Dark Sector Updated Impressions

Defying its earlier development history, Dark Sector is shaping up into a complete title, seeing increasingly frequent press events as it approaches its March release. Once set in a more heavily science fiction setting, Digital Extremes' PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 third-person shooter is now set in a former (fictional) Soviet state. A horrible mutagen has been released and your character infected, helpfully turning your arm into a metallic, twisted version of itself and allowing you to generate and use the Krull-esque, triple-bladed glaive.

I recently sat down with Dark Sector for some more significant hands-on time than in my last preview. While I saw less of the game this time than I did then in terms of actual material, I was able to get a much firmer handle on how the game plays.

Either because I was already familiar with the mechanics from my last session, or because the designers had tweaked the difficulty and feel as I was hoping--probably a bit of both, and more of the former if I'm being honest with myself--Dark Sector was a whole lot easier for me this time around. Chucking the glaive with one hand while popping rapid-fire pistol rounds into an enemy's head with the other became almost second nature, where before it had been more unwieldy.

It is a mechanic that makes sense, despite seeming (and feeling) redundant at first glance. Your firearm is actually the more general-purpose weapon, and more easily available at a split-second's notice, but the glaive can often take out enemies with one shot, and is indispensible for units behind cover--after throwing the bladed weapon, you can drop into its perspective and guide it in slow motion as it travels, arcing it behind obstacles to slice enemies in two in appropriately-generated animations.

As I noticed during the course of playing through much of an entire level, the designers made heavy use of glaive-based puzzles, such as electrocuting the blade and throwing it at short-circuiting machinery to jump-start it, or lighting the glaive ablaze and throwing it at thick webbing to burn yourself a path. It does not always seem intuitive, which might be a stumbling point for some, but it happens with enough frequency that gamers are likely to recognize it easily after they have done it a few times.

The most useful and encouraging thing to say about Dark Sector is that it really has become more enjoyable with each hands-on experience I've had over the last half-year or so. Again, that may be due to my slowly-growing familiarity with the game or to some factors on the development side (or both), but either way it is a good sign for the final product--if the former, it has mechanics that are learnable if unusual; if the latter, the extra development time is genuinely helping.

Some enemies require slightly complex strategies to take down. Riot shield-armed enemies are best dispatched by hitting their shields with the glaive, stunning them and causing them to stumble back, then firing bullets into their newly-exposed anteriors. It's tricky to pull off at first, but satisfying. Perhaps not quite as satisfying as decapitating two nearby enemies with a single, precisely-guided glaive shot, however.

I am still concerned about the overall pacing and enemy balance, however. Some firefights simply seem too long and laden with enemies, wearing out their welcome after churning multiple waves. Like many modern games, Dark Sector features a regenerating health system--you can stay alive for a long time, as long as you have cover behind which to rejuvenate yourself. In many situations, however, you will end up behind the same cover for quite some time as you take out an entire courtyard of enemies. The combat is fun and engaging, but having to replay such a repetitive section if you slip up and take a shotgun to the face feels just a little more punishing than it should be.

It is a fairly minor gripe overall, given the enjoyability of the game's actual combat, but despite my increasing proficiency it is one area where my feelings are largely the same from last time around--and at least it seems like an easier fix than modifying core gameplay, so hopefully Digital Extremes takes it into account.

I saw a designer take on one boss battle, though I didn't have time to play it myself. A fight against a giant, hulking mutant inside a cathedral, it was extremely evocative of the end-level setpieces in Resident Evil 4, both in visual style and gameplay. The Colossus, one of the original products of the outbreak dating back to the Cold War, also known as the "Old Ones," darts around the ceiling rafters and must be forced down by lighting him up with a flaming glaive.

After he crashes to the ground, the player runs up and performs a "quick time event" finishing move, pressing buttons as prompted on the screen to execute a brutal scripted action. The beast then leaps back up to the ceiling for some more; repeat. Eventually he is weakened and scarred enough that he must take you on more directly, at which point the battle turns into a more traditional shoot-and-dodge affair. That section of the battle seemed less engaging than the first to my eye, as suddenly the player was dealing with actions that had considerably less obvious feedback than the more dynamic torch-then-finish sequences.

To Digital Extremes' credit, the modified and delayed shooter is actually coming together, and my sense of the gameplay mechanics is positive. It could do well with some further tweaks, but it is on the right track. Publisher D3 will be back in town with the game in a couple weeks to show off its multiplayer, and we will give it what is probably its last pre-release look then.