Dark Sector opens with a stylized approach. The world of Hayden Tenno is black and white it is not until after the first level when Hayden is infected with the Technocyte virus that color is injected into the game world and Hayden’s path and purpose become less clear. I liked this simple visual clue as a story mechanic because it highlights the main focus of the game which is the technocyte virus. While the game’s story wasn’t as deep or detailed as Bioshock’s, the designers do a good job containing the game’s fiction and implementing it in a way that made sense. There is no doubt that this is a game though and not a cinematic experience so let’s dive a bit further into Dark Sector.
The fictional Soviet-Bloc country called Lasria is not a colorful and vibrant world but a dark and almost apocalyptic setting. Biohazard waste bags that contain bodies or body parts of the citizens of the town are scattered throughout the area. The only real survivors are the Lasrian military who have been working for years to contain the infected citizens of the town and clean up the mess caused by Technocyte virus. In the first level where Hayden infiltrates one of the military’s strong holds he enters a room filled with seats facing a screen with a projector playing slides and a voice given instructions on the situation in the town. Later these projectors can be found in different locations each giving the player a new hint on how to deal with the infected. The biohazard bags, projectors, and the fact that all the soldiers wear protective face masks give the impression that the air borne Technocyte is nothing to be trifled with. After the first few levels the game’s setting starts to change based on the story and while each level is unique they all fit into the same atmosphere and dark setting of the game.
Level design was well thought out for the most part. There are a few situations where it was difficult to use the glaive behind cover or progress through a level because the enemies were difficult to shot at. Choke points or shooting galleries give the player relative safety while shooting at enemies from behind cover. This is not a squad based game though so don’t expect any routes to flank the enemies. Because the AI almost always focus their attention on Hayden it is very difficult to sneak up on them or flank them. However soldiers and infected alike are relatively easy to take down from behind cover so as long as you don’t mind hiding like a little girl (or being smart depending on your view) the level design won’t drive you batty.
There are light puzzle elements in the game but they mostly are simple and require very little thought. That doesn’t mean they don’t require some skill to solve though. The Glaive can become charged with elements of ice, fire, or electricity when they come into contact with various objects in the game world and the puzzles mostly consist of using these elements to unblock a passage so Hayden can continue on his mission which can become difficult when trying to guide the glaive to its target while being attacked.
Weapons and abilities are what separate Dark Sector from other third person shooter. One particularly shiny weapon is the Glaive. While shooting and dodging bullets are still central to the game play the most lethal weapon in Hayden’s arsenal is the boomeranging bladed Glaive that grows from his infected Right arm and used in melee or thrown. The Glaive can rip enemies to shreds up close and from a distance and the ability to slow down time as you guide the Glaive towards your intended victim (a la Heavenly Sword) makes for very satisfying and gore producing kills. Other weapons include rifles, shotguns, pistols, and grenades but watch out because just about every weapon is also used by the Lasrian military forces. Early in the game Hayden gains the ability to use the Glaive to pick up dropped enemy weapons and other objects like ammo caches and catch them as the glaive returns. Even with this ability the player has to be mindful when using enemy weapons because they will breakdown after a short time (about the time it takes to unload the weapon). The weapons breaking down can get annoying and limits the player’s options when it comes to picking up ammo and weapons but it is in fact a story element that is well thought out. Because the Lasrian military is not stupid they have outfitted their weapons with governors that limit infected citizens from picking up and firing them after a solider is downed.
Just because Hayden can’t pick up weapons in the field doesn’t mean he is totally without options. Several passage ways marked by the games logo, a white lotus flower, lead to an underground black market which sells weapons without governors and allow the player to use the upgrades found in levels (contained within silver briefcases) to increase a weapon’s fire rate, power, reload speed, and other nifty ways to increase the efficiency of the weapon. What I liked about the black market, aside from the hilarious comments made by the shop keeper when the player enters, is that there are pistol variants of different weapons including a sawed off shotgun and a submachine gun. Different types of weapons aren’t the only way Hayden can gain an edge in battle. As the infection progresses Hayden gains other abilities like invisibility and a temporary shield that help break up the eventual tedium that comes from spending hours ducked behind cover and firing the same weapon over and over.There are several vehicle levels where Hayden jumps into the back of a walking tank and blasts his way past barriers and soldiers to continue on with his mission. The controls for the tank are very similar to regular character movement but with the added fire power of a high caliber machine gun and rocket launchers. It was enjoyable to turn the tables on the Lasrian military and feed them the same bullets and explosives they were planning on shoving down Hayden’s throat but I couldn’t help but wonder why none of the drivers of the tanks that the player faces in combat were smart enough to use the flares to draw away locked on incoming rockets. Maybe the Technocyte virus allows a person to naturally enhance a vehicle he/she occupies? I guess that’s a question to be answered in a later game.
The games music does an excellent job of creating a spooky or exciting atmosphere at the appropriate times. Though the most intense moment for me was when the music stopped and all I could here was the hissing breathing of the cloaking infected creatures as I slowly made my way through a level; being careful at every sound I heard. The sounds of the weapons firing and the use of different abilities are exactly what is to be expected from a sci fi shooter and do not disappoint. The voice acting, while not horrible, was just short of top notch. The characters themselves were well developed but some of the voice acting lacked an emotional punch.
Since I was playing on the Xbox 360 I was aware that occasionally a little thing would pop up on the screen to indicate the unlocking of an achievement. None of the achievements in Dark Sector are particularly hard to get and focus mostly around using the Glaive in combat. Of course we’re not talking about an Airbender game here so the points don’t come easy but since the achievements are relativly easy to get they don’t really influence the player to interact differently with the game. The real goal is the 125 points for completing the game.
Dark Sector does a good job of blending the elements of action, story, and interaction that make a game functional and fun to play. The one thing that is missing though is depth. I don’t know if this was intentional to make the game more accessible to a broader range of consumers or to just maintain the challenge level but there isn’t really any feature; menu system, movement controls, weapons, story, etc. that stands out as being truly exceptional. The one exception would be the Glaive. However one good weapon doesn’t make a game (there are other elements to portal than just the gun). I do not wish to imply that the game isn’t fun or a challenge, it is on both counts, but there isn’t anything in the game that will take your breath away. That being said I enjoyed my romp through the ghostly wreckage of Lasria killing everything in my path and also enjoyed the twists and turns of the plot. This title may not be a must own for everyone but will do for fans of third person horror shooters or Sci Fi shooters. It might just hold you off until Resident Evil 5 comes out.