I can’t remember where I first heard about Dark Sector, but it came up in conversation somewhere fairly recently. People said it was good.
The funny part of this story is that it’s a game by Digital Extremes — who were vital to the creation of the several cast-iron belters in the Unreal franchise, but who were also subsequently responsible for the catastrophic misfire Pariah. Funnily enough, Digital Extremes don’t mention Pariah at all on their website’s games list. They do, however, mention Dark Sector. That’s an encouraging sign.
Ahhh, I had forgotten about this era of games.
It’s a 3rd person cover-shooter. It’s got desaturated colours and is slathered in post-processing distortion and bloom. It’s got regenerating health. It’s got basically no HUD. You can get grappled in melee and have to button-mash a quick-time prompt to escape. The protagonist has jet-black emo hair. Staircases are frequently blocked by insurmountable piles of bin bags. Your walking pace is glacial and sprinting barely makes a difference. Perfunctory puzzle elements surround some locked doors. It’s perfectly linear except for the occasional side niche with an upgrade in it. It supports mouse-and-keyboard controls but the menu system hates this. There are Brutal Finishers. There are two helicopter boss fights.
Yes, Dark Sector is an almost perfect encapsulation of… well… that sort of game. But it’s not awful, so here we go!
The story is straightforward enough. Special forces agent Hayden infiltrates a base in a decaying post-Soviet country, trying to stop a mad scientist. There’s some kind of infectious bioweapon going around that means the place is full of weird zombies as well as the bad dude’s pals. Hayden gets infected. The bioweapon turns out to give him weird powers, instead of turning him into a raving zombie like every other ex-civilian in the land. The usual.
(… Come to think of it, wasn’t Pariah also about a strange virus that gave people weird powers?)
Obviously once you’re infected, you can kiss goodbye to going home again. The mission must go on and you must lurch from chest-high wall to convenient pillar as you try to chase down the mad scientist and stop him from doing… whatever he wants to do with all those crates of virus. Probably nothing good.
The headline power you obtain is the Glaive. A weapon that seems to literally grow out of poor Hayden’s infected right arm, this is a bouncing projectile that hits switches and slices off limbs before returning to your hand.
The full powers of the Glaive are unlocked slowly over a few levels, so you do have plenty of time to get used to it. It starts as merely a weapon, and able to nab items at range. Then there’s a quad-damage power attack, which can smash certain gate locks but requires precise timing (the window is a touch ungenerous). Then you get to control it mid-flight, so if you’re lucky you can guide it through several enemies before it runs out of range (but more likely, you’re using it to hit a switch round a corner in a gate puzzle). Then it is revealed that it can absorb electricity, which will short-circuit certain door locks. It also absorbs fire, which burns through… certain door locks (and also makes infected civilians explode).
You may have noticed a theme: basically every problem in Dark Sector revolves around using the Glaive. Most of these problems are not particularly clever; if there’s an electric gate lock, there will be a sparking conduit nearby. If there’s a sheet of fungus that needs to be burnt away, there will be a valve to turn on a gas jet which you can shoot to ignite the flame, and so on. As is tradition, they rarely ask for much intuition or exploration, which leaves most of them feeling somewhat pointless. Box ticked. (Though if you miss the solution, enjoy running circles trying to improvise an answer, because there really is only one.)
If you can’t be bothered with the Glaive in combat, you can always just use normal guns. While the Glaive is in flight, you can use a pistol to pop enemies full of lead; or you can use a rifle or shotgun and stick entirely to gunplay. While you only get to have a single pistol or rifle forever, you can pick up enemy weapons for short bursts of something you don’t normally have — these are equipped with timed explosives so you can’t hold onto them, though they also tend to come with a single clip of ammo so ideally you’ve emptied them before you get a shock to the face.
Your two main guns, you can upgrade via the Black Market. Hilariously accessible via manhole covers in random areas, here is where you can buy weapons or apply upgrades you’ve found. There are a few different pistols and rifles or shotguns on offer, though it’s mainly a traditional upward march of “save for the most expensive one available right now” and there are only about two tiers of each. I’m not sure I noticed the application of upgrades making much difference, considering how flashy the Glaive is in comparison, but you know me — if I see an option, I’ve gotta use it. (I still finished the game with loads of spare upgrades.)
All of this leaves the plot in a somewhat obscure state.
It’s never quite stated whether the virus is man-made or something else, but it is regularly stated to be something that’s been around for quite a long time. There are references to the Cold War and the 80s, and some larger infected creatures are referred to as “Old Ones”, though whether that is when the virus was created or discovered or something else is never explored. Your mad scientist villain speaks of controlling the disease, which seems like an obvious goal because, y’know, it can give people super-powers… but even he never seems to chew any scenery about its origins. Getting infected is bad, but then you get super-powers and that’s good, right? So we just take it as a given that this virus exists and does stuff and get on with trying to exploit it.
Now maybe that’s an intentional choice to keep you off-balance, but another part of me feels like some cinematics simply got the chop and our incomplete picture is accidental. Nobody needs that plot nonsense, just keep throwing the Glaive! Whoosh!
(… Didn’t Pariah‘s plot seem to lurch about in a slightly disconnected way too?)
I think I would call this sort of game “over-designed”. Manicured. Streamlined. Curated to within an inch of its life. Every piece of level geometry has a purpose; there are no extraneous corners, shortcuts or alternate routes. Every boss has a single weakness that must be exploited to defeat it. Every locked door has precisely one key. It feels less like an adventure you’re embarking on than simply following a set of rails.
That’s not to say that I don’t enjoy following the rails — most of my favourite games are narrative-led singleplayer adventures after all — but I guess I prefer them to be a little bit less obvious. (Would I enjoy a film of Dark Sector? Quite probably; its plot is exactly the right shape despite its absences.)
In conclusion… Dark Sector is not a game to shout about, but nor is it one to erase from existence. Sounds like progress to me.