Dan Whitehead certainly stirred up a hornet's nest with his review for Digital Extremes' long-in-the-making Gears of War-alike, but what can I say - I think Dark Sector's a deeply enjoyable slice of 'game pour homme', serving up some delicious graphics, slickly accomplished gameplay, lashings of man-pleasing ultra-violence and one or two innovative concepts that set it apart from the competition. It's also a debut outing for Digital Extremes' own Evolution Engine; a piece of game technology that manages to match Epic's Unreal Engine in terms of intricate detail and smooth frame-rates, while at the same time serving up its own blend and roast of impressive special effects.
Gameplay is essentially Gears of War with a twist. A genetic virus of mysterious origin (mysterious mostly because of an impenetrable in-game storyline) has grafted a bloody great organic steel double-boomerang to your right hand. This 'glaive' is the business for ripping opponents to shreds, also serving to power up your in-game character with further special abilities at arbitrary points as the action progresses. Despite possessing a comedic sound effect akin to a ruler being twanged off the side of a table, the glaive and its myriad properties add a pleasing new dimension of gameplay to what is otherwise a great-looking Gears of War clone. Specifically, the ability to take control of the glaive directly and guide it around obstacles is a lovely piece of design and deeply satisfying, accompanied as it is with gruesome decapitations and limb removals.
Let down by a poor weapons upgrade system, 'meh' online modes and some illogical methods in dealing with the (very impressive-looking) bosses, Dark Sector is far from the finished article, but it's difficult to argue against its status as a solidly enjoyable action game with plenty to offer. It also happens to be a decent slice of arcade gameplay regardless of the console you own.
From a technical perspective, Digital Extremes' conversion work for PlayStation 3 is an intriguing exercise in making some key compromises without much in the way of visual impact. Weirdly, the comparison also serves to vindicate - to a point - Bungie's decision to downscale Halo 3's visuals to a sub-720p resolution.
Firstly, a sneak peek at the comparison gallery is in order to show just how close the two games look before the discussion really kicks off. Digital Extremes has done an excellent job in matching the lavish amounts of shader effects and real-time post-processing work that the Xbox 360 game manages to produce. More than that, there's evidence that certain effects, such as depth-of-field and motion blur look a touch better on the PS3 rendition too.
However, in order to keep the speed up, Digital Extremes has followed Bungie's example by running Dark Sector PS3 at a reduced, anamorphic 1152x640 resolution, which is then scaled up to native 720p - exactly like Halo 3. The Xbox 360 version on the other hand is confirmed as native HD. So, remember when Bungie said you wouldn't be able to tell the difference between 'proper' HD and 640p? Now we have a real-life example comparing the two resolutions, and the difference is indeed negligible, especially so during gameplay. That said, in Dark Sector's case, the heavy post-processing work does a great job of masking the difference - certainly more than Halo 3 does.
Dark Sector PS3 is a very creditable translation of a game I really enjoyed playing through. There are just a couple of minor blemishes that make it feel sub-optimal compared to the 360 original. Firstly, there are several sections in the game (the courtyard on Chapter 4 being the first real 'gotcha') where frame-rate plummets. It feels like an optimisation issue more than a technical limitation simply because the vast majority of the game feels as smooth as the Xbox 360 version.
Secondly, aftertouch on the glaive is achieved with the Sixaxis motion sensor on PS3 and the implementation is awful. I can't imagine that anybody holds their controller perfectly level during gameplay, so activating aftertouch basically serves to immediately send the glaive hurtling into the stratosphere. You'd think that auto-calibrating the current angle of the controller as the 'norm' each time the Sixaxis controls are utilised would be the most sensible thing to do here, but clearly Digital Extremes disagrees. This annoying control system is the default setting too, but thankfully a quick journey to the options screen restores control to the infinitely more useful analogue stick.
Overall then, I'd rank Dark Sector as a very enjoyable release, even if its charms are rather short-lived. It's also probably more attractive to PS3 gamers in that there really is no Gears of War-style title available on their platform (no, Uncharted doesn't really count) and, in several ways, single-player Dark Sector is the more interesting game.