Dark Sector Review
Despite all the pre-release buzz, I paid little attention to Digital Extremes' long-gestating Dark Sector prior to its arrival. Sure, I was vaguely aware of its lengthy development cycle, overhauled concept, Australian ban and focus on the boomerang-like glaive, but the game itself never really appealed to me. To be honest, the inclusion of the multi-bladed projectile was largely responsible for my disinterest--Krull kinda killed the whole glaive thing for me years ago. That said, I'm thrilled to report I had an absolute blast with Dark Sector, glaive and all. It provided me with the rare treat of unexpectedly being blown away by a game I knew little about.
It immediately grabbed me with its super-stylized opening mission, as it set up the story, introduced protagonist Hayden Tenno and subtly hinted at the balls-out ride to come. Dropped into the fictional Russian city of Lasria, players begin investigating the mystery behind a virus that's turned the population into zombified people eaters. The designers went with almost totally black and white visuals in this first mission, and it works great. The darkness, combined with a light espionage vibe, creates a great Splinter Cell-feeling atmosphere that stands in stark contrast to the crimson-colored blood bath that follows. After taking on some local military grunts, assigned to "deal" with the virus, you become infected yourself, and things start to get colorful, literally and figuratively. Hayden acquires the glaive--well, it organically grows out of his arm--and the black and white graphics brighten up considerably, courtesy of countless severed limbs, rolling heads and bodies cleaved at the midsection.
On top of the blood orgy, the visuals progress into a sort of Gears of War state; everything is dirty and destroyed, yet it all looks quite stunning. Dark Sector's deeply detailed visuals go a long way in creating the game's ominous atmosphere. Yellow Hazmat trash bags smeared with blood litter the landscape, military choppers hover above at-sea freighters in the distance and realistic weather effects form reflective rain puddles on the ground. Look closer and you'll notice rain also running off slanted tin roofs and streaming down windows. Just as impressive, the rain falling from the dark sky sounds distinctly different from the rain dripping from structures. Other great ambient sounds, like the Russian-accented loudspeaker announcement urging citizens to evacuate the city, really set the mood. Dark Sector's designers clearly recognize the importance of immersive audio work and richly-detailed level design.
The sights and sounds only get better as Hayden begins doling out the glaive-fueled justice. The flying blade packs the aural punch of a freight train as it whirs from your hand, through an enemy and back. You're rewarded with a nice "squish" every time it passes through a bad guy, and the accompanying animation is equally pleasing; toss it at a leg and watch your target limp then stumble to the ground, or aim for the head and see it lop it off with incredible ease. All of this is complemented by nicely exaggerated spurts of blood. Even gorier are the up-close-and-personal finishing moves; approach a wounded enemy, tap the B button, and watch his arm turn into a gore-shooting geyser, or go for the less-blood-more-crunch approach with a swift neck snap. Either way, the tri-bladed frisbee stands out as the game's show piece, providing a novel new way to kill that makes Wolverine's adamantium claws look about as threatening as a spork.
With progression you'll gain the ability to imbue the glaive with fire, electricity and frost for much more creative kills. Late in the game it even gains the ability to detonate on command; pass it through fire, hurl it at a crowd of goons, then click the right stick for a boom-tastic surprise. You'll also learn the "aftertouch", allowing you to steer the glaive upon throwing it. This works much like the projectile-controlling mechanic in Heavenly Sword, where the camera closely follows behind the weapon as you drive it towards its target. This is used not only for visually pleasing kills but also to solve puzzles where you'll need to navigate it through specific areas to open doors and activate switches. Some of the more inventive puzzles have you directing it towards otherwise unreachable electrical sources so you can charge it then chuck it at a door that only responds to a jolt of juice. It's also used as a means of retrieving far-away items. It feels truly badass to decapitate a hazmat suit-wearing soldier, then toss the glaive at his corpse to snatch up his weapon right before unloading its clip into his flanking buddies. The ability to use the glaive with a sidearm, almost simultaneously, also makes for some slick John Woo-ish moments; fling it at a riot shield-toting soldier, knocking him off balance, then fire a few pops into his unprotected torso--down he goes!
Dark Sector also supports a nice assortment of rifles, machine guns and shotguns. They can't be dual-wielded, however, so they temporarily replace the glaive. The game actually incorporates a timer on these weapons, causing them to self-destruct after limited use. This is explained through the story as a device to keep the infected from using them, but it's really just a way to keep the focus on the slicing and dicing. This bothered me at first, but I soon discovered it was much more rewarding to use the glaive in concert with a pistol than to use two-handed weapons. All guns can be upgraded, bought and sold from a shifty black market dealer who 'll remind you of the black-cloaked creep from Resident Evil 4. The shady sewer-dweller will also store weapons for you in a locker--in addition to the glaive, Hayden can only carry a handgun, one two-handed weapon and grenades.
You'll put all of Hayden's weapons to good use, as Dark Sector keeps the baddies coming fast and furious; soldiers, infected, mechs and towering bosses are all gunning for you, sometimes to the point of annoyance. As much as I enjoyed turning bad guys into chunky meat piles, I did encounter a few areas where wave after wave of enemy attacks left me wondering if maybe I'd run into an infinite re-spawning bug. While we're on the subject of fun-breaking flaws, I should mention that picking up ammo is an unnecessary pain in the ass; rather than auto collecting it when you walk over it, the game forces you to hold down the X button for no apparent reason. These are minor gripes, but as with any game offering a satisfying single player campaign and some tacked-on multi-player modes (yup, Dark Sector shoe-horned in some forgettable online play), I feel the time spent creating mediocre online action could've gone into polishing the solo play to perfection.
Despite falling a bit short, Dark Sector really impressed me, often reminding me of the great games that came before it. In addition to the classics referenced above, it had me recalling Call of Duty 4 (you'll see what I mean when you're hoofing it through a rapidly flooding freighter) and BioShock, by way of its plasmid-like glaive power-ups. The most obvious influence is Gears of War; both the visuals and duck-and-cover system will have you peering over your shoulder for the Locust Horde. I'm afraid Dark Sector's homage to these greats will get it pegged as a lesser copy-cat when actually, by borrowing from the best and building on them with the awesome glaive, it's carved itself a deserving spot as one of this year's best third-person action games. If you're a fan of fast-paced action complemented by gluttonous gore, do yourself a favor and allow Dark Sector to infect you.