Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Another overblown review complete with a title that is attempting to be humorous...

The next game to be reviewed from the so-so pile is the long delayed and often re-imagined Dark Sector. This title was developed by Ontario’s own Digital Extremes and put out by D3 Publisher for the X-Box 360 and the PS3. The project began as far back as 2004 and I actually remember it well because its teaser trailer was one of the first to come out for what is now this generation’s hardware. Dark Sector started out in space but by 2006 it got a make-over into a bleak secret agent story that was released just this year.

Four years is way, way too long a development cycle to make a video game. A game of course 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. Dark Sector is sadly 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 later went wrong, killing or altering most of the poor country’s populous. The story begins with the protagonist; a hard-bitten American assassin, infiltrating the country in order 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 use it in play. I thought it did some things rather well such as lighting, particle effects, and explosions. I thought in some places it needs to improve such as enemy movement animations and textures, and in a couple areas, such as human faces, its 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. Being this is the engine’s very first time out however these issues should 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 works 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 couple countries. For this, at least, I commend the developers.

There are other, more conventional weapons to use such as machine pistols and shotguns. I was pleased to see that these secondary side arms get a fair work out 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 games like Resident Evil 4 or even the newer Army of Two then you know that this kind of development can add a lot to a game. In Dark Sector however the developers totally missed the mark. The system seems installed as an afterthought; it’s too simple, it’s poorly implemented, and the greater impression winds up being what the upgrade system doesn’t do rather than what it does.

Having a game where the main character sneaks through a spooky Soviet-styled city while making contact with the black market or other colourful characters seems a great setting just brimming with possible stories. It worked wonders for Half-Life 2. Unfortunately Dark Sector’s environment and level design is 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 an asset that you visited not even an hour ago. As well there are many times when you will find yourself walking down a series of winding hallways with nothing happening. 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 scant and it 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. That said, the boss fights were pretty cool and we don’t get too many of them in a shooter game. Some scenes had their moments and were able to convey emotion and intensity; there are graveyard and other 'haunted' scenes that deliver. For the most part however the game was 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 was 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 at least as good as anything 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 cannot hold a candle to either.

What tipped the scales and made me buy this game at full price was that it comes 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 a 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 attempt to give it an honest try.

Old video games with their titles changed makes for incredibly obscure humor.

In further attempts to avoid any and all news items I give you this site. If you were not born in my time you will not get most of this humour. If however you are my mother then it's worth checking out if only to be envious of the mad photoshopping skills my generation possesses. We can make anything look like anything else. It's a gift.

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