Review: Dark Sector (PC)

Dark Sector
Genre: Action
Developer: Noviy Disk (PC Version, all others Digital Extremes)
Publisher: Aspyr (PC Version, all others D3)
Release Date: 03/24/2009

Isn’t it a little bit late to be reviewing this? Come on, we reviewed this game well over a year ago! Well, there’s a solid gaming audience that prefers to do things with a mouse and keyboard, and I’m not about to tell them that they can’t play a decent game even if it is a bit dated. Dark Sector has arrived for the PC. Let’s find out if they’ve sharpened up the glaive at all.

1. Story
You play the game as Generic Special Forces guy Hayden Tenno, a generally nasty individual employed by the CIA. Your original mission is a clean up strike on an Eastern Bloc region of the former USSR, specifically a little country named Lasria. Seems there is a biological WMD somewhere out there, and it is your job to finish what another guy wasn’t able to by destroying the lab and all the samples. Everything works out perfectly and you go back home and collect a paycheck, game over. Wait, hold on. Just kidding. During the initial mission, Hayden is infected with the WMD and begins to change.
The nature of that bio-agent is what gives Dark Sector a lot of its punch. This isn’t just another superflu or flesh eating virus. This germ, eventually known as the Technocyte, rapidly converts much of the body into machinery. Unfortunately for the innocent civilians of Lasria, the transformation is so painful that it drives them mad. Hayden is immune through a wonderful little plot device known as congenital analgia. He literally feels no pain, thanks to this real-life condition. This doesn’t really explain why he gasps when shot, but I’m getting ahead of myself. Shortly after the infection, Hayden’s arm turns metallic and extrudes the glaive which the game is so known for. This three pronged death-blade can be hurled at enemies, used to open doors and solve puzzles, and even return weapons to Hayden.

What follows from there is a blood soaked tale of revenge, death, and paranoia. Dark Sector features a great setting and storyline. Little touches like radios telling people where to evacuate to really add to the feeling that some terrible thing has been loosed upon the world. The soldiers that you eventually will be facing are all wearing personal protective gear against the threat of the biohazard. Hayden isn’t some nervous rookie either, and he’ll yell back at his bosses when things don’t go his way. The entire first level is actually played out in black and white like a flashback. The atmosphere is certainly good here. Is that enough to carry the game though?

Story Rating: Good

2. Graphics
I don’t want to dredge back up the age-old debate of console versus PC gaming, but I’m going to, and it’s going to start right here. How are the graphics? Very good. The resolution is much crisper than what you’ll get playing this on a console, even with an HD TV and HDMI cables. A solid gaming PC will really make this title gleam. Character models are solid, weapon effects are good, and the animations flow realistically. The glaive leaves a speed trail behind it and everything animates without slowdown of jaggies. Each round you fire impacts with a cool little effect. Wood and soft objects will throw splinters. Stone and steel will leave a little glowing circle from the impact. Fleshy targets yield a pleasing bit of blood when shot, and a lot when hit with the glaive. In that area the game completely follows one of the the rules of anime: The human body contains between eight and ten gallons of blood under high pressure.

Now for the bad. All the cool graphic effects work only when you are moving in a relatively straight line. I had a lot of issues where I would turn my viewpoint more than forty-five degrees and get a lurching chunk of motion blur. There was almost a sense that the game locks the area of the screen where Hayden is and animates the rest of the screen moving. It was seriously disconcerting and it made me dread moving too much if I could help it. Disclosure-wise, I’m running the game on a two month old machine with three gigs of RAM, an AMD dual-core processor, and an ATI card, so I don’t think too much can be blamed on not having the system up to snuff. I’m pretty sure most of it is a design choice instead of a system issue. If so, it is a choice I really don’t agree with.
The motion blur was an issue, but not enough to make me not want to play more of the game. It kind of forced you to plan your moves two or three steps ahead, turning the experience into a more tactical game instead of a lightning fast action game. Load times were very small and all the effects were turned on. I don’t think the game ever slowed down so much as lurched if I changed direction abruptly. Yeah, it’s an issue, but it’s not a game-killer.

