Version tested: GameBoy Advance
Dark Arena is a questionable romp that never really threatens to engulf DOOM with its vacuous gameplay. Dashing my hopes of a handheld first person shooter renaissance, THQ's game is little more than a scribble in da Vinci's notebook, which reads, "Remember to paint that Mona woman for the restraining order application". And that does evoke a soupçon of disappointment in this writer. The scenario put before players is unremarkable, taking place in your average secret genetic factory for man-made super-soldiers, which is swarming with its mutated denizens and rampaging nasties, all of man's own ill-considered making. As the last survivor of a blundering rescue attempt, you have to fight your way to freedom. Along the way players have to overcome twenty levels using a combination of six different weapons, and success rewards them with some prerendered FMV (of sorts). For dessert there's a four-player deathmatch option, although this does require four copies of the game, making it somewhat difficult to test on our lone review copy. One of the most irritating things about Dark Arena though - and THQ GBA releases in general - is the persistent use of a password facility to save games. Who knows what these passwords actually do save apart from the level you've reached, but as your average commuter will attest, jotting down a ten digit alphanumeric password in the confines of your average locomotive is not as easy as the developers seem to think.
Problematica technical special reporto
All of this could be forgiven if the game was as engaging as DOOM, but it lacks the nostalgic attraction of its main competitor, and it's technically inferior too. For instance, the graphics engine used in Dark Arena may be versatile enough to power the developer's former creation, Midway's Cruis'n Velocity, but it's not efficient or powerful enough to deal with floor or ceiling textures, and the faint mesh spread over both to mask their absence is feeble. The developer has also been extremely frugal with the game's monsters, giving each of them a whole two frames of writhing agony to signify their respective deaths. Furthermore, they have been blessed with the artificial incompetence to stop still in the middle of a frenzied attack and wait for you to pop them with a bullet before resuming. Apart from anything, the GBA isn't able to keep up with the exploits of the player and the demonic manspawn that hunt him. Stride purposefully into a room 'packed' with three or more enemies and the game will slow to a crawl, the engine unable to keep up as they hurl projectiles at you. Another handy aspect of Dark Arena is that the game often sacrifices these snail-threatening projectiles in favour of rendering the enemies and their environment, meaning that despite having three or more blasts of God-knows-what heading for your frail figure, you can't actually see any of them.
The gameplay itself, dogged as it is by slowdown, is not the worst affected. It is my long-standing opinion that the things that really define a first person shooter - that really stand out in the memory of the player - are often entirely superfluous, and that's the one thing that Dark Arena could really do with: stuffing. Beyond shooting at enemies, opening doors and firing your weapons, the game offers nothing to remember. The developer has made no attempts to surprise the player, simply offering room after room of intensifying mutant mayhem. Monsters start to move faster as the game progresses, but all this means is that one out of every two encounters is resolved by your pounding the fire button until the mass of incomprehensible pixels jammed up against your face disintegrates and the game regains its composure. And ultimately, there was the odd place here where a bit of stuffing was a reasonable expectation. Teleporters - the mainstay of many an FPS - are just doorways to other parts of the level, and travelling through them is completely uneventful and without fanfare. Indeed, I actually managed to stumble through one completely by accident at one point, and only realised what had happened after doing a 360 spin confusedly searching for a landmark...
Backs to the wall
Dark Arena is also blessed with a number of points where players get caught in the scenery. Backed into the corner of an abandoned research lab brimming with baddies, I often found it necessary to rock the player out of his hole. Couple this with the often infuriating act of switching weapons mid-battle whilst having lumpy pixels pressed up against your display and Dark Arena seems to consist largely of feeling trapped. That may have been the intention, but I doubt the execution was what they had in mind. The game's soundtrack and sound effects are also something of a letdown. Let's be clear, one of the key factors in DOOM's lasting success is its atmosphere. It may all be a simplistic Monster Maze, but the player gasps for air, grunts and gurgles, and there is no more satisfying sound effect than the impact of a rocket on a wall, and none more copied than the sound of a metal door sliding into and out of the wall. Dark Arena's array of sound effects is mundane by comparison, and where id demonstrated their mastery of the midi file soundtrack, Graphic State has only a lacklustre imitation. The game's saving grace could have been its multiplayer mode, but unlike DOOM you're unlikely to find two or more people with a copy for every square mile, and ultimately the game has none of the graphical glitz or excitement of its competition. Nailing your best friend in DOOM brings a tear to the eye. Doing so in Dark Arena takes the eye to the watch, and oh, is that the time? I think I'll go ram my head in a door.
When DOOM was originally released on the GameBoy Advance, it set the pace for any first person shooter choosing to follow its lead. Ecks Vs. Sever found it difficult to compete, lacking the multiple skill settings and animal attraction of DOOM, and now we have Dark Arena, an above-average adventure through a substandard game world relegated to the ranks of the infuriating by technological dissonance and a password system from hell. I'm off to hunt some imps.
5 / 10