Reviewed: April 15, 2008
Released: March 25, 2008
Where were you the summer of 1983? I’m guessing a lot of you weren’t even born, and even if you were you probably weren’t old enough to be caught up in the D&D frenzy sweeping the nation. While millions of kids were role-playing in their basements and garages Hollywood was capitalizing on the fantasy sensation with movies like Beastmaster and Krull.
Krull, while critically and financially a flop at the box office, quickly become a cult favorite when it hit home video (VHS in those days), and it wasn’t because of the cool fantasy mythology meets sci-fi alien theme, fun characters, or flashy special effects. The concept that stole the entire movie was the glaive, this magical starfish-shaped throwing weapon wielded by Krull and used to defeat evil. I remember that movie even today and solely because of that weapon.
The first time I saw the demo movie for Dark Sector the first thing I said was, “Look…it’s the weapon from Krull”, which basically got me a lot of blank stares and even a, “What’s a Krull?” Even though the primary weapon in Digital Extreme’s latest action-horror game only has three blades, the similarities are undeniable, and the action and intensity has never been better. Why hasn’t somebody put a glaive in a game before?
Not that there hasn’t been glaive-style weapons in games before. The Chakram, a flat metallic disc with a razor-sharp outer edge made popular in Xena, has crept into games like Castelevania, Kingdom Hearts, Eternal Sonata, Soul Calibur III, and even Warcraft 3, but this is the first time a throwing weapon has been the primary focus of gameplay, such to the extent that the weapon is actually a viral attachment to our main characters infected right arm.
Dark Sector could best be described as Splinter Cell meets Resident Evil. You play super-stealth agent Hayden Tenno, sent to some backwater Russian country to find bad guy, Mezner, who has gotten his hands on some toxic substance from a gutted submarine and can now turn people into metal-skinned zombies. But you’ll get all of this information in the brief opening movie and the first training level, which plays out as a prologue of sorts.
And in a brilliant design choice, the opening movie and first level are depicted in flashback black and white. You’ll know you’ve finally caught up to current events when the screen pulses its way back into color, synched with the beating heart of Tenno as he is being infected with the virus. Thankfully, he was already pumped full of serum so the virus doesn’t take total control over his body; only his right arm and shoulder, which slowly becomes more metal-like as the game (and the virus) advance.
Tenno must still stop Mezner before he can infect the entire planet, and now with the added perks of being infected, mainly a deadly glaive that he can materialize at will from his infected arm, getting through the rest of the insane 9 chapters of the story ahead is going to be a bloody good time.
I’ve seen Dark Sector labeled as an FPS and that is simply not the case. The game is definitely played from a third-person perspective, often with Tenno off to the side of the screen. The entire look and feel is much like Gears of War, even down to the shaky-cam sprint and the “snapping to cover” feature, which is actually a bit more intuitive in this game. Pushing A will snap Tenno to any nearby surface, forcing him to duck if the object or wall is shorter than he is. You can then use A combined with the left stick to snap from cover to cover, even with some stylish SWAT spins when you change sides on an entrance.
There are a nice assortment of weapons in Dark Sector although none are nearly as fun as the glaive, and once you do get infected you’ll quickly learn that the enemies all have inhibitors on their weapons that prevent you from using them for more than 10-20 seconds, so the glaive becomes even more important. Later, you can visit the underground market and buy the military weapons with the inhibitors removed as well as installing a plethora of upgrades.
Weapons range from pistols and machine guns to sniper and assault rifles and powerful shotguns for close-range combat. Weapons have upgrade slots and you can install enhancements like anincreased ammo clip, firepower upgrades, rate of fire, stopping power, or switch out to Enferon shells, which will poison most monsters and kill them with far less ammo. Most of the game is totally playable with nothing more than the glaive and pistol (which Tenno can dual-wield for some cool combos), but you’ll eventually need more powerful weapons near the final chapters.
In fact, you can only carry one other weapon in addition to your glaive-pistol combo, but the one fantastic feature I really came to appreciate was that during the entire game you can collect ammo for all the weapons, even the ones you currently don’t have. By the time I actually purchased a shotgun I had more than 200 shells ready to unload. Still, ammo conservation is recommended, and this is best achieved by favoring the glaive as your weapon.