Graphics Rating: Good

3. Sound
If the graphics are good, the sound is outstanding. There is a lot of stuff going on during a fight, and all of it has its own sound effect. Hayden will run to cover, a squad of soldiers will be firing shotguns and assault rifles at him, an enemy soldier’s weapon will beep at you to let you know it is time to drop it, incoming rounds hit the stonework where you are taking cover, and all the while rain is pounding down. A lot of work went into the sound mix, and it all shows.

Not everything is perfect in the sound category however. Unlike a lot of games, the sound doesn’t know when to get out of its own way. There were a lot of cutscenes where the music kept you from hearing the dialogue. Or action scenes where the gunfire and screams kept you from hearing important radio transmissions or audio cues. Drop the effects and music, and suddenly the speech is screaming at you. No matter how many times I changed the individual volumes between the game and my speakers, I was almost never able to get a good middle ground.

Sound Rating: Good

4. Control and Gameplay
I honestly can’t remember who started it right now, but cover-based shooters are all the rage these days. Dark Sector is no exception. You will spend the majority of your time diving for cover, popping out for a few shots or a glaive toss, and dropping back to safety. Control via the keyboard and mouse works, but does it give you the very precise controls that PC gamers demand? In a word, no. This is a port of the console version, with all the inherent weaknesses that implies. Aiming is floaty and imprecise. In fact, even moving the mouse around the menus causes floaty mouse syndrome. You will really, really want to re-map the keys, as some of the stuff here just does not work. You have to hold down a button to pick up gear, and can only pick it up if you are looking at it. If you are standing over an assault rifle you will have to back up and look down until it is in view. Controlling the glaive with aftertouch is a little bit easier with a mouse, but pulling off a power throw with it is horribly imprecise.

The news isn’t all bad, however. Weapons and ammo are plentiful enough that you never feel like you are desperate for gear. That, and the fact that you have a permanent kill stick jammed onto your wrist means never having to hold back. In a neat twist, the shotguns and assault rifles you pick up from your foes have an “infection sensor” on them, which starts a countdown as soon as you pick them up. You’ve got to use them up before the sensor turns the gun into a bomb and shocks you a bit. The good news is that ammo doesn’t reset. You can carry around most of a hunting lodge worth of shotgun shells and caseless 7.62 ammo. Pick up a big gun, fire till dry, and drop it. It is really fun to do. There is also your trusty sidearm, which starts as a pistol but can be changed into a submachine gun and beyond. Fortunately, this weapon lacks the self-destruct mechanism that its bigger relatives have. The sidearm also features an upgrade system. If you scavenge them from around the environment you can add extra features like double shot, faster reloads, and extra damage. Each weapon has a few upgrade slots, but the upgrades are permanent.
Most of the combat borrows heavily from Gears of War. Duck into cover, pop up, suppress with small arms fire and then chuck a death-Frisbee through their head. Repeat until all fall down. There is a close combat element that is worth mentioning here. When you injure foes, they glow red. Get up close enough and you can perform a finisher. This is satisfyingly bloody and brutal, but once you’ve seen them a few dozen times the luster wears off. To toss one more Gears reference in here; I never got tired of using the chainsaw, but I did get tired of using the glaive up close.

Control and Gameplay Rating: Decent

5. Replayability
With a game like Dark Sector on the PC, you might expect a lot of replay options. Well, you’d be wrong. Unless a flock of modders descend on this game, your replay options are actually worse than the console. At least the 360 version has achievements and multiplayer via Xbox Live. Your only multiplay options on the PC are via LAN. Aside from trying different upgrades with different weapons and playing the story a couple of times, you have no reason to not beat this and dump it.

