Genre: Third-Person Shooter
Publisher: D3 Publisher
Developer: Digital Extremes
Release Date: March 25, 2008
Dark Sector is one of those games well-positioned to just want to be loved, all the traits of an adorable child. It's a sharp divergence in theme and gameplay details from respected developer Digital Extremes' better known titles, particularly, with Epic, the Unreal and Unreal Tournament franchises.
Dark Sector is, however, Digital Extremes' own baby, unassociated with the Unreal universe. Its plot, although still propped up by staples of science fiction, is far more near-future than far-future. The Dark Sector world is mildly dystopian, but nothing like the heavy-duty, near-apocalyptic realm of Unreal Tournament. Even its gameplay perspective is different, not accustomed first-person, but third-person; specifically, it's presented in what has become most commonly known as "over-the-shoulder" since Resident Evil 4 was roundly acclaimed in several platform-specific incarnations.
Various components making the title a "cute kid" of games: It's a dark — hey, it's in the title — but graphically gorgeous game. The is not set in a real or vaguely veiled Mid-Eastern — or South Asian, or North African, or Central American — nation, not in any of the usual dusty, war-torn suspects of today's perhaps too timely video games. Dark Sector plays in made-up Lasria, a land going to seed, the type of place formerly locked behind Iron Curtains. The locales are distinctly urban European, harking back with cozy nostalgia to the spy-game cinema days of 30 years ago. Did you ever think you'd actually miss the Cold War? Some of the environments will remind you — if you've ever seen the real thing or a good movie version — of an old, cobbled square in say, Brussels, late, late at night in a cold rain mixed with sleet, the bits of ice crackling up off the ancient paving stones like thousands of tiny little crystalline tacks. (Not that this environment exists to the cornice in the actual game, but you'll get the feeling.)
Although the protagonist is an American, he's a covert agent rather than an amply armed U.S. soldier saving the world from itself. All politics aside, these are games, and the current U.S.-versus-Terrorist Bad Guys meme in shooter games has worn far, far thinner than the overrun World War II sub-genre ever did. Digital Extremes, thankfully took note that we Americans, and certainly much of the gaming world, may just possibly enjoy playing something we can't watch on the television news or read about in the papers all day long. Only so many people working in so many artistic disciplines can get away with "creating in the moment" before their audience gets sick of it.
So far we have a unique game, lots of stunning imagery, a crackerjack audio production, good dialogue for our hero Hayden Tenno as voiced by real, live thespian Michael Rosenbaum. Most gamers will no doubt recognize Rosenbaum as Lex Luthor from the TV drama "Smallville," but he's also played a supporting role in a Keanu Reeves/Charlize Theron vehicle, "Sweet November," and a more principal part in one of my favorite shlock horror thrillers, "Urban Legend," blessedly released before the current trend of torture-porn movies. Rosenbaum has also done hours and hours and hours of voice work for animation and indeed other video games. He's a solid industry veteran both in front of the camera and behind the microphone; you can hear it in his Dark Sector work.
Although the viral-infection-confers-positive-and-negative-superhuman-characteristics gig is admittedly rather tired, Digital Extremes also added some nifty plot twists, like Tenno's analgia, a neurological impairment preventing its sufferers from feeling pain. This my seem counter-intuitive: no pain an impairment? "Suffering" from a lack of pain? Ever accidentally leaned up against a stove, placing your hand on a blazing-hot burner? Ever left it there while your flesh vaporizes to the bone? Pain is good; it keeps us whole, sometimes literally. Analgia can be acquired or of genetic origin, experienced from birth; Tenno's is the latter. The protagonist's congenital analgia is more a supporting bit of plot flotsam, and his condition could have been better incorporated into the story as a whole, but it's still an interesting, unusual item for characterization in a video game.
The upshot is that Dark Sector is a very good game; the off-world, strikingly science-fiction oriented FPS demonstrated years ago bears very little resemblance to what has been shrink-wrapped and shipped off to your local game retailers — and that's a very good thing.
But Digital Extremes is going to take it on the chin for this title, on several points. First up will be the contention that the game is nothing but a blatant Gears of War rip-off. The claimed similarities in gameplay mechanics between Gears and Dark Sector are of no tortuous concern for PS3 gamers. Gears is good, folks, and we don't have it. We should be glad to get something like it, even if it's called by another name, developed by a different studio.
More importantly, however, Epic's juggernaut title has contemporarily created an environment in which every dark, nice-looking, blood-soaked shooter played from a particular perspective will be labeled too derivative of Gears of War. Digital Extremes' close historical association with Epic is only going to make it worse on this title. Dark Sector is not so much like Gears as you'll hear; the title stands well on its own, and there's almost certainly far less direct inspiration from Epic's franchise than people think. Digital Extremes did what they were doing, along came Gears, and what were they to do? Throw the whole of Dark Sector in the bin? Spend another year reworking the title even further just make it different enough from a huge success?
Two more hard knocks on Dark Sector are the game's short single-player campaign and almost tertiary multiplayer support. Dark Sector is well out on the short-game playing field, some several hours and little more. An expensive, short, elegant, tightly plotted, well-crafted game I'd rather have than a long, boring mess. But with the American economy about as formally in recession as we can get, the world possibly set for following us down to some degree, whether this economic downturn means you're two days away from living under a freeway overpass or it's merely a troubling specter never to actually bother your life, its mere existence means people are looking for greater value and longer experiences in the sorts of things we stay home to do, over going out and spending money like water. Single-player games have been trending toward shorter, better episodes of entertainment, but March 2008 is a bad time to release a short game at full price.
Digital Extremes could have shored up this perceived flaw with a robust multiplayer component, but it's not there. Indeed, I doubt this was ever designed as a big-time multiplayer title. Sure, it should be, now, but over years on the drawing board and in development, you can't predict all the vagaries of release day. As it stands, Dark Sector's online component, with a couple of basic, run-of-the-mill modes, is a mere nod at multiplayer, the sort of thing they'd have shoehorned into much-lauded Bioshock had someone at Take-Two panicked at the last minute, screaming, "Oh dear God, we can't ship an Xbox 360 title without online multiplayer!" Digital Extremes will take it rough on this point, too, factoring in their virtually hand-in-glove affiliation with Epic in development of the almost inarguable exemplar of online multiplayer shooter franchises, Unreal Tournament. The thing a great many developers and publishers need to catch up with, most games critics worth their salt — and plenty of avid game buyers — will happily accept a good single-player game; but if game makers tack on a weak multiplayer mode as a line-item marketing requirement, we reasonably have to evaluate it against the best multiplayer competition and then mark down the game, should it show poorly.
I've not spent time on gritty bits like Dark Sector's weapons or controls — suffice it to say that the weapons are fun to use, one particularly intriguing if possibly awkward for some to learn, and the controls are nicely implemented. Also, following along the game's plot, the sicker you get, the more interesting the game gets. You'll see what I mean. But the game is short enough, ultimately straightforward enough, that it's a disservice to reveal much in fine details of the experience — there's not enough left over for you to discover on your own. Further, in Dark Sector, these things should not matter so much. This is a good game. If shooters of this sub-genre are remotely your thing, you like some creepy mixed with science fiction on the subtle side, then I implore you, ignore the anti-hype, buy it, and play it; I have little doubt that you're going to enjoy just about every minute of it. If you're after weeks of single-player campaign or many months of deep, popular multiplayer online matches, Dark Sector will very likely let you down.
Based on the brevity of Dark Sector's single-player component and its stunted multiplayer element, I can fairly score this game only somewhat above the nominal average. It is, however, a highly recommended averagely scored title that is well worth a short stretch of your spare recreational time.
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