Game Description: Dark Sector is a third-person Action/Shooter that thrusts players into a sci-fi flavored nightmare scenario set in the post Cold War era. Playing in the role of Hayden Tenno, an unscrupulous covert operative sent on an assassination mission into Lasria – a fictional Eastern European city on the brink of ruin and rumored to be contaminated by a mysterious and frightening plague, Hayden takes out his mark, but before he can escape is attacked by an unknown enemy. Not killed outright as expected, he is instead infected with the virus that is causing the plague.
Dark Sector tells the story of the ludicrously named Hayden Tenno, a US government murderer dispatched to a small town somewhere in the former Soviet Union to kill his former teammates, who have decided to take their murdering freelance. His mission is complicated when, at the end of the first mission, he's injected with an alien virus, transforming the game from a third-person shooter into a third person disc-thrower.
Given that the game's roughly six-hour running time consists of nothing but combat, I was glad to see that so much work had clearly been put into the shooting engine. Dark Sector could be offered as a Master Class in utterly competent videogame design. There's a decent cover system to keep the player from getting shot too frequently, fatal headshots to reward the accurate gamer, and instant-kill melee techniques to keep things from getting bogged down in close combat situations. It joins Uncharted as one of the post Gears of War games whose core gameplay is tuned so close to perfection that it needn't even be discussed—there is nothing wrong with the combat. What more can I say?
The game's big innovation is the Glaive, and it's as unmitigated a success as the rest of the game. At first what the game asks of the player—aiming and firing two different projectile weapons at the same time—seems extremely daunting, but the controls are so tight and intuitive that tossing blades between barrages of gunfire very quickly becomes second nature. What makes this mechanic so special is just how well the little details work. When executing a 'power throw', the targeting reticle changes shape to tip the player to when the disc is ready to toss. After using it a few times I noticed that the controller shook just as I was supposed to let go of the button. It's a great little tactile detail that pulls the player further into the game, and makes them feel like they're really participating in the severings and bifurcations.
The game also does a great job of meting out special abilities over its entire length. First it's the Glaive, then the ability to slow down time and alter a throw's course in mid-flight. In almost all of the game's ten levels some kind of new ability is unlocked as the virus winds its way through Hayden's bloodstream. Every ability has an immediate, practical use, from force field and invisibility down to the somewhat clichéd elemental manipulation. With this power the player can charge their Glaive with fire, ice, or electricity, and then use that charge to either solve environmental puzzles or kill enemies in visually interesting ways. Sure, getting ice and fire powers is a game feature as old as the hills, but it's not just design laziness that accounts for their frequent appearance—it's there because it works; setting people on fire or turning them into statues and then smashing them are fun, borderline unsettling things to do, and resonant enough ideas that overuse through the years hasn't robbed them of their power.
Everything's fine on the enemy front, as well. Through the course of the game the player is matched up against two distinct families of opponents, the villagers who have been turned into monsters by the virus, and the government soldiers there to clean things up (by killing absolutely everyone). In a fun note, the game takes place over a couple of days, and the enemies' difficulty scales up naturally with the passage of time, rather than just because the player is further along an arbitrary path. The story layers in the idea that the alien virus is constantly evolving, granting its infectees new abilities, explaining the fact that both the player and the enemies get gradually more powerful. The increased governmental presence makes sense in this light as well—it first it seems like the operation will just require soldiers to gun down civilians, but when things are going badly, they break out the shock troops and power armour.
This is the part of the review where I would normally talk about the game's flaws, but it doesn't have any to speak of. At just over six hours it's a little short for an action game, but it's a great ride for those six hours, and I don't think I'm alone in prizing never being bored over raw longevity. The only real design flaw I can point to is one terrible Boss fight. While most of the game's Boss fights are traditional enough, this unspeakably frustrating monster can only be harmed after it performs a specific move, which it almost never performs. The combat in the rest of the game is so good that I was shocked to find myself having Dead to Rights flashbacks 3/4s of the way through. The final boss shouldn't feel like a welcome relief because the previous fight was so badly designed.
