Genre: Third-Person Shooter
Developer: Digital Extremes
Release Date: March 25, 2008
As one of the very first next-generation games ever shown to the public eons ago (2004), Dark Sector has been a long time coming. After its initial showing, it seemed to all but vanish off the radar. In 2006, however, Dark Sector finally returned to the public eye, although the game had changed in all but the very essential details, something that may bring to mind the oft-delayed Resident Evil 4. The original Dark Sector was a futuristic sci-fi title starring an individual in a robotic-looking suit, while the current version is set in modern times and stars a much more human protagonist, Hayden Tenno, as voiced by Smallville's Michael Rosenbaum (Lex Luthor). Now, almost two years later, Dark Sector has finally gone gold, and we can finally see if it was worth the wait.
Dark Sector takes us to the fictional military town of Lasria in modern-day Russia. Sometime in the '80s, a mysterious infection broke out in that city, mutating everyone with whom it came in contact into mindless monsters covered in mysterious biomechanical armor. Lasria is now a quarantined police state, with military soldiers struggling to contain the remaining infected populace. This is the location where ex-CIA agent Hayden, a "broken soldier," is sent. He was one of the CIA's best, but the black-ops work he performed had taken its toll on him, and prior to the Lasria mission, he was on a leave for psychiatric reasons.
Unfortunately, nobody else is capable of successfully completing the mission that Hayden's been assigned: sneak in and assassinate Mezner, a former ally who is using the infection for his own purposes. Of course, this mission turns out to be far more complex than originally thought. An ambush by Mezner leaves Hayden infected with the same techno-organic virus that he was sent to stop, although the immunization booster he received prior to the mission slows the infection and contains it to his right arm. Unfortunately for Hayden, his CIA cohorts won't pull him out before Mezner is killed, so he has to race against his own infection to stop Mezner from releasing the Lasria infection onto the world.
Dark Sector could best be described as Gears of War with a light Resident Evil 4 sauce. Like most modern third-person shooter protagonists, Hayden's combat style requires hiding behind pillars and ducking behind boxes, and occasionally popping out to fire shots. He's got the Halo-style health bar, so as long as you can avoid enemy fire for a bit, he'll recover back to full health. If you've played Gears of War, this is all going to seem very familiar, although unlike Marcus Fenix, Hayden works alone at all times. He can have up to two guns and a pistol in his inventory at any time, although he's forced to drastically change his combat style once his fateful encounter with Mezner leaves him with the deadly infection.
Hayden's infection may be a curse, but it comes with unexpected beneficial side effects. Since he is able to retain his sanity while infected, he can actually bend the infection to his own ends, granting himself extra powers that none of the other infected have. By far the most useful of these powers is the glaive, a three-pronged biomechanical boomerang formed directly from his infected arm. It's razor sharp, responds to Hayden's every command, and can be used as a deadly melee weapon or thrown to stun enemies, setting them up for a headshot or a close-range finishing move. As the game progresses, the glaive gains some powerful abilities, such as grabbing items from far away, charging up to do four times the damage of a regular attack, and even being remotely controlled using an "aftertouch" ability to guide it toward a target.
The glaive can even be transformed by exposure to various sources. Throw it into an electrical box, and it will temporarily become a whirling dervish of electrical energy, which can be used to fry unlucky enemies and activate certain doors. Other possible forms include the fire glaive, which allows Hayden to melt certain obstacles and set foes on fire, and the ice glaive, which freezes water and turns foes into fragile ice statues.
Hayden's infection also provides a number of other benefits that will slowly grow as Dark Sector advances. First and foremost, his hardened skin provides him with additional defense, so the already tough-as-nails hero can survive extreme onslaughts of enemy fire. As the infection progresses, he will exhibit new and stronger abilities, such as the shield power. By activating his shield, he creates a temporary force field that stops all ranged damage, allowing him to move to a new cover location under heavy fire or to rush a rapidly firing enemy and take him out in melee combat. However, while the shield can be activated at will, repeated fire will exhaust it and leave Hayden unable to summon the shield for a while, so leaving it on at all times will be dangerous. Later abilities are still mostly shrouded in secrecy, but some, such as the ability to turn invisible, are certain to be valuable additions to his already-massive arsenal.
