In the beginning there was darkness. Then there was greyscale. Do not adjust your TV set.
You awake with the coppery tang in your mouth, the taste of blood, and a feeling that your limbs are not your own. Try as you might to remember the last few moments of what happened before you slipped into unconsciousness, your brain refuses to participate, your memory centre shuts down. Strangely though, there is no pain…
After a Black Ops wetwork sweep and clear prologue sequence, this is how Hayden Tenno comes back to the waking world, surrounded by chaos, destruction and death – an aggressive virus sweeping through his system like an uncontrollable bushfire.
Dark Sector begins promisingly with the aforementioned “pre game” sequence and may at first lull you into thinking that you’re playing yet another samey duck-and-cover shooter. Hayden certainly wouldn’t look out of place as a slightly less husky and slightly slimmer and more emo-styled stunt double for Sam Fisher from the Splinter Cell series, but whereas Sam is all about stealth, Hayden is all about action.
Continuing the opening scenes, Hayden charges into a crumbling building situated in a biodisaster site somewhere in the fictional ex-soviet bloc country of Lasria. A disease blights the land, everywhere there are body bags and festering remains and the person responsible, a nasty piece of work known as Mezner, must be eliminated.
As the arch fiend is cornered, Hayden is injured during a rocket fight with a mysterious metal-clad being known as Nemesis, Mezner’s virus stricken bodyguard.
At the mercy of Mezner once again and under his instructions, Hayden is infected by Nemesis with the virus that has been ravaging the country of Lasria. Then you begin the real meat and potatoes of the game and find out just how Hayden somehow hangs together as the virus starts to mutate his body…
Dark Sector began life nearly 4 years ago as a tech demo for a title showing off Digital Extremes’ proprietary Sector Engine. After several years of development hell, plot and character changes and an eventual complete change of game engine, Dark Sector has finally arrived at a time when the chosen platforms it will appear on (Xbox 360 and PS3) are drowning under a sea of third and first person shooters.
So it needs a hook, a little something to set it apart from the others and something to give you the incentive to keep playing. That something is the Glaive, a multi-role ranged / melee weapon resembling the boomerang-esque weapon from the hoary old 80s movie Krull. For those of you who were a mere glint in the milkman’s eye back in the early 80s, it’s like a razor sharp three pronged giant throwing star that returns to the owner after deployment (and thankfully doesn’t lop Hayden’s fingers off in the process).
The Glaive is sophisticated enough to be used from a distance, thrown at an enemy using the lock-on feature, severing limbs and beheading nasty aggressors in the process). It can also be used to retrieve dropped weapons, trigger switches, levers and other environmental puzzles, or can even be used to deflect fire and draw attention away from Hayden so he can deploy a sidearm (usually a pistol).
Hayden is perfectly au fait with other weapons dropped by enemies in the game but it quickly becomes apparent that the Glaive is the tool for the job, and dual-wielding the Glaive and a pistol can more or less get you through the bulk of the action. Guns swiftly become an annoyance in the game because the cover dynamic doesn’t allow for blind fire, and it seems like nothing short of a headshot will kill enemies off effectively.
There are instances where only something as kick-ass as a rocket launcher will do (for instance, during the game’s opening sequence when you’ve got to take down an attack chopper or risk being turned into Hayden-Mince). Besides, you can’t hang on to most of the weapons in the game due to the virus detection units built into enemy firearms. After a relatively short while the guns explode, once again just leaving you with your trusty pistol and your sharpened Isle of Man symbol.
So once you get used to the respawning enemies (sigh), their rather spasmodic behaviour and slightly iffy AI and the fact that most guns are relatively useless because of their short lifespan when you wield them, you can settle down to the business at hand.
Hayden follows the shadowy trail of sleeper operatives, double agents and various CIA lackeys that will ultimately lead him back to Mezner, and perhaps some inside knowledge that can halt the spread of the virus and perhaps reverse its effects. Without giving too much away, Dark Sector might throw every cliché in the book at you but it can be forgiven for doing so with its tongue seemingly planted firmly in its cheek.
