Although it was announced four years ago, Dark Sector has clearly undergone a good deal of change since its original incarnation. Much of this seems to have to do with the influence of popular third-person action games that have been released in the past few years, most notably Gears of War. The combat mechanics of Dark Sector are undeniably fun, due almost solely to the glaive, a bladed boomerang that can be used to eviscerate enemies, solve puzzles, and generally cause mayhem throughout. But the narrative is largely forgettable, and the game feels somewhat generic, both issues that make the game less impactful than it might have been.
In Burnout 3, the term “aftertouch” was used to describe a mechanic whereby once taken out by an opponent, the player was granted an ability to trigger slow motion, and tweak the trajectory of the wreck in an effort to come into contact with and crash a competitor. It essentially allowed the prospect of redemption, or at least the nullification of having crashed at all in a surreal disregard of the passage of time. The same term is used in Dark Sector to describe a mechanic where you are given the ability to tweak the direction of the glaive in slow motion after it has been thrown. It’s a little more of a straightforward time dilation mechanic, but Dark Sector’s version of aftertouch is an incredibly visceral experience and is extremely well implemented. Using it allows you throw the glaive around corners and hit multiple enemies, all while viewing the gore from the perspective of the projectile.
Beyond the uniqueness of the glaive, the similarities between Dark Sector and Gears of War are clear, as has been discussed in many reviews of the game. For the most part, either because or in spite of this similarity, Dark Sector is enjoyable. The interesting question becomes, then, what is the difference between the two which allows one to be a bona fide hit and the other to be largely forgettable? Perhaps, had Dark Sector appeared before Gears of War, the brand of run and cover combat common to both would have been seen as more unique. But it is also possible that the issue lies with the narrative and its associated aesthetics. Games like God of War and Gears of War have an over-the-top, almost cartoon-like quality. As such, they are able to be enjoyed as simple, bloody action titles. Moreover, there’s something about the intensity of their presentation that makes them almost humorous. Dark Sector, on the other hand, seems to take itself a little more seriously, which actually decreases the overall enjoyment of the title.
Given how similar the gameplay is to Gears of War, and given how long ago Dark Sector was announced, it would be interesting to know how much the core gameplay of Dark Sector has changed since its inception. What was it like originally? Certainly it is very reasonable for developers to look to well-implemented mechanics from other titles, and to subsequently integrate those ideas into their games. In part, that’s how the industry evolves. But original ideas are also required for such evolution, and as such, one must wonder what Dark Sector might have been had Digital Extremes stuck with its original vision for the title.
There are certainly facets of Dark Sector’s design and presentation that warrant compliment. Having the prologue painted in a colorless gray palette lends a certain gravitas to the proceedings from the very beginning, particularly considering the overall tone of the game, and the fact that the protagonist will be infected by a virus by the end of the sequence. It’s an interesting design choice that works well. The palette is not nearly as inspired throughout the rest of the adventure, though Dark Sector is, by and large, very technically accomplished both graphically and aurally. As previously mentioned, the glaive is extraordinarily fun to use throughout, and the gameplay programmers behind its feel should be credited. Though the combat seems to be somewhat more enjoyable than the puzzle sections, this is a difficult balance to strike, and aside from repetitions in logic as similar puzzles reappear during the course of the game, Dark Sector does a fairly good job of not allowing either to completely outshine the other, mainly through the use of the glaive in much of both.
Dark Sector‘s performance in the marketplace could very well grant Digital Extremes the opportunity to make a sequel, and it would be interesting to see if they were willing to take more chances should one be made. It may be that a game, or indeed a franchise, like this does not warrant a deep storyline. But for the sake of impact and longevity, it probably does require a more original formula overall. There are things Dark Sector does very well, and it is certainly enjoyable for what it is. But the lack of an overall sense of polish and sheer originality do keep it from being an unqualified success.