All of these new powers come at a significant cost. Most of the non-infected humans located within Lasria are military soldiers who are assigned to prevent the infected from getting a foothold and becoming a dangerous force. As a result, firearm control is strictly limited. Not only are there no weapon caches or unguarded armories to be found within Lasria limits, but every guard's weapon is also equipped with an Infection Governor, which registers the infection level of anyone who picks it up. If the infection is over a certain threshold, the gun automatically detonates a "burn out" charge that renders the weapon useless. Since Hayden is quite seriously infected, any weapon that he steals from a guard has about 20 to 30 seconds of life in it before it burns out, so you can't hold on to a single weapon for too long. There is, however, a bit of good news: He managed to smuggle in a pistol, so he'll never be completely unarmed. Even if he runs out of bullets, though, he'll always have his glaive.
Fortunately, even though Hayden is in a guarded city surrounded by angry mutants, he is in Russia, so the black market is alive and well. Much like Resident Evil 4, there are black market merchants scattered all around Lasria who are more than willing to deal with Hayden, despite his infection. By finding money scattered around the stages, he can purchase new weapons that are Governor-free. He can't carry many weapons, and holding too many Governor-free weapons will prevent him from taking advantage of the enemy's dropped guns, which is definitely a risk, considering how scarce ammunition can be.
There is another benefit to Governor-free weapons. Scattered through the various locations of Lasria are upgrades, forgotten Cold War technology that are oftentimes hidden in odd locations. By finding these upgrades and bringing them to the black market, Hayden can have his Governor-free weapons upgraded with superior firepower, faster firing rates, or various other modifications. Of course, once an upgrade is used, it can't be removed, so Hayden must balance upgrading his guns with saving these scarce bits of technology for new and better weapons.
There are two opposing forces at war in Lasria, and even though Hayden is a friend to neither side, that doesn't mean they'll be willing to work together against him. He is considered a minor threat next to the Infected, and the Infected tend to go for untainted humans before Hayden's half-breed flesh. While each group tends to have its own areas that its members frequent, the tensions are escalating, and Hayden will often find himself stumbling upon battles between the two sides. These battles can work to his favor if he's clever and quick-witted. Helping the weaker Infected take out soldiers will mean easier clean-up for Hayden once the opposing side is defeated, but it also might be more worthwhile to slip past while they're fighting or take out everything that moves before they realize there is a third side in the battle.
It is also important to realize that both sides require different tactics to fight. Fighting again humans requires a Gears of War style of gameplay, hiding behind cover and ducking out to return fire or use the glaive to snag a fallen enemy's Governed weapon, while fighting the Infected tends to be a much more close-range affair, relying more heavily on your glaive and Infected powers than your ammunition. Since ammunition is so rare, you also have to decide carefully if it's worth using your weapons on the Infected … or even on humans! Every bullet you use on a weak foe is one that can't use on something worth the trouble.
Besides the single-player mode, Dark Sector is also going to offer a robust selection of interesting-sounding multiplayer options. Both of these modes are built around the same single-superman-versus-the-world concept from the single-player adventure. In Infection mode, one of the players takes control of Hayden at his strongest, with every single power and ability he would earn throughout the single-player game. The rest of the players control military soldiers, identical to the mooks Hayden has slaughtered in mass numbers in Lasria. These soldiers don't have Hayden's superpowers, but they do have firepower and the ability to communicate with one another. The goal, of course, is for one side to defeat the other. Hayden earns points for every member of the opposing side he defeats, while the person on the military side who defeats Hayden becomes Hayden in the next round. Epidemic mode is a bit different. A team-based game, each side has as Super-Hayden who serves as the target for the other side. The team's Hayden is a powerful force, but if he dies, the team loses.
Dark Sector is shaping up surprisingly well, especially considering that it was rebuilt almost completely from the ground up. Hayden's unique infection causes the gameplay, which initially resembles Gears of War, to become something quite unique and enjoyable. Mastering his arsenal and superpowers takes a bit of getting used to, but the glaive is one of the most enjoyable weapons to appear in a shooter in recent memory. Combining the fast pace and tense gunplay of a modern shooter with the careful ammo conservation and intelligent use of melee combat found in Resident Evil 4, Dark Sector's really become a beast of its very own. While it might be easy to dismiss it as a simple Gears of War clone based on early footage, gamers should really give this title a second glance when it hits stores March 25th.
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