Dark Sector Impressions

Dark Sector, from Unreal Tournament contributor and Pariah developer Digital Extremes, has changed quite a bit since its initial design, but it seems to have settled into its final form at this point. The game, a third-person shooter, is set in the near future in the fictional Soviet state of Lasria. Some unidentified but apparently sinister thing has been discovered in an old submarine, and now a devastating mutagen is wreaking havoc on the human population.

You, a Sam Fisher-like agent sent in to pull off a few assassinations in a gulag, become infected too. Fortunately for you, you are the protagonist in a video game, so rather than becoming horribly mutated and losing all shreds of your humanity, your arm becomes metal and you gain the use of a boomerang-like, triple-bladed weapon called the glaive (ie, the Glaive of Krull, rather than the historical polearm).

I was able to witness several levels being played, and play a few myself, as well as to speak with Digital Extremes game director Steve Sinclair and D3Publisher producer Josh Austin. I came away with the impression that Digital Extremes has made a concerted effort to differentiate its game from other similar efforts, which is appreciated--it needs a bit of work, but it has actual ambition behind it.

The core of the gameplay mixes third-person shooting with glaive-throwing. Your firearm and blade are both available at any time, and the developers demonstrated the importance of building up skills such as chucking the glaive at an enemy then following up immediately with a burst of pistol shots while the whirling blade is still airborne.

When the game begins, you are armed with only a pistol, and the gameplay is fairly standard stealth-tinged action; you sneak around capping fools in the head, and if you can creep up behind them without them noticing, they can be dispatched with a quick snap of the neck. It's not long before you are infected and gain the glaive.

As you use the weapon, you learn more and more special moves and functions that allow you to carve up or otherwise kill your enemies in interesting ways. Stock, the thing will lop heads right off if aimed properly, but with the golf swing-like power throw, it can cleave enemies in two at the torso. Power throws are also used for solving various puzzles, such as opening stubborn gates and containers.

The power throw is fine as a mechanic, and I witnessed my experienced demonstrators use it consistently with ease, but it was extraordinarily difficult for me to use on a regular basis--you must hold the trigger until the reticule changes to a specific color, then release in a very small window of time. I found myself wishing for a system closer to the Gears of War active reload, which rewards proper timing without being frustratingly difficult to achieve.

In fact, in general, the difficulty is something that needs a bit of tweaking in Dark Sector. Even just a few levels into the game, some encounters were extremely overwhelming, with my character already taking heavy fire as the level began. There is apparently a dynamic difficulty system, and the developers did indicate that they plan to tweak the level of challenge; hopefully, this holds true.

Over the course of the game, the glaive becomes a versatile arsenal in and of itself, and from the early parts of the game you are encouraged to rely on it heavily. For a period of time after gaining the glaive, your only permanent firearm is your pistol. Other weapons you recover from enemies are military-issue and coded with a governor that will render them useless after 15 seconds in the hands of non-authorized personnel (that's you).

Soon enough, you will be able to buy your own personal weapons from an unseen but omnipresent black market arms dealer straight out of Resident Evil 4. Believe it or not, this whole time-limited weapons mechanic combined with the ability to buy progressively more powerful firearms works quite well. Fifteen seconds is longer than it sounds in a firefight, but it still makes you gain experience with the glaive.

In addition to its power throw, the glaive gets an ability called aftertouch, allowing it to be directly controlled via a chase-cam with the analog sticks (or, entirely optionally, the Sixaxis motion control on PlayStation 3) after it is thrown, so enemies around corners can get decapitated too.

Even when not using aftertouch, Digital Extremes has implemented a system that allows a slight bit of corrective glaive steering after it has been thrown; it is subtle but intuitive and very helpful.

The glaive can be used as a close combat weapon as well, and if enemies are on the verge of death, a context-sensitive button will pull off a brutal finisher; one basically drop-kicks the enemy up into a downward-plunging laceration.

Throughout the levels, there are various conspicuous environmental elements that confer special properties onto the glaive. Throwing the glaive into short-circuiting wires charges it with electricity, which can then in turn electrify bodies of wire or enemies. Infusing it with ice lets it freeze enemies and create a huge burst of ice. Rather than simply freezing in mid-air, frozen enemies actually turn into ice statues affected by physics. Of course, they can be shattered as well.

It is clear that Digital Extremes wants to avoid becoming too similar to other recent games in the third-person action genre, a segment that has become highly in vogue in the last few years. In a number of ways, the game actually displays more of a Metal Gear influence than a Gears of War influence. There is a Gears-like cover system, but the presentation is more inspired by Kojima's over-the-top themes.

Dark Sector's protagonist frequently questions both his mission-giving superiors and himself, and struggles to understand what is happening to him and his surroundings. "We're trying to stay away from the other American titles like Gears of War, where you have this big gruff character," explained Sinclair.

That protagonist is voiced in a rather unremarkable video gamey performance by Smallville's Michael Rosenbaum, but special mention must be made of villain Mezner. I noted I was impressed by the performance, and was told he is portrayed by Dwight Schultz--better known as Murdock from The A-Team. An IMDb search reveals Schultz as an experienced game actor credited with Psychonauts, Fallout 2, Mass Effect, Metal Gear Solid: Portable Ops, Killer7, Final Fantasy XII and many more.

A clever visual conceit sees the beginning of the game rendered entirely in black and white. When you become infected by the virus, the world blooms into color a la The Wizard of Oz, and as the infection progresses and you gain more glaive-related powers, it becomes more saturated. It's a nice touch, and while not revolutionary, it is uncommon for a video game.

Speaking of bloom, this game really needs to cut down on the post-processing. The amount depth of field going on blows by the point of being unnecessary and verges into being utterly distracting.

Dark Sector appears to have an admirable amount of ambition behind it. Some elements need some tuning to bring it to where it needs to be, but the gun and glaive mechanics as well as the campy presentation work well and give it its own identity. It may well be the title that brings wider gamer recognition of Digital Extremes and D3.