Dark Sector Review (XBOX360)
Dark Sector has been a long time coming. First announced way back in 2004 as an outer-space, sci-fi horror game, the title has been impressing critics every step of the way with its pretty screenshots and unique gameplay. Now the long wait is finally over and gamers want to know if the wait was worth it. However, the answer is much more complicated than a simple yes or no.
The gameplay of Dark Sector attempts to combine elements of Resident Evil 4 with Gears of War, without ever managing to truly capture the magic of either. Players are given an over-the-shoulder view of the action, ala another zombie-themed shooter. Also, taking cover and dodging enemies are critical to your survival, with all the ducking, rolling, and wall pressing handled by a single button. It’s a fairly streamlined system with no menus to navigate or pauses in the action, and once you are in the action you will never have to spend time organizing your inventory or tinkering with equipment.
In addition to the glaive, Hayden can handle a variety of handguns, rifles, and shotguns. Pistols can be dual-wielded with the glaive, creating a handy one-two punch, while shotguns and rifles sacrifice versatility for the ability to pump a lot of lead into your foes in a short amount of time. One very interesting element the developers added was the fact that once you’ve been infected, you can use enemy weapons, but only for a very short time. The bad guys’ guns have a lockout system, which will cause the weapon to short circuit once in the possession of an infected person. This mechanic allows you to temporarily conserve your own ammo by grabbing another gun, but at the expense of reliability due to the fact that it’s not going to last long.
All is not lost however, as Hayden can pop into the black market and purchase unlocked guns, which he can use ad infinitum. This is also the place where Hayden can apply upgrades he has found that will increase the fire rate, extend the clip size, or up the reload speed. Be warned however, once an upgrade has been applied, you can’t remove it. And if you don’t like the way you’ve modified a gun, the only way to revert to its original model is to sell it and then turn around and buy it right back. It’s definitely not the most intuitive system, and it should have been examined more closely during development.
Aside from the guns, Hayden also picks up new glaive techniques, including the ability to use it collect far-off objects, utilize a charged power throw, and add aftertouch. The aftertouch is an especially cool feature, as once you throw the glaive, you can use the SixAxis controls to steer it toward the target. This is an effective way to put the hurt on enemies who are hiding out of sight, and it’s also a tactic which you must sometimes use to solve puzzles by hitting otherwise inaccessible switches. On top of these talents, Hayden also learns how to trap fire, ice, or electricity on the glaive, as well as the ability to project a shield or turn invisible for a short time. As you can see, you can basically fight in whatever manner you choose, and the abundance of talents allows the player to create quite a mighty warrior.
It turns out you likely won’t need much of a warrior though, because the enemy AI is about as stupid as they come. While some bad guys do fire from cover, they have a terrible time figuring out what to do if Hayden retreats where they can’t see him or if he leaves their patrol area. The most glaring example of this are the Howlers, infected zombies that attack with blunt objects at close range. A couple times I found myself surrounded, so I ran away from the battle in order to heal. Often, I would vault over an obstruction or flee up some stairs in hopes of slowing my pursuers. Not only did I slow them, I stopped them dead. Several times, the Howlers would simply come to the bottom of the stairs or the source of the obstruction and simply stand there. They wouldn’t even be stuck; they would just stand completely motionless. Normally, this led to me landing a ton of decapitations with my glaive, as every time I would kill one bad guy, the others would just shuffle over slightly, allowing me to take the exact same shot over and over until they were all eliminated. This wasn’t the only instance of dumb AI though, as many times I witnessed enemies firing from out in the open, getting stuck in doors and walls, or being unable to comprehend what was hurting them when I would throw my glaive around a corner. Most foes meet the very definition of meathead, using powerful attacks and a high pain threshold to try and cover up the fact that they couldn’t spell the word “cat” if you spotted them the first two letters.
In addition to crummy AI, there aren’t a lot of enemy types in the game, with humans and infected taking turns trying to kill Hayden. The human soldiers come in shotgun, rifle, or melee variety, with some Hazmat troops thrown in to keep things interesting. Also, there are the occasional super-soldiers or high-powered vehicles to deal with, making the enemy army a fairly diverse and exceptionally well-armed group.
The infected are an entirely different story. There are only three enemy types, Howlers, Stingers, and Chroma. Stingers look a lot like the Imps from Doom and fire projectiles from their fingertips. Chroma, meanwhile, are simply Stingers who are a different color and can briefly turn invisible. Unfortunately, you’ll spend a large chunk of the game battling these same three infected classes over and over again, leading you to long for a good firefight with the human troops simply for variety’s sake.