Dark Sector brings only one new development to third-person shooters. Of course, the Glaive is such an entertaining weapon that it really is worth building an entire game around. What really impressed me about the game, though, was how well designed everything surrounding that innovation was. The great level design, intense combat setpieces, and the incredibly depressing design aesthetic are all top-notch. It's a prime example of great execution elevating a tired premise. A cursory look at the plot, Special Forces Guy vs. Mutants, might lead the average gamer to think they've played it before, and they probably have—it just wasn't this great before.
Disclaimer: This review is based on the Xbox 360 version of the game.
Having worked with Dan here at GameCritics for so long, sometimes it feels as though we think with the same brain. More often than not, we champion the same underdogs and see value in titles that others don't. However, there are rare occasions reminding me that as often as we agree, it's still a fact of life that we will occasionally take entirely different positions on things. Case in point: Dark Sector.
Quite honestly, I don't think we could be more at odds here. Having heard the early word and writing it off as not worth the effort, Dan's glowing review and positive comments about the game changed my mind. Now that I've had the chance to play through the game, I can honestly say that my first instincts were correct.
More than anything else, Dark Sector is the ultimate example of the kind of title I discussed in my recent blog about substance over style. In effect, the developers have made a series of extremely outdated design choices (in addition to taking more than a little ill-fitting throw-it-in-after-we-started-development inspiration from Resident Evil 4 and Gears of War) and wrapped it all in a high-gloss exterior. It looks fantastic, but it plays like something that was old hat years ago.
For example, the "adventure" is little more than a series of pop-up shooting galleries strung back-to-back. The main character enters an area, hordes of enemies come swarming in, and the player eliminates them. New enemies run in, take the exact place of the dispatched enemies, and the process begins again. When enemies stop coming, the player moves on to the next area. Without exaggeration, that description pretty much sums up about 95% of the Dark Sector experience.
Dark Sector's big hook, the glaive, is pretty much a waste in my opinion. In fact, I'd say that the standard guns available have the advantage in every respect. I quickly grew tired of being required use the "power throw" feature in order to do any kind of decent damage on enemies, and the limited distance the glaive can travel before returning means that the player is better off trying to score headshots with a bullet on far-away enemies. Up close, the glaive isn't worth a damn. The melee attack is near-harmless, so when enemies rush in a shotgun is easier to use and mows the opposition down more efficiently.
I'm not going to say that the glaive isn't enjoyable—it is. After all, throwing a spinning razor and then entering the player-controlled "aftertouch" mode to steer it into enemies never fails to bring a smile to my face, but the fact is that over the course of the game I consistently felt underpowered when relying on it, and usually got better results from standard firearms. For a game whose entire identity relies on this particular weapon, my opinion is that they should've spent more time on making it more worthwhile to use.
Although I found the asymmetrical bio-organic character design appealing and I can appreciate that the story almost came together, there are a wealth of other elements besides the combat and the glaive that simply don't work in Dark Sector. For example, the main character is supposed to be a lone agent battling his way through a large industrial wasteland of decimated Euro-decay, yet the developers thought it was a good idea to include a shop (conveniently located under any manhole) where the player can cash in rubles to purchase new guns and fit weapons with modifications. I hardly think I need to point out what an extreme conceptual inconsistency this is.
Furthermore, the level of interactivity in each area is minimal and navigation is unpredictable; even illogical at times. The main character can vault over certain low obstacles, but not others. There were more than a handful of occasions when I wanted to walk off a low ledge or climb over a small box in order to escape enemies, but the game would not permit the action to occur, and I still can't quite believe that the simple act of ducking isn't even an option if no cover is nearby.
Dark Sector may be a short game, but thanks to the simplistic and repetitive play, even this relatively brief running time felt bloated, tedious, and overlong. I really don't see anything in the game that merits a recommendation to anyone—just having a functional shooting engine and a weapon that's not a gun is hardly something to get excited about. Toss in the fact that the game's one claim to fame feels so gimped in comparison to weapons that every other game sports, and there's no reason left for Dark Sector to exist. I may like bits and pieces of the style, but I'm not at all impressed with the substance.
Disclaimer: This review is based on the Microsoft Xbox 360 version of the game.
According to ESRB, this game contains: Blood and Gore, Intense Violence, Strong Language
Parents should keep their children away from this game. It's got gory violence, buckets of blood, the depiction of the US government as conscience-free killers bent on regional dominion... they even threw a little bad language in there to fill the warning label up as much as possible.