Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Dark Sector Review - PS3 - Xbox 360

Any video game which can name cult Hollywood classic Krull among its inspirations gets an automatic respect boost. Enter Dark Sector, the new third-person actioner from Unreal developer Digital Extremes and D3 Publisher. Unfortunately, the game's inclusion of a glaive (the Krull-inspired spinny kind, not the Japanese polearm ) as one of its central components is just about the only thing we're really over the Black Fortress about. After a looooooooong and troubled development, Dark Sector arrives this week on Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 infected with an affliction far worse than protagonist Hayden Tenno's condition: mediocrity.

Spinning Blades and the People They Slice in Dark Sector

The fundamental gameplay underlying Dark Sector's lesser elements is reasonably sound. An action game in the vein of Gears Of War, Tenno dispatches enemies with his glaive and firearms as he runs through a series of linear environments. Combat relies heavily on a lock-to-object cover mechanic for nearly every encounter, save the occasional knockdown boss fight. As the story progresses and Tenno's infection moves into its advanced stages, additional abilities - such as a telekinetic shield, aftertouch for the glaive and hardened skin - become available at scripted moments.

Wait, infection? What's all that about? Hayden Tenno is a CIA operative inserted into a frozen gulag at the beginning of the game, in the fictitious Eastern European nation of Lasria. His mission is to blow the former prison - now a testing facility - sky high and take out a man named Mezner, who is responsible for a viral bio-weapon that eventually mutates any infected individual into a hulking humanoid beast. Tenno learns this firsthand when he is captured by Mezner and infected himself at the end of the game's introductory chapter.

As an Infected, Tenno is initially able to only summon his glaive into existence and hurl it at foes, carving up bodies according to where it makes contact. He can also run up to perform a melee finisher when they glow red, triggering a bloody animated death sequence. Shortly after becoming infected, Tenno gains access to a timed button press power throw, which hits for 4x damage (and breaks certain locks), and aftertouch, which allows him to steer the weapon in flight with the press of a button.

The glaive can also be made to temporarily take on elemental properties - electricity, flame and cold - by throwing it into certain parts of the environment. Elemental effects add a considerable damage boost in combat for the short amount of time that they last. The mechanic also factors into the game's environmental puzzles; certain doors, for example, require a little electrical charge before they will open.

Tenno's access to traditional firepower is somewhat more limited. Although he starts out with his government-issue pistol, dropped weapons from fallen enemies are of little use. Built-in governors cause each weapon's firing mechanism to detonate after 20-30 seconds of use if one of the Infected wields it. Black Market shops pop up throughout the game, allowing Tenno to purchase governor-free firearms (which are stored in lockers at the shops) and apply any collected upgrades. But the glaive, always dual-wielded with the pistol, is Tenno's primary weapon for the bulk of the game.

Dark Sector also includes a multiplayer component for two to 10 players which features two modes, Infection and Epidemic. Infection makes one player a fully-powered Tenno while the rest, as soldiers, attempt to bring him down. Whoever fires the killing shot becomes Tenno in the following round. In Epidemic, each team gets its own fully-powered Tenno, selected at random. The object is to bring down the other team's powerhouse. The modes have potential and at least offer more than the usual deathmatch/team deathmatch options, but they share many of the single player game's faults.

The Lowdown on Dark Sector

On paper, the above mechanics sound like bloody good times. Not so in practice. Hayden moves around quickly enough, but the right analog aiming is far too touchy. Even at its least sensitive, there's an abrupt acceleration whenever the reticule is moved, making fine aim control more of a burden than it ought to be.

Then there are the downright baffling gameplay elements at work in Dark Sector. Why, for example, is a trained CIA operative like Tenno unable to crouch without locking to a cover object? And why can't he blind-fire from behind said objects? Also, would it have been a big deal to give Tenno a two- or three-hit melee attack instead of the same, cumbersome right-to-left slash over and over again? Not that any of this matters all that much since the enemy AI is so blindingly stupid.

Foes typically dig themselves into a rut and remain there until a spinning glaive removes one or more of their extremities. They occasionally run from cover to cover, but enemies rarely respond to thrown grenades and never employ advanced tactics such as flanking or coordinated assaults. Other enemy types - such as shield-carrying melee attackers - add a little bit of tactical variety, but combat encounters generally favor quantity over quality.

There are also some fairly massive lapses in the game's own logic. For example, enemies rely heavily on grenades but they rarely drop any for Tenno to pick up himself. When they do, Tenno actually can pick them up. If Lasrian engineers had the forethought to install governors in their firearms, you'd think they'd also have given some consideration to limiting the Infected's access to high explosives.

Dark Sector shines brightest in the visual realm. Literally. Powered by Unreal Engine 3, nearly every surface in the game shimmers with an unnatural brilliance. The graphics are good overall, but the not-quite-real quality of the environments which looked so good in Gears Of War and Unreal Tournament III is no longer as impressive as it used to be.

Dark Sector does style very well, but it falls short on gameplay. Carving up wave after wave of enemies with an aftertouch-equipped glaive is undeniably entertaining, true. But the joy doesn't last. Less-than-perfect controls and rinse-repeat combat scenarios inevitably sour the experience after the first few chapters. A weekend rental at best, skip Dark Sector and put that money instead towards Krull on DVD.

Dark Sector available on PS3 and Xbox 360
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