Another frustration aside from the stupid and repetitive foes is the fact that the game does a very poor job of directing you on where to go or what to do next. There is no map, compass, or objective marker, and the game’s cutscenes give you little to go on other than the fact you’re trying to find Mezner. Well that’s all well and good, except you’re never told where the hell he is, and instead you’ll simply find Hayden wandering through rooms and courtyards looking for the door that leads to the next level. I understand the interest in going for realism; the idea that you are a lost, vengeful man feeling his way to his ultimate goal, but some sense of direction would have been really nice.
One last complaint and this is a biggie, lies with the controls and the hit detection. When walking, Hayden is about as quick and agile as a bear that’s been shot with a sedative, and running isn’t much better. While you can hold X to sprint, your speed merely goes from that of aforementioned injured bear to that of a healthy turtle. Furthermore, you can hardly adjust your direction when speeding, because apparently when you run you lose all ability to turn. Don’t tell track athletes about this, otherwise they’re likely to careen into all manner of fences. Hayden’s regular gait is painfully slow, and trying to retreat from danger is often an exercise in frustration. It is impossible to sprint backwards, so the only options you have when faced with a barrage of enemy fire is to either turn yourself completely around and sprint to cover, or back away slowly, hoping that you don’t accidentally run into something behind you that will pin you in place and allow the baddies to pick you off as they please.
Further frustrating the controls is the rather poor hit detection, particularly with the glaive. The developers originally intended for the glaive to be a one-shot kill, but scrapped the idea after some testing. Instead, the only way now to take out an enemy with a single blow is via headshot, and that’s easier said than done. Often times, when an enemy is hit with the glaive, he will duck down and stagger. If you throw at where his head is now, it will simply register as a torso hit, and not a headshot. Thus, many tougher enemies take 4-5 throws to kill, simply because it’s almost impossible to actually hit them in the head. Even worse, melee detection is simply awful, with the game being virtually unable to tell who struck first when two foes attack at once and wildly inconsistent damage ratios. There were some battles where I would strike an enemy once or twice and then be able to go in for a grisly, visceral finisher. However, when I met that same enemy type later in the same level, I would swing wildly at it for a full minute before it went down. I have no idea what algorithm is governing this part of the game, but it seems broken.
Much like the rest of the title, Dark Sector’s multiplayer is competent yet underwhelming. There are only two modes, Infection and Epidemic, and neither offers the level of depth necessary to appeal to hardcore shooter fans. Infection casts one player as a fully-powered Hayden and everyone else as a team of Hazmat troopers. Hayden must try and kill as many troopers as possible before he himself is done in. Every kill counts as a point, and once Hayden is killed the player that landed the finishing blow controls him in the next round. In Epidemic each team has their own Hayden and they must work together to take down the other team’s super-powered character. These battles normally devolve into the two Hayden’s slashing at each other until one of them actually manages to register a hit, at which point it all resets and starts over. Neither mode is particularly satisfying, and it won’t be long before anyone who comes for the multiplayer retreats back to playing Halo or Call of Duty 4.
While the gameplay elements of Dark Sector are a mixed bag, the technical side of things mostly shines… mostly. The graphics engine used for the game is very impressive, churning out highly detailed characters and landscapes and some impressive lighting and particle effects. However, things aren’t quite perfect, as some enemies look untextured, leaving them to appear shiny and unfinished; kind of like the NPCs in Mass Effect before their textures loaded in. There are also some moments of “floating” where enemies who are running to cover just seem to float to it without ever moving their feet, as well as a few instances of slowdown and choppiness. In nearly all cases though, the good outweighs the bad, and the distractions are mostly pretty minimal.
The sound design is perhaps Dark Sector’s strongest point, with every sound putting you on the edge of your seat. The low growls and heavy breathing of enemies will keep you on your toes and raise the hair on the back of your neck, making this the sort of game that digital surround sound was created for. The voice acting cast is also competent, with Hayden being voiced by Michael Rosenbaum of Smallville fame. Unfortunately, the script isn’t so hot so most of Michael’s talent is wasted, but in the moments when he does deliver more than a simple line he sounds pretty good.
As I reflect on my time with the game, I’m struck with mixed feelings. When the game was humming along, it was enjoyable, with all the elements coming together to create a very fun shooter. However, at the same time it was suffering death by a thousand paper cuts, as all the little irritations listed here started to pile up into a heaping mound of frustration. For fans of shooters, this is just what the doctor ordered. It’s got good weapon variety, some very cool glaive attacks and special techniques, and solid pacing. Those wondering what all the hype was about will likely be let down however, as there’s really nothing here to raise the game from the level of good to outstanding. If the visuals had been cleaned up just a tad, the enemies given more variety, and Hayden allowed to move at more than a glacial pace, then we may have had a contender for Game of the Year. As it stands though, this is just another in a line of so-so games, hoping to cash in on the marketing blitz.