Reviewed: January 20, 2003
Released: November 19, 2001
James Cameron’s Dark Angel was one of the many new Sierra games I stumbled on at the 2002 E3 show; not that it was hard to miss with a 20-foot poster of the sexy Jessica Alba towering above the booth. Dark Angel was one of my guilty Friday night viewing pleasures, one of those shows you watched religiously but never admitted to it. This short-lived series started off with a great idea and a great directory backing it up, at least for the premier and final episodes. In between, Mr. Cameron merely lent his name to the project, which is probably the only reason this series survived into the second season.
Apparently Dark Angel (the game) was in development long before the TV show ended and now it seems kind of strange playing a game based on a cancelled series, but with new games coming out this year based on Knight Rider, and Starsky and Hutch perhaps this is the wave of the future, or perhaps the current batch of thirty-something game designers are merely running out of new ideas.
Dark Angel has a lot of potential as a game. It’s about a hot genetically engineered super soldier with the most amazing lips in Hollywood and who looks great in a belly shirt and leather jacket. She is part of a project called Manticore who were using surrogate mothers to birth genetically spliced humans (spliced with all sorts of animal DNA). These kids were put into a strict training and educational system that rivals modern day boot camp and by the age of 12 these kids were lethal fighting machines.
Fans of the show will already know that Max, our sexy star, orchestrates an escape in the 2-hour pilot and goes into hiding in a post-pulse Seattle. Oh yeah – I forgot to mention that this show/game takes place in the very near future where terrorists have detonated a nuke above the western United States. The resulting EM pulse has fried every computer system from the Pacific to the Mississippi and created an almost post-apocalyptic atmosphere.
Max lives a private life, sharing an illegal loft apartment with her hot lesbian roommate, Original Cindy, working as a bicycle messenger by day and a cat burglar at night to pay off the Seattle police to look the other way about their loft and to put gas in her black Ninja motorcycle. One night she breaks into the proverbial “wrong apartment” and her life changes forever. The owner is home and catches her. Sparks fly - well they fizzle at first, but by season 2 we have a full-on romance in the works, and Max teams up with Logan Cale.
Logan is a reclusive millionaire who has managed to maintain his wealth and lavish apartment with the help of rich daddy who is unknowingly supplying the government with weapons and big brother spy hardware. Logan is also the mysterious “Eyes Only” character who fights crime and corruption by exposing criminals, and the corrupt police and politicians on his pirate TV newscast. He makes a deal with Max to help her find her missing “brothers and sisters” from Manticore if she becomes the new superhero of Seattle.
All of this is briefly summarized in the game’s opening movie before you are dumped into an alley and begin an endless stream of fight encounters and mundane puzzles. What could have been one of the best games since Fighting Force turns into a repetitive button masher that requires little skill, but a lot of patience.
Dark Angel is pure fighting. As you explore the linear levels you will be attacked by wave after wave of thugs, police, Manticore agents and the like. They will come at you 2, 3, up to six at a time giving you plenty of chances to use any or all of the 50 fighting moves in your genetically altered library. Max can kick and punch and by combining these moves execute combos that would make Tekken fans drool.
Max also has some added abilities. She can sense danger, almost like a “spider sense”, and this is indicated with a multi-colored danger meter that shows other’s interest in your activities. You also have a speed and rage meter. The speed meter is on a 5-second refill timer and lets you execute a burst of speed to escape or advance on enemies. The rage meter fills up gradually as you perform combos and generally kick ass. When it starts to glow you can invoke a Rage Attack, which is basically a super combo that inflicts massive damage to one or more targets. . Occasionally the combat is spiced up with a slow-mo, circle-panning Matrix effect. I could never tell if these were random of if I was doing something special to trigger them.
Max can interact with her environment during combat, performing wall flips, ceiling hangs, knockout moves, and distractions. She can also do all sorts of acrobatic moves like front, back, and side flips and rolls. Her infusion of feline DNA gives her unique stealth abilities and a cat’s eye sniper vision mode that allows her to zoom in and see in low light areas.
As excited as you might be right now after reading about all her cool moves and the futuristic premise of the story, the game quickly dies after the first two or three levels. The story fails to get you involved, the levels don’t vary that much in style, design, or content, and you simple fight wave after wave of idiotic bad guys whose only strength is their relentless numbers. You might get the occasional thug or cop with a gun and you need to target and take him out first, but that is the extent of any strategy. Much like the show, mere normal men, even six at a time, are no match for our sexy super soldier.
The story that tries to tie the levels together is told through pre-mission briefings and mid-mission interruptions. Logan is like the insecure possessive husband who constantly needs to check on his “cheating wife”. Your pager is constantly going off (as indicated by the icon in the top right) forcing you to remove yourself from the game with the SELECT button and read a mission update or new objective. The frequency of these interruptions is frustrating and apparently they aren’t that critical to the game, as I started ignoring them with no ill effect on my success of each mission.
