2nd Apr 2008 | 14:14
Digital Extremes - the developers behind Dark Sector - have form when it comes to 'borrowing' ideas from established titles.
Take Pariah and WarPath - their homages to Halo and Unreal Tournament - which were both released on the original Xbox, directly copying gameplay and plot threads. While decent enough, they clearly lacked innovation - polished experiences numbed by familiarity. So why are we so excited about Dark Sector - a xerox of Resident Evil 4? Because it's the most significant PS3 game of 2008 so far.
Dark Sector's victory isn't its pacing or characterisation or gameplay - decent as they are - but what it represents: cast-iron proof that PS3 is hitting its stride. It's one of the best-looking games. Full stop. And matched only by, say, Uncharted and Ratchet.
More impressively, it's easily the most-technically accomplished third-party (i.e. non-Sony produced) game this side of CoD4, quashing the notion that PS3 'ports' can't match their Xbox 360 counterparts since Sony's machine is 'too hard' to program for. Take a glance over the pages - it looks even better in motion.
Don't get us wrong. Dark Sector has so many similarities to Resident Evil 4 that it could be seen as an expansion pack for Capcom's classic. Firstly, the plot - it focuses around a city infected by a disease. The infection, like Resi's Las Plagas, turns regular folk into murderous zombies. There's a shadowy figure attempting to create an army with these creatures.
Then there's the female double agent - she's like Ada Wong, minus the sex appeal. And there's even a blatant rip-off of the merchant - a mysterious bloke who hangs around an underground Black Market (more on this later). It's that shameless. But while Dark Sector relies too much on Resi 4 for inspiration, it's still a solid PS3 debut for Digital Extremes, and shows immense promise for their future projects - and PS3 as a whole.
Dark Sector is one of the best looking games on PS3. Fact. The story follows the recently-infected Hayden Tenno, a US special ops bloke who's been sent into the country of Lasria to cap a dictator who's planning a revolution with the deadly disease.
The way Hayden vaults over barriers realistically (press e) is impressive - and even the way he strides purposefully with his weapon drawn looks superb. The sun-drenched vistas that stretch across the game's city of Larissa look great too, far more appealing than the jaggy brownness of, for instance, Blacksite: Area 51 (reviewed page 76).
All of this beauty comes from the Evolution engine. Created by Digital Extremes, it feels like you're playing a slick pre-rendered movie at times. It's just a shame that most of Dark Sector is drowned in, well, darkness; while this creates a moody atmospheric feel, it hides some excellent level design. The action's weighty and visceral - hacking away at your enemy with your razor-sharp glaive (e) before performing a Finisher move slices his arm clean off. Eugh.
We can't help noticing Hayden is a slow walker, mind. Running (hold q) is slightly better, though steering Hayden around enclosed areas is like riding a motorbike - he leans to one side when sprinting.
The best aspect of Dark Sector is the aforementioned glaive. It's a boomerang/sword hybrid that you can fling at enemies (i) while firing your pistol with the other hand (u). This makes for some pretty interesting battles.
Down to your last three bullets and enemies moving in? No worries - a quick prod of i and the glaive swooshes out, chopping one bloke's arm off. Two perfectly aimed headshots take out the other two and finally - as the blade returns back to Hayden - it cuts the last one in half. Ouch.
The glaive can be used for other things too, like retrieving ammo crates from far away - press o to aim at them and quickly replenish your supplies - but it's the moves you learn later that really sets the weapon apart from anything you've used before (See It's All Glaivey for more). You can even control the glaive's flight path by hitting i after it's been thrown. This slows down time and allows you to guide its path with the Sixaxis.
The puzzles that require you to perform this are increasingly annoying, mind you - you end up having to sling it through small gaps towards sources of electricity to charge it up before destroying magnetic door locks. There's too much of this sort of thing throughout Dark Sector.
But this isn't the only disappointing aspect of Dark Sector. The dark environments melt into one shadowy blur - almost every other level is set in a cave, creepy monastery or graveyard. Then there are the undead creatures. Sure, they're quite scary as they run at you, but when they make with the cloaking devices you end up in gunfights with invisible enemies.
Even though the range of weapons on offer is pretty powerful - from shotguns to sniper rifles - the system to upgrade and buy new ones is faulty. The Black Market can be found by finding manholes and slipping down to a secret gun shop.
Here you can add upgrades to your current weapons with power-ups you find as you go (like Accuracy or Stopping Power) or buy and sell guns. As in Resi 4, you have a case to store your unused weapons, but from start to finish we only ever had about three guns because there just isn't enough cash lying about for you to be able to afford them all - meaning you can only stare at the better weapons.
Be the boss
Many of the boss battles are exciting, though. Taking on the colossus monster, smashing up a church and burning him with your fire glaive is a thrill, as is using the glaive to freeze falling water and encasing an enemy in ice before blowing him into a million pieces.
There's a Jackal tank for you to jump in, which can plough through barriers, fire bullets and launch neat little missiles that will take down groups of enemies in a single blast. You even learn an invisibility skill later in the game that allows you to sneak up on a foe and do them in with an instant Finisher move.
It's just a shame that, for all of the entertaining bits, there's so much repetition and disappointment. Take the moment when Hayden finally gets hold of
Dark Sector will provide you with hours of relentless action that you'll be more than happy to spend your time with, but this definitely isn't Digital Extremes' opus. The weapon selection is stilted because of the unbalanced way in which you purchase them, the puzzles are seriously hit-and-miss, and the plot fails to grab your attention because you've heard the stories of infection and biological warfare before - as recently as Uncharted: Drake's Fortune, in fact.
Almost, but not quite
As it stands, this is a stunning technical achievement, a dark horse, a must-rent and almost a must-buy, but it lacks the variety, pacing or innovation to make it truly essential. Still, when a game this off-radar comes good, you've got to smile.
We'd love a sequel (which seems likely judging by the ending) to expand on the fresh ideas found here, but until they dare to rely on some of their own ideas, Digital Extremes will always be the bridesmaid and never the bride. They've got the tools and potential to be a respected force, but Dark Sector isn't quite the finished article we were hoping for.