Version tested: Xbox 360
It's never a good sign when a game spends years in development. It's never a good sign when the game's concept changes almost entirely over the course of those years. It's never a good sign when the game is finally released and everyone immediately compares it unfavourably to a game that came out the year before, and it's certainly never a good sign when you play all the way through the game and still have to look up the main character's name on the Internet.
There aren't, as you've probably guessed, many good signs for Dark Sector.
It's a third-person action game in which you play Hayden Tenno (thanks Wikipedia!), a US special agent sent into a former Soviet state to prevent a madman from distributing a biological contagion. You get infected, you get a funky mutated arm, you get superpowers. These include the glaive, which sprouts spontaneously from your hand. A glaive is actually a medieval pole weapon, but the developers clearly preferred bone-headed 1980s Star Wars knock-off Krull to actual history lessons, and so we get a bladed Frisbee thing instead.
You'd better make the most of it because, as with Stranglehold and Assassin's Creed, this is a game that boasts one interesting gameplay feature and proceeds to spend the following six-to-eight hours forcing you to repeat it.
You throw the glaive with the right shoulder button and, as you progress through the game, you gain new abilities to go along with it. The first upgrade allows you to use the glaive to retrieve objects and ammo from a distance. Later you get to control the glaive in flight, guiding it in slow motion to your target. You can even do a "power throw", which is strong enough to cut enemies into bloody chunks.
It can also pick up elemental properties, such as fire, electricity and ice, allowing you to burn, zap or freeze enemies. This ability is also used for sporadic puzzles, in which you have to open a door or remove an obstacle by throwing a suitably charged glaive at the appropriate bit of scenery. These bits are so ploddingly obvious, rarely requiring you to do anything more than scour your immediate surroundings, that the word "puzzle" feels like overkill.
But the glaive is a nifty concept, and one that is undeniably fun to use. At least to start with. Having come up with this one good idea, the developers seem reluctant to really follow through with it. For instance, your environmental interactions are minimal at best. This is the sort of game where you can unload a shotgun into a desk lamp without it moving, and it comes as a real shame to discover that your use of the glaive's elemental powers is restricted by the largely physics-free world.
You can charge it with electricity from malfunctioning strip lights, but you can't smash a working strip light to get some electricity. An icy glaive can put out fires and freeze water spouts into frozen pillars for cover, but you can't use a burning glaive to melt these pillars should an enemy duck behind one. You can't use it to smash, cut or topple anything.
It's not all about the glaive though. You can pick up guns from defeated foes, but as you're infected they self-destruct soon afterwards. If you want a permanent arsenal, you must find cash in-game and then drop down manholes to access the "black market". Here you can buy new guns, and beef them up with a small selection of upgrades. It's much like Resident Evil 4, but a fairly inflexible system. You can't see the effect of an upgrade until you install it, and once installed it can't be removed. The glaive is such a ludicrously over-powered weapon that firearms are almost an afterthought and, like most of the game's ideas, this side of things feels half-baked.
So you run into a new area, and - lo and behold - chunks of masonry or toppled furniture are strewn about, almost as if somebody was anticipating a firefight and thought it'd be nice for everyone to have somewhere to seek shelter. You run in from one end, enemies appear at the other, and you attach to the nearest cover, popping out to either shoot them or (more likely) take them down with a series of slo-mo glaive throws. You can roll from one cover spot to another, or make a dash across open ground.
Comparisons to Gears of War feel embarrassingly obvious but are completely justified. Indeed, it often feels like Dark Sector is openly inviting such a criticism. From the shattered gothic scenery, to Hayden's crouched run, to the vault-and-roll cover moves, there are simply too many elements here that feel exactly the same as Epic's hit to be chalked up to coincidence or genre convention.
Gears may not have invented this style of play, but it's the current benchmark and this over-familiarity leaves the proceedings with a distinctly opportunistic feel. It's the Single White Female of third-person duck-and-cover action games.
There are only three types of enemy in the game, none of which pose any sort of challenge except to your patience. Human enemies will shoot and throw grenades, and occasionally break cover and mill about aimlessly in a way that could pass for AI if you were feeling generous.
Then there are the infected, mutated humans who could have stepped out of any Resident Evil game. They shamble or sprint towards you, sometimes wielding lumps of metal. And the super-infected can leap about, turn invisible and spit what looks like acid at you.