Replayability Rating: Bad

6. Balance
So you don’t feel pain, you’ve got a metal arm, and your hand extrudes a three-pronged flying pigsticker. Can anything stop you? Well, yes. Your enemies are happy to send wave after wave of rampaging soldiers at you. Not only will the men with guns and grenades try to stop you, but also the horribly mutated and insane populace of Lasria will stalk you. I actually prefer the soldiers. For one, a gunfight in this game is more fun than just charging up a power-throw and chopping everyone into quivering hemispheres of meat. The enemy encounters are not too hard except for a few bosses. Trial and error will get you through, along with a solid amount of firepower.

The designers also borrowed a page from the Metroid games. If you thought you had fun shooting the ice beam into the ice door, just wait. Here, you’ll be using the glaive as your primary tool of puzzle solving. Some of them are easy, like tossing the glaive over a wall and guiding it into a door button on the other side. Others are a bit more intense. There are places where you can imbue the glaive with fire or electricity, for instance, and throw them for either extra damage or an environmental affect. If an electrical lock is keeping you from progressing, stick your arm in a breaker box and toss the glaive into the circuit.

Balance Rating: Good

7. Originality
There is not a lot of originality here, but there is a good melding of concepts. You can think of Dark Sector as a sci-fi casserole. A dash of Guyver, a pinch of Resident Evil, mix in Gears of War, and bake at 450. While in the real world a lot of people are worrying about Middle East violence, there is still a wonderful amount of paranoia and plot threads hanging around Eastern Europe from the Cold War. There’s a lot more “horrible military secrets” to play with from that region of the world. Overall, Dark Sector is like the fast food of gaming. Nothing great, but it tastes good when you are hungry.

Originality Rating: Mediocre

8. Addictiveness
Since you won’t be playing this for much more than the story, is there enough to keep you here? Not really, no. Dark Sector is fun enough when you’re actually playing it, but you won’t find it dominating your mind and bringing you back. There are other games out there designed to hook you. Dark Sector isn’t really one of them. Sure, the game provides attack upgrades and goodies for your weapons at a pretty decent rate, but even that isn’t enough to make you feel like you just have to keep playing. Story nuggets drop at a similar clip, but no one really feels worth empathizing with. None of the characters are nice people or even tragic enough for you to care.

Addictiveness Rating: Mediocre

9. Appeal Factor
There are two ways to look at the appeal for this game. The first is the console to PC nature. You have here an opportunity to really dig into a game that was an enjoyable title about a year ago for the console crowd, and the price tag is about a third of what the game was when new. The second is the game itself is fun enough to play and does have some good concepts. Quick show of hands, how many of you remember Krull? Fantasy movie from the eighties that obviously had a lot of influence on this game. The main weapon was a five-bladed glaive that would return to the lead actor’s hand with a gesture. Even though it is getting old, I think I’d rather go watch that flick again than have to go back through Dark Sector.

Appeal Factor Rating: Mediocre
10. Miscellaneous
I said I didn’t want to go into the Console Vs. PC debate, and I don’t. However, when I hear PC, there are certain things to expect. I want a high level of customization options, tight controls, and the ability to save anywhere. Sadly, none of that was added here. Dark Sector is a pure port of a console game. Even the saves are checkpoint based instead of quick save and quickload. There is just no love for the PC version that I can find.

Miscellaneous Rating: Bad

The Scores:
Story: Good
Graphics: Good
Sound: Good
Control and Gameplay: Decent
Replayability: Bad
Balance: Good
Originality: Mediocre
Addictiveness: Mediocre
Appeal Factor: Mediocre
Miscellaneous: Bad
Final Score: Decent Game

Short Attention Span Summary
Dark Sector has made the jump from console to PC, but I’m kind if wondering why. An interesting story, decent effects, and a new gimmick can’t overcome clumsy game play and next to zero replay value. Yes, a lot of games that make the jump from one platform to the next have extra features or tweaks added, but Dark Sector is a near-direct port. Even then, unless you are running a monster rig, you would probably be better off grabbing a copy for the console and playing on a big screen as opposed to a monitor. As it stands, there is some fun to be found here, but you are probably better off elsewhere.



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