The puzzles are few and totally uninspired. You quickly learn that when you see a wooden fence with a gas can nearby you can use your lighter to blow it up and access a new or secret area. You can use the radio to alter the patrols of guards and you can collect a variety of weapons, but they are only usable for a limited amount of time before they inexplicably vanish. They just don’t run out of ammo and go “click…click”, they vanish! Not that it really matters; Max is a human weapon, and once you learn her combos she is more deadly than any firearm.
Stealth plays a minor role in Dark Angel. Max can crouch and sneak but the enemy AI is so stupid, blind, or both that you can be crouched in the middle of the street like a deer in headlights and these guys won’t see you if you stand still. Apparently the police have been infused with T-Rex DNA. And if you do manage to get spotted you can usually take out the resulting swarm of extra baddies with little effort or damage.
Dark Angel even offers up the traditional boss battles using many of the mutant creatures that you may remember from the show and a few original creations. Boss battles, which are traditionally the most challenging part of these games, are insanely easy once you learn the pattern. And while patterns are the key to any boss battle in any game, Dark Angel uses the same pattern for every boss in the game. Once you beat the first boss you literally have the key to walking through the rest of this game. To add a bit of difficulty or rather frustration, is that once you engage a boss you are locked in mortal combat with no access to your inventory. Yes, that includes any weapons or health items you may have collected up to that point - just another cheap shot to make this game harder to compensate for poor design.
Dark Angel is “dark”. Most of the game is played at night and even when you go inside or into better lit conditions there are always deep shadows. While this lends itself to a good feeling of suspense and stealth it also makes for a boring visual experience.
Level design is pretty generic with most of the levels looking like elaborate mazes constructed from alleys, streets, building corridors, etc. You are restricted from advancing too far by locked doors and gates that require key cards or codes that you get by kicking the prerequisite ass in each section.
Combat and animation is perhaps the best part of the game. Max pulls off some stunning moves that look like they were mo-capped from the show. Her wall flips and ceiling drops are awesome and she can tumble and back flip like an Olympic gymnast. When she goes into rage mode her moves are highlighted with a glowing trail that streaks behind her and the Matrix camera effect randomly pops in to accentuate the action.
The camera is set at a fairly high altitude, which gives you a good view of the level but not as nice a view of the action as I would have preferred. Varying levels of zoom would have been welcome or at least have the camera zoom down during the fight sequences so I could appreciate the animation. The overall framerate was consistently smooth throughout the entire game.
The cutscenes are generated with game graphics, so the characters look a bit primitive while remaining identifiable with their real-life counterparts. As you can see in the close-up screenshots of Max, the artists really captured her facial features (i.e. lips) and her wardrobe style from the show. Many of the cutscenes feature cinematic camera angles and special effects like motion blur.
Jessica Alba (Max) and Michael Weatherly (Logan) do their own voices for the game, which is a nice tie-in to the series but while I’m listening to these characters I get the distinct feeling they aren’t having a good time. Perhaps they just don’t know how to do voiceovers (although I thought ADR was a major part of any acting career), or perhaps they were brought in to voice these characters after the show had been cancelled and were bitter about the entire project.
Either way, the content is here but the style is lacking. Max rips off her one-liners as she dispatches thugs but they don’t sound nearly as sarcastic, irreverent, or sexy as they did in the show. Logan’s voice drones on and on in his incessant pager interruptions and he sounds like he is simply reading the stuff off the page, which he probably is but put some “feeling” into it man!
The combination of rock and techno tunes is definitely inspired by the show. It captures the mood perfectly and stays in the background where it belongs. Much of the game is played in near silence with touches of music to emphasize intense or dangerous situations.
You can button-mash your way through Dark Angle in 10-15 hours. It’s not very hard or challenging and once you learn a few key combos and the universal boss pattern there isn’t much to stand in your way. With no multiplayer and no branching storylines or alternate endings, this game has a very limited replay potential.
You can easily finish this game in a normal rental period, but if you are a diehard Dark Angle fan or secretly stalk Jessica Alba in your spare time then you may want to add this game to your permanent collection. There is a good selection of behind-the-scenes DVD material on the disc including photo galleries, cast interviews, and information on the upcoming DVD box set.
Dark Angel manages to capture the look and style of the show perfectly, or at least the action and fighting aspects of the show. While Max may have only kicked ass for 5-10 minutes in any single episode that is all you will be doing for countless hours in near identical maze-like levels. If the game design were half as inspired as the original source material this would be an amazing title. As it is, we are left with a repetitive fighter that requires more patience than skill. A true love of the show or its leading lady may be the only thing this game has going for it in the end.