Solving the game’s physical and environmental puzzles feels a lot like those daft hat puzzles that ruined Heavenly Sword. For non PS3 owning 360 acolytes, basically you had to activate switches and door controls by lining up the buttons in your sights and…er…hurling Chinese-style coolie hats at them. Here at least you get to throw your Glaive at them, steering it with the analogue stick (again be thankful you’re a 360 owner, PS3 owners have to use the naff Sixaxis tilt controls to steer the thing so for them the puzzles must be incredibly frustrating).
Sometimes you need to charge the Glaive with electricity to solve certain barrier puzzles, and at other times you will need to “overcharge” it by holding down the right shoulder button till the target reticule turns yellow for a split second. Releasing the shoulder button will loose off your supercharged Glaive, and shatter some of the harder locks and chains securing doors, chests and trapdoors.
Languishing in Lasria’s filthy depths are the merchants of the Black Market, hiding underground under manhole covers. Here Hayden can use the collected game currency (roubles) to purchase upgrades, weapons, specialist weaponry like C4, and stow useful stuff in his locker for later retrieval. Aside from pistol upgrades, the store is a bit naff and useless and once you’ve upgraded your pistol you probably won’t need to bother using them for much else other than grabbing explosives. It feels like a weak element in the game but it does serve to break up the frenetic action from time to time. Keep a sharp eye though because the black market isn’t the only place you can acquire upgrades. I shall say no more!
Visually, the game sits quite happily with its peers, perhaps lacking some of the refinements of Unreal Engine based shooters like Gears of War (but borrowing heavily from them), and sometimes relying too heavily on worn out standards in character and scenario design but some of the effects are rather tasty. The Glaive really is the game’s saviour, looking fantastic when used and having a rather cool sound effect as it swishes through the air severing enemy limbs.
Hayden’s character design and the way the virus seems to slowly consume him as the game progresses and he ‘evolves’ is neat but by the time you reach the game’s final chapter (10 in total) you’ll be so kick ass that you’ll need to up the difficulty level to really feel challenged. But here’s the odd thing – although the Glaive becomes the focus of the game’s innovation, it doesn’t stop the thing from being a hell of a lot of fun and ruthlessly addictive in much the same way that games like The Darkness or Stranglehold are. It doesn’t try to reinvent the wheel, but at the same time it’ll easily give you hour after hour of solid and challenging gameplay despite its periodically clunky feel.
So in essence then, Dark Sector contains some good ideas, some quite obviously stolen ones and for a game that has spent 4 years in development it feels a tiny bit disappointing and seriously lacking in fine tuning or play-testing.
Certain elements of the game feel tacked on. The multiplayer for instance is poorly put considering Digital Extremes’ Unreal Tournament pedigree. There are two modes taking place in environments culled from the single player levels, each involving control of a Hayden character against teams of biohazard specialists or soldiers. Despite a good amount of game customisation, spurious lag problems, connection problems and the need for a ninja broadband connection to host 10-player matches compared to newer server-hosted 360 multiplayer titles reduced Dark Sector’s online component to little more than a mediocre diversion. It made me wish that more time had been spent on making the game solely single player by applying a bit more gleam and sparkle rather than throwing away development time on something that holds so little interest or long term appeal.
Despite the sour ending to this review, Dark Sector was definitely enjoyable enough to raise it above the level of bargain bin fodder but not quite special enough to compete with a whole raft of titles more hotly anticipated this year on 360, from the dazzling macho overtones of Gears of War 2 to the crazed and frantic cinematic single player mode promised in EA’s Battlefield: Bad Company. But if you’ve got money to burn and can’t help yourself when it comes to games of this ilk, the single player storyline and the fantastic Glaive will see you sticking with this one through to completion with a wry little grin on your face.