007, released in 1997. Although Perfect Dark is not set in the James Bond universe, the gameplay is extremely similar and it retains many of its predecessor's features, such as the ability to use stealth to tackle missions, and objectives that vary with the difficulty setting.
The weapons of Perfect Dark include handguns, rifles, submachine guns, a shotgun, rocket launcher, combat knives, grenade launchers, various explosives, and several fictitious extraterrestrial weapons. Almost all of the weapons in the game have two modes of fire: a primary mode in which the weapon is used in a typical fashion, and a secondary mode which tends to use the weapon in a more unconventional manner, such as pistol-whipping or proximity detonation. Players can carry an unlimited number of weapons, and certain guns can be used in duplicate, one in each hand.