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Developer: Digital Extremes
Genre: Third-person shooter
Platforms: PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, Microsoft Windows
Modes: Single-player video game, Multiplayer video game
Having a protagonist in a video game with special powers is nothing new. There are seemingly countless heroes with special abilities and skills that come from a variety of sources, be it governmental, aliens, infections or more. Dark Sector (sometimes darkSECTOR) features a character named Hayden Tenno (voiced by Michael Rosenbaum), who is morally ambiguous, literally unfeeling as he is stricken with a rare condition that renders him without the ability to feel pain, an already dangerous affliction. On a mission in the fictional country of Lasria, he runs afoul of Robert Mezner (voiced by Dwight Schultz), a former CIA agent who wants to use a new virus called Technocyte to create a new world of mutated superhumans. He must be stopped.
The plot of Dark Sector is a fun one, and the game does a good job of introducing the story elements and compelling the player to move on, though there are gaps that can, for those interested in a deeper narrative in their gameplay, feel frustrating. Action is the real draw, and therefore Hayden, while hinted at more, is a fairly thin hero. But, on the battlefield, where the game spends almost all of its time, he is more than good.
Influenced (as many were) by the success of the shooter behemoth Gears of War, Dark Sector gleefully takes a page from their playbook and applies it to the core shooting mechanic of the missions. Players use cover, liberally spread about the maps, pop out, fire, and cover again all while enemies from the front do the same. Hayden has access to an increasingly more powerful set of armaments as he progresses, from handguns and shotguns, to sniper rifles, grenades and rocket launchers, all standard but done well. None, however, compare with the Glaive.
Early in the game, Hayden is captured by Mezner, who injects him in the shoulder with the Technocyte virus, a malicious mutagen that transforms victims into grotesque creatures with frightening abilities. Mezner already has a small army of monsters and looks to create more. Hayden’s arm turns first, and he calls in to his superiors to inform them of what has happened, still unsure what the mutation has done. Told to meet a sleeper agent who will give him a booster, he is suddenly ambushed by a small band of soldiers. It’s here that Hayden discovers that the metallic properties of his new arm can generate a three-pronged Glaive weapon, which when thrown, returns with lightning speed to his hand. The razor-sharp gadget makes easy work of the enemies, cutting them down in vicious, bloody fashion. Even better, it gains more abilities the more he uses it, but so does the mutation in his arm.
It’s these sci-fi elements that separate Dark Sector from the genre, giving the player access to more that the already fun cover-based shooting action. The Glaive, as it strengthens, is able to slice through enemies with tremendously satisfying results. At one point, in Chapter 3, Hayden gains AfterTouch, an ability that allows Hayden to control the trajectory of the Glaive. When a button is pressed, the camera shifts away from Hayden and follows the weapon after it is thrown and the player steers its path (right stick on the Xbox 360 and with the Sixaxis Controller on the Playstation 3). Time slows to a very slow speed, making it easier to aim the Glaive. Likewise, all damage effected by the Glaive are in slow motion, providing for some gruesomely fun dismemberments, which, along with finishing moves learned later caused the game to be first banned and then censored in Australia.
It’s remarkable how much the Glaive remains clever and original throughout. While there are some great guns and other firepower at your disposal that are necessary for advancing, the finesse and joy that the ever-improving Glaive and further arm powers provide keep this game propelling forward. The developers pace the weapon’s use perfectly, letting you learn how to properly master each new skill before introducing another. While some of the battles ramp up unexpectedly, the levels are well-designed and don’t cause too much frustration. Replaying a failed attempt only inspires creativity.
The Glaive is far more than a weapon though, as it can unlock doors, fly to an unreachable area and collect an item, put out fires, light torches and more. There are some puzzles to solve, but these are the game’s weakest point, repetitive and too frequent, all solved by the Glaive. There is also some exploration you can do, which uncovers more ammo and money, but more importantly necessary weapons upgrades. That involves a robust Black Market found under every manhole cover Hayden discovers, giving you a chance to use your currency. As these items are extremely expensive (but very valuable), poking around every bit of the environment for cash is encouraged. Upgrading is key. Getting past the bosses is not easy.
Boss fights are the hardest part of the game, a mix of strategy and timing that can be tricky at first but are also fun once you understand the necessary weapons and combination. Each requires something different and it takes time to learn their weaknesses. Fortunately, most don’t cause life-threatening damage with a single strike, but you still have to be careful and move quickly. The benefit of the infection (and of his disease) is that recovery is fast, taking only a moment with well-timed rolls and evasive action. Like any good boss fight though, it’s not the number of bullets that make it hard, but the learning how best to do it.
Let’s talk graphics. Dark Sector looks great, even by today’s standard, running on the Evolution Engine (previously, Sector Engine). An appropriately moody tint gives it some character, and the environments are richly textured though maybe not very diverse given the similar setting throughout. Character models are sharp and the weapons reflect their real-life counterparts well, while the Glaive and its numerous effects are the real highlight. Dark Sector also abandons the HUD (Heads-Up Display), save for a small ammo counter in the right bottom corner, instead signaling the player of health damage by coloring the screen edges with increasing shades of red. An over the shoulder third-person shooter, Hayden is also-well designed and modeled, his fluid movements a real bonus that helps to pull us into the world.
While well-received by critics, it sold around 400,000 unites, a respectable number. Talks of a sequel have been rumored since the game released, though the closet thing to it was free-to-play game from Digital Extremes called Warframe, which featured much of the same mechanics and uses Dark Sector as a story element. A great game for the Xbox 360 and Playstation 3, this unique shooter is a lost gem and one you need to play.