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Dark Sector (Xbox 360) artwork

Dark Sector (Xbox 360) review

"There are countless ways to kill your enemies in Dark Sector. Most of them involve the glaive, and all of them end with a splash of fresh, juicy meat."

Sometimes you can have it both ways. Dark Sector really, really wants to be Gears of War, but it also wants to be a game about a guy who slices people’s limbs off with a large circular blade. It does reasonably well with both.

The game was banned in Australia for gratuitous graphic violence, and while I’ve played gorier games, few seem to truly relish in their carnage like Dark Sector. The protagonist’s main method of attack is the glaive, a round, three-pronged weapon that is as deadly at long range as it is up close. In addition to the usual set of guns, Hayden can throw the blade in the heat of battle and watch as it effortlessly cuts through any particularly fleshy targets before pulling a U-turn and soaring back into the hand of its master like a boomerang. There are countless ways to kill your enemies in Dark Sector. Most of them involve the glaive, and all of them end with a splash of fresh, juicy meat.

You’ll gain a number of nifty abilities for your glaive as you progress through Dark Sector’s seven- or eight-hour campaign. One of the first is something called “aftertouch,” which allows the player to slow down time in the middle of a throw and pilot the airborne glaive, preferably through your enemies’ body parts. I don’t care if it makes me a bad person – there’s something undeniably satisfying about guiding an enormous whirring blade through a soldier’s thigh in slow motion, leaving the poor sap screaming and clutching the bloody stump where his leg used to be as the glaive returns to your hand and your eyes shift toward your next victim. Achievements like the self-explanatory Double Decap Latte are only a swing away.

The glaive can deliver the goods without ever leaving Hayden’s hand. Approach a goon who’s utterly unaware of your existence and be given the opportunity to take him out stealthily – the bastard will lose his head before he knew what hit him. Or you can weaken your foe and close in for a short-range finisher, as Hayden harshly breaks his enemy’s arm before carving a clean slice across the man’s neck. One of the glaive’s most useful features is the ability to absorb certain elements and use them for attack. This mechanic plays a hand in some light puzzle-solving elements – like using an electrically-charged glaive to power a mechanical door – but it’s most enjoyable in combat. Avoiding a lethal confrontation with a group of bloodthirsty zombie-like critters by setting them ablaze with a flaming glaive is one of many priceless Dark Sector moments.

I’m not going to lie here: The glaive is what makes Dark Sector fun. Without it, the game would barely have enough to emerge from an ever-growing crowd of generic sci-fi shooters. The campaign is framed with a rather perfunctory alternate-reality storyline involving a deadly virus that broke out during the Cold War and is still a major threat in the modern world. It’s an adventure that takes the player through a few too many dilapidated, war-torn cityscapes and dank sewers for my taste, even if all of Dark Sector’s environments are rendered with the highest of current-gen capabilities. But the glaive is a wholly original and darkly satisfying asset that turns a would-be me-too shooter into something that's actually worth playing. The glaive is what makes Dark Sector work.

I say the game wants to be Gears of War, and boy does it ever. The controls are virtually identical, right down to the cover system that Gears is so famous for. The idea is that when the bullets starting flying, you need to find some sort of object for cover – walls, pillars, crates, barrels, concrete barriers, whatever – and pin yourself up against it until it’s safe to poke your head out and trade shots with your opposition. You can stick with your basic guns, of course (the game even features a black market and upgrade system to remind you that, hey, this is a shooter we’re talking about), but mostly you’ll just stick with the trusty circular weapon that seems permanently welded to Hayden’s right hand.

The cover mechanic worked well in Gears because that game’s enemies would play strategically, and every gunfight would become a constant struggle for territory as the two sides would continuously try to outflank one another. The AI in Dark Sector is perfectly adequate but not so tactical. Your foes are consistently moving but never making any real progress, and the cover mechanic becomes more of a defensive maneuver than an integral element in the design. As a result, battles wind up feeling kind of like excerpts from a more interactive light gun game, with the same peak-and-shoot gameplay as featured in such titles as Time Crisis. That’s fine, and in shooter terms Dark Sector already packs more depth than most of its competition. It’s clear, though, that the title can’t quite rise to the heights of the game it’s obviously trying to mimic.

Where developer Digital Extremes tosses the cover system altogether is in those segments of the campaign that involve enemies too brain-dead to be worth such a hassle. The virus in question turns those infected into metallic, zombie-like creatures, and where Dark Sector is at its weakest is when it attempts to be something it’s not – survival horror. Hacking through waves of mindless, mutated freaks can be fun in short bursts, and is made all the more gratifying by Dark Sector’s relentless gore factor. But a few such instances go too far, so far that not even a sea of inky-black blood can halt the tedium.

What Dark Sector needs is a way to limit such survival horror-like sequences in a way that complements the game’s better moments instead of attempting to overpower them. I found myself chugging through the game’s more repetitive levels not because I was having fun, but simply to get back to the more enjoyable bits. Because when Dark Sector pushes the zombies aside and sticks to its most basic shooter roots, it’s a blast.

Suskie's avatar
Staff review by Mike Suskie (April 10, 2008)

Mike Suskie is a freelance writer who has contributed to GamesRadar and has a blog. He can usually be found on Twitter at @MikeSuskie.

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