As the infection takes deeper root, Tenno will gain advanced abilities with the glaive. The first is the ability to target items lying around the environment and use the glaive to retrieve them boomerang-style. I was slightly disappointed that you couldn’t use this ability to actually steal weapons out of the hands of the enemy. Later, you will gain the ability to manually steer the glaive once it is in flight. This becomes one of the most addictive features of the entire game and I swear I must have spent hours in the slow-motion glaive-cam trying for headshots or limb dismemberments. Nothing is more satisfying than lopping off a guy’s leg and watching him hop around, or cleave a soldier’s arm at the shoulder and watch it fall to the ground with the machine gun still firing in the severed hand. Did I mention this game is rated M?
The glaive is also an invaluable tool when it comes to interacting with the environment and the elements. Tenno has a precisely timed power throw that inflicts quad-damage as well as opens locked gates and chests. During the course of the game Tenno will also be able to infuse the glaive with the power of fire, electricity, and ice. These not only play an important part in the puzzles (using electricity to open doors, using ice to put out fires) but they also have devastating effects on the enemy. You can zap man and monster with electricity and watch them pulse to their death, freeze them into statues and watch them shatter, or ignite them into a human torch and watch them smoke. In the case of the howlers, they will actually explode causing even more damage to anyone around them…including you, so back off.
Tenno even gets to mix it up with some hand-to-hand melee if you wish. During combat the enemies will often enter a stunned state and start to glow red. That is your cue to rush up and hit the B button to perform any of several grisly finishing moves that will have you groaning in pain and yelling with delight. There’s no method to these moves, just timing and a single tap of the B button to get your randomly selected cinematic death.
In addition to combat there are some ongoing side quests. You’ll always want to be on the lookout for numerous ammo crates, as well as Rubles (money) used in the underground market. And always keep your eyes pealed for any and all of the 36 weapon upgrade briefcases hidden around the game. Use what you want and sell the rest for even more cash.
There are some cool WOW moments and breaks from the standard gameplay. On two occasions you will get to hijack a walking tank, called a Jackal. Once inside you will unleash total devastation with powerful weapons and use countermeasures to defend against incoming missile attacks. You will also get to go up against a couple of attack choppers using rocket launchers. And perhaps the most villainous of villains is the Elite Soldier. These guys are tough and require numerous aftertouch glaive strikes on their shoulder armor before you can even start to damage the soldier inside.
Dark Sector even throws in a nice assortment of boss fights, and winning these battles bestows additional powers on Tenno like a bubble shield or even temporary invisibility. The boss battles aren’t terribly difficult to figure out – just analyze the patterns and use the appropriate weapon, which is often a powered glaive. Even the final boss wasn’t that difficult. I knew exactly what I had to do – it just took me nine tries to do it. I’m looking forward to (and slightly scared of) the new Brutal difficulty mode I unlocked after finishing the game. It promises tougher enemies and less ammo.
For those looking for some infectious multiplayer action Dark Sector offers online modes for up to 10 players. You can play Infection where one player is Tenno and everybody else is trying to kill him. The person who does, becomes Tenno on the next round. Epidemic is far more fun and breaks everyone up into teams, each with their own Tenno and every one on your team tries to protect their Tenno while killing the enemy Tenno for points and the right to be Tenno on the next round.
Admittedly, both modes aren’t all that inventive but they are fun and the five maps are excellent. The major downside to multiplayer is that the modes aren’t that much fun unless you are actually playing as Tenno. I suppose that’s a good incentive for you to do well and earn that right. Using invisibility and the long-range capabilities of the glaive are as undeniably fun in multiplayer as they are in the solo game.
Visually, Dark Sector nails it where it counts with some stunning real-time lighting and shadow effects that are as beautiful as they are creepy. One level has you exploring a sewer in near total darkness and you get rushed by a dozen or more zombies who appear only as silhouettes until their horrific faces are revealed in your muzzle flash. Another level had a small desk lamp lying on the ground that would cast these huge distorted shadows on the walls.
