Ontario’s own Digital Extremes began development of the long delayed and often re-imagined Dark Sector in 2004, and it was released earlier this year by D3 Publisher for the X-Box 360 and the PS3. I remember the early period because the teaser trailer was one of the first to come out for this generation’s hardware. Dark Sector started out in space but by 2006 it was made over into a bleak secret agent story.
Four years is way, way too long a development cycle for a video game. A game takes that long only when there are serious problems afoot, and it’s been my experience that when the game is finally released those problems are still there. Sadly, Dark Sector is no exception.
I am still very keen on the premise of Dark Sector. Imagine, if you will, the fictional Eastern bloc nation of Lasria. This country is cut off from the rest of the world and left to develop advanced weapons technology and experiment with strange biological compounds. Something with regards to the latter goes wrong, killing or altering most of the poor country’s population. The game begins with the protagonist, a hard-bitten American assassin, infiltrating the country to get to the bottom of things.
Dark Sector makes use of Digital Extreme’s proprietary Evolution Engine and this is the first time we get to see it in play. It does some things rather well (lighting, particle effects, and explosions) while others could be better (enemy movement animations and textures). In a few areas, such as human faces, it’s absolute rubbish.
The main character’s head is weirdly shaped, too small, and from the sides his eyes bulge out awfully. It’s not only impossible to empathize with such a grotesque figure, you actually want to have nothing to do with him. Since this is the engine’s very first time out, these issues can be forgiven.
For reasons I don’t want to explain, the main character quickly comes into possession of a strange weapon: The Glaive. This multi-bladed boomerang actually saves the game because it handles really well, is damn effective, and improves in interesting ways as you go through the story. The glaive is quite the butcher’s tool and the removal of enemy heads and limbs makes for a satisfying bit of shrieking, bloody execution. In this, Digital Extremes did such a good job that the game has been banned in a few countries.
There are other, more conventional weapons such as machine pistols and shotguns. I was pleased to see that these secondary side arms get workouts as well. You can actually wield the Glaive in one hand and a small gun in the other and this dual action is pretty slick. The combat in Dark Sector is by far its best feature.
The game boasts a weapon upgrade system so that your firearms can get tricked out to match the increasingly powerful enemies. If you’ve played Resident Evil 4 or the newer Army of Two then you know that this kind of development can add a lot to a game. However, the Dark Sector developers totally missed the mark. The system feels like an afterthought: it’s too simple, it’s poorly implemented, and it leaves more of an impression with what it doesn’t do rather than what it does.
A game where the main character sneaks through a spooky Soviet-styled city while making contact with black market dealers and other colourful characters has a great setting just brimming with possible stories. It worked wonders for Half-Life 2. Unfortunately Dark Sector’s environments and level design are some of the most boring in memory.
The setting itself is sadly nothing but window dressing for a number of courtyards connected by side streets where you fight and fight and fight. The Lasrian city has no life and there is so little to distinguish one area from the next that you can immediately spot when they are reusing assets. There are many times when you will find yourself walking down a series of winding hallways where nothing happens. Pure speculation: I suspect this is a trick to let the computer buffer the next real encounter in order to facilitate shorter load times. The trouble is this design decision plays hell with the game’s pacing.
The story itself is meager and seems to intentionally leave out a great deal as if all will be explained in a sequel, but that scores this title no points in the here and now. The boss fights are pretty cool and a welcome addition to a genre normally lacking such battles. Some scenes have their moments and are able to convey emotion and intensity. There are graveyard and other ‘haunted’ scenes that really deliver, but for the most part the game is a fairly flat experience. Finally, there is an on-line component to Dark Sector but like so much in this game it’s too light in content to improve one’s opinion of the title.
What disappoints me most about Dark Sector is that you can see a fantastic game lost somewhere in here. If there were more to do in Lasria, if there were more people to meet and some side quests to complete, if the buying, selling, and weapons upgrading component of the game was as good as any of the games it’s trying to ape, then I would have loved this title. In the reviews I’ve read, this game was often compared to Gears of War and Resident Evil but it can not hold a candle to either.
What tipped the scales and made me buy this game at full price was that it came out of London, Ontario and I felt that if I’m going to throw my money away at least let it be to a home grown cause. Supporting Dark Sector does in fact feel something like charity and I hope that Digital Extremes realises that if they are going to make a sequel they need to rebuild almost every aspect of this game from bottom to top. I hope they give it an honest try.