It says a lot about the game's hopelessly unbalanced difficulty that even these seemingly tough enemies will go down with a few glaive strikes. Towards the end of the game, as if your enemies needed to be even more outclassed, you also get a shield that can reflect their projectiles back with lethal accuracy and the power to turn invisible.
And so it goes on. And on. And on. The game really has no concept of pacing, throwing wave after wave of identical foes at you before letting you progress to the next stage-managed arena, while chapters seem to begin and end at random intervals. Some last about ten minutes, others three-quarters of an hour. There are no dramatic peaks along the way, no unique shoot-outs in memorable or strategically inspiring locations, just lots of trudging through linear environments relying on the diminishing "wow factor" of the glaive to keep things interesting.
Chapter Four, in particular, feels like it goes on forever. After a climactic boss battle, the level simply carries on for another fifteen minutes or so, before eventually morphing into Chapter Five for no apparent reason. Coupled with the repetitive combat, the effect is soporific.
And, oh, the boss fights. They're both freakishly hard and laughably easy to beat. This contradiction comes about because success in each case relies on you discovering the secret combination of attacks that will actually inflict damage, despite giving you no clues as to what this might entail, or even how much damage you are - or aren't - inflicting.
For example, the first major boss battle takes place in a ruined church against something called Colossus. A mutated Kong-like creature, he swings about the vaulted ceiling, lobbing enormous bits of stone at you. There's a fire nearby, so you set the glaive ablaze and throw it at him. He falls to the ground. You unload your guns, or hit him with the glaive a few more times, then he jumps off and you repeat the process. And you keep repeating it until you run out of ammo, or he kills you with one hit from his huge projectiles.
You see, it turns out that when he's on the ground you need to run up to him and hit him with a melee finishing move. All those shots you wasted? No effect whatsoever. He's basically bulletproof, until you trigger the animation that makes him not bulletproof.
The final boss encounter is even more ludicrous, with Hayden dropping dead for no visible reason should you fail to inflict the right sort of damage at the right time. And yet once you've worked out which attack to do when, all of the bosses can be defeated without breaking sweat in a matter of seconds. It's an utterly obtuse design decision that leaves you frustrated and annoyed rather than elated.
And this pretty much sums up the Dark Sector experience. Everything seems designed for the initial impression, with little attention given to anything below the surface. The graphics look lovely at first, but soon lose their lustre as you realise what a rigid, fake world they represent. Your brooding avatar, Hayden, is the weirdest looking action hero ever. His lank trendy hairdo and pale, squashed face often makes it look like you're playing some bizarre White Stripes shoot-'em-up. The glaive is fun for the first few chapters, but ultimately proves to be an underdeveloped gimmick that adds nothing more than a different way to kill things.
And as for the story... Oh my goodness. If there's a more incoherent narrative in gaming this year, I'll be amazed. It's abundantly clear that this is a game that spent so long in development that they forgot not everyone in the world would know the back-story of Hayden Tenno.
There's some femme fatale, and an old Russian guy, and a Rasputin villain, and some kind of underground psychic stuff and it's all introduced and explained in context-free cut-scenes full of earnest posturing and clichd dialogue. It's all so garbled that you won't understand, let alone care, who turns out to be a traitor, murderer or whatever.
There's multiplayer as well, but it's been implemented in such a half-hearted way that I'm struggling to muster the enthusiasm to talk about it in much detail. The main problem is that the online modes take the one element that everyone will want to muck about with - the glaive - then all but remove it from the equation. In both multiplayer game modes, Infection and Epidemic, only one person gets to play as Hayden, with all his attendant powers, while everybody else has to run around in stupid hazmat suits trying to earn the right to play with the fun toys.
The maps are dull, the inspiration minimal and the whole section feels like it was tacked on because some market research said that you have to have some multiplayer. The fact that most of the people I found online were blatant Achievement addicts boosting each other's scores by taking it in turns to win says all you need to know on this subject.
And so Dark Sector ends up as the sort of game I find most disheartening. Games that are crap from the start are easy to dissect and dismiss. Games that start off with promise but then wind up paddling round and round in the shallow end of the game design pool are incredibly frustrating.
This could have been fantastic - it should've been fantastic - yet by the end it barely scrapes in as above average. If you're desperate for something new to play, then rent this over the weekend and you'll have breezed through it by Monday, having been moderately distracted for most of the time. The glaive is fun, for a bit, so there's always that as well. Just don't be surprised if in six months time you've forgotten you ever played it.
6 / 10