The real-time lighting, especially on Tenno was fantastic. The metallic skin on his right arm would reflect the blue energy or red fire of the charged glaive. There were some nice subtle touches like striped reflections on collectibles and interactive parts of the environment that helped you pick out the necessary items in the extremely detailed maps.
The character models were a bit hit and miss. Obviously, Tenno got the most attention and he does look great, with cool subtle alterations as the virus advances. Other characters all have interesting looks and designs but their overall quality and texture looks like something we’d see on the original Xbox. The monster designs are inventive but combat happens so fast you never get to appreciate them, especially in the distorted and blurred view of the aftertouch glaive cam. The bosses are excellent and suitably terrifying.
The visuals suffer the most in the cutscenes. Few as there are, the designers chose to use game engine graphics to drive the narrative and the characters just don’t look that good when they are the focus of the camera. Their designs work in gameplay but close-up conversations reveal some design and quality issues.
The overall tone of the game is dark, but there are a few levels that take place outdoor in somewhat sunny environments, usually with an orange tint of sunset. The game uses darkness, limited lighting, and sinister shadows as an effective way of instilling sense of fear and apprehension into the gamer.
Adding immensely to the constant state of trepidation you’ll experience while playing Dark Sector is the fantastic score, which is a horrifying mix of instruments and unnatural sound effects that will make your skin crawl. There was one segment of the game where all the music stopped and you just heard these noises that sounded like the twang of a rubber band and nails on a chalkboard. I was totally on edge and that was before the howlers started crawling out of the walls.
The single most impressive sound in the game is the “whooshing” of the glaive in flight. The effect is somewhat distorted when using aftertouch but in real-time speed on a good surround sound system you can literally track the flight of the glaive as it passes through the speaker channels, hits its target, then returns to Tenno with a metallic thunk.
Speech and dialogue are surprisingly good thanks mostly to a great performance by Michael Rosenbaum (Lex Luther, Smallville). There were only a few instances where the dialogue snippets didn’t mesh quite right or the emotion was too over the top or just wasn’t there, but for the most part the acting for the entire cast was excellent and quite believable.
Near the end of the game you get some haunting voiceovers from Mezner that echo and reverb through your very soul – very creepy. I loved all the agonizing screams of the various soldiers as body parts were viciously removed, and I especially loved the guys who yelled and tried to dodge an incoming slow-motion glaive attack.
Seasoned gamers can finish Dark Sector in 10-12 hours. There are lots of hidden collectibles that will make the game a lot easier if you take the time to find them, plus a lot of these items account for some of the 38 Achievement point objectives. Other goals merely require you to finish chapters or defeat a boss, while others require specific fire, ice, and electrical glaive kills or decaps. And then you have a few assorted online goals for ranked matches.
While I had my fair share of screens proclaiming YOU ARE DEAD the game isn’t all that hard on the standard difficulty. I was looking forward to going back and playing on the unlockable Brutal mode, but once I discovered that your weapons and upgrades don’t carry over into future replays I’m not sure if I want to invest the effort – even if it is worth 110 gamer points.
The game does autosave at each chapter so at least I can go back and find some missing upgrades, but there isn’t a whole lot of replayability other than the minimal multiplayer modes. And much like scary movies, once you know where all the frights and scares are it’s not as much fun the second time around. You'll have far more fun watching somebody else play.
Despite my skepticism after watching early trailers and seeing some preliminary screenshots I have to admit I had a total blast playing Dark Sector. This is the surprise action game of the year, not that the arrival is any surprise; D3 has been hyping this title for nearly two years, but the sheer quality and originality of gameplay, mostly thanks to a single little throwing weapon, makes this a must-play title for any action gamer.
The combat, the weapons, the monsters, and the immersive environments thankfully overshadow the weak narrative – not that you need a story or even a reason to slay beasties with your flying blades. You’ll do it because they are there and you have the power. Dark Sector will have your adrenaline pumping like no other game currently can, and I seriously hope a sequel is in the works. Hayden Tenno could just be the evolutionary superhero for the next generation.