It’s finally here, after four long years and a complete change of scenery Digital Extremes latest title is finally on store shelves. Those of you who remember the distant year 2004 may remember that Dark Sector was the first game announced for the next-generation of consoles. Originally set in space Dark Sector now follows the story of one Hayden Tenno, a government agent skilled in espionage and of course serious amounts of ass whoopin’. While the game is certainly a far cry from its original concept the combination of fluid gun mechanics coupled with the introduction of the glaive (a mutated blade that Hayden acquires early on in the game) make Dark Sector one of the most pleasant surprises for Xbox 360 and PS3 owners in a long time.
Dark Sector begins with a nostalgic first level presented all in black and white and sets the tone for the overall story. Here you begin to familiarize yourself with the gun controls as well the ability to use cover. This prologue level serves as a catalyst to the game and really shows how to open up a great experience. You start out as Hayden in a suit reminiscent of Sam Fisher and you sneak through a war-torn base in the fictional country of Lasria located within the USSR. Your objective is simple: get in, kill Mezner before he spreads the deadly infection and get out. Before you manage to complete this though you are attacked by a supernatural creature that is protecting Mezner and become infected yourself. What happens next is really where the game gets good.
Once infected your arm becomes covered in a thick black goo of sorts and eventually sprouts a nice shiny new utensil that is great for carving up enemies. At first the glaive feels more like a secondary weapon until you begin to obtain new powers for it. These include things such as a power throw, that when charged up can decapitate an enemy with one pass as well as aftertouch, which is very reminiscent of Heavenly Sword, especially on the PS3 version. In this mode if you tap the trigger immediately after releasing the blade you go into the perspective of the glaive and can guide it with either the right analog stick or the Sixaxis controller if you are playing on the PS3. This mechanic works well enough with motion control, but is still much more accurate with the analog stick.
This is also what separates Dark Sector from all of the other third person shooters currently on the market. The glaive becomes such a central part of combat that firearms quickly become secondary. This is further enforced by the fact that immediately after obtaining the glaive enemies weapons have an eight second timer on them, meaning you can only squeeze off a few rounds before they explode in your hands. Eventually you obtain access to a Black Market where you can buy and upgrade weapons, but once you get a feel for the glaive firearms will most certainly be a last resort.
All of this is complimented by an extremely tight control scheme. Everything in the game has a short learning curve, but at the same time requiring some practice to perfect it. Once you master one finally master one aspect of the glaive the game throws a new upgrade at you thus creating a perfect blend of action and strategy. The level design is also tuned to give you maximum opportunity to unleash your new attacks when you receive them. You can certainly tell that the game was paced just perfect enough to show off all of the “OMG” moments that will likely occur throughout your adventure.
It is also worth noting just how visceral Dark Sector is. Using the glaive in slow motion lends itself well to decapitation and of course mutilation, but if the game half-asses it you lose a lot in translation. Thankfully everything here is carefully detailed right down to the blood-curdling scream enemies let out when you chop off any of their appendages. Hayden can also stun an enemy and run up to them to perform a finishing move that ranges from slicing them up with the glaive close-quarters style to snapping their neck. All of this is of course viewed from a cinematic perspective for maximum carnage. Another cool aspect of the glaive is its ability to assume the properties of environmental objects such as fire, electricity and ice. Dip the glaive in a ball of flames and light up your foes one by one. All of it satisfying and all of it properly executed.
Aside from the action there are also a number of environmental puzzles involving the glaive. Most of these stem from the different powers you obtain such as aftertouch and of course the obligatory “light the torch” puzzles. Most of them are rudimentary at best, but they do a nice job of breaking up the monotony. Boss fights are another strong aspect as some of them are massive in scale. Not to spoil too much but one of the earlier encounters has you using fire to bring down a goliath in a church. If that doesn’t sound epic to you, then check your pulse now.
Now we come to the infamous segment in the review where I tell you what is wrong with the game. Thankfully this won’t be too painful. For starters the pacing I mentioned earlier, where you earn a new power just as you master the previous one, well that works in the beginning until you realize that eventually you will latch on to one or two moves and stick with them for most of the game. Most of the time I had to tell myself to execute finishing moves or light my glaive on fire just so I could harness the Achievements, not good.
Next are the levels. While all of them sport some gorgeous details and truly stunning architecture they all also sport the same brown and gray color palette. This becomes frustrating towards the end of the game. A nice brightly lit level would have helped, but I guess I can’t complain too much seeing as the setting for the game calls for these environments, but I can’t help but wish it was just a touch brighter. The biggest gripe though is the progression of the story, or should I say lack thereof.
The story of Hayden Tenno is a well told tale, unfortunately by the end of the game you begin to not care. Characters randomly appear in the story and you never develop a real connection for any of them. Even the main protagonist (who I might add is superbly voiced by Smallville’s Michael Rosenbaum) feels empty by the time the final credits role. This is even more distressing when you realize that the plot, while predictable, is actually interesting and full of good ideas. They just don’t flesh themselves out well enough for the player to get actively involved, which is a shame.
Visually Dark Sector is a pretty game. Pretty enough that would probably assume it is running on the Unreal Engine 3, but it isn’t. The game runs on its own engine and it looks great in some areas and really good in others. Aside from the repeating color palette I mentioned earlier and the main characters weirdly shaped head during cut scenes the game looks fantastic. Lighting effects are gorgeous, animations and mutilations are superbly detailed and the frame rate rarely misses a beat. Overall the game gives off a sense of Gears of War meets Resident Evil 4, and neither one of those is something to scoff at.
Up to this point I have made no reference to the online mode, and for good reason. Much like Condemned 2 Dark Sector’s online features are bare minimum at best. Instead of giving gamers a unique spin on the deathmatch scenario with the glaive you are instead limited to two modes, of which neither impress. The first is called infection and basically consists of one player trying to escape all of the other players. The second is a team game that involves one captain on each side trying to eliminate the other team’s captain much like VIP in Halo 3. The problem is that neither mode is engrossing enough nor are there even enough players online for it to matter. Don’t get me wrong the game is still worth the price of admission. With a single player game clocking in at roughly 10-15 hours complete with a harder difficulty unlocked when you complete it, but multi-player is something that will be forgotten before you finish reading this.
Dark Sector is the type of game you into expecting nothing and coming away highly impressed. It would have scored 9+ easy with a fleshed out story and engaging multi-player, but as it stands you get a truly visceral and enjoyable single-player action romp that will satisfy any fan of the genre. The idea of the glaive is incredibly well represented and makes me hope for a sequel; let’s just hope it doesn’t take another four years. As it stands Dark Sector is an incredibly brutal thrill ride that is worth checking out. If you are a fan of the genre you will be hard pressed to find a better offering this Spring.