If you want to see how the game is shaping up, head over to our Dark Sector video preview, where you'll find tonnes of direct feed footage captured from the PlayStation 3 version of the game.
Other than a brief look at the game during last year's Games Convention Leipzig, the last time we had a proper look at Digital Extremes' Dark Sector was eleven months ago. Back then it was shaping up to be a solid entry in the third-person action genre, but it was too early to tell exactly how well it would turn out. Now we've gone hands-on with four levels from the Xbox 360 and PS3 versions of the game, and Digital Extremes might have its first hit game in years.
Great opening levels are underestimated in video games, but they're key to hooking you in. Dark Sector has one of the most memorable opening levels I've played in a long time. It hasn't really got anything to do with the gameplay on offer - it's essentially Gears of War in a new skin - but the way it's presented. The opening level is black and white, and it looks gorgeous. Such a simple graphical technique probably shouldn't have had such a strong impact, but the crisp visuals and strong lighting look stunning without a drop of colour in sight.
All this changes though. As I said, the opening level is very Gears of War. Lead character Hayden Tenno, a hit-man for the CIA, can hug walls, pop out from cover, switch from one area of cover to another and leap over small barriers. I was half expecting an Active Reload system to pop up when pressing the Xbox 360 controller's Right Bumper, but I'm pleased it didn't. Towards the end of this level you face off against an attack helicopter before having a rocket turned on you by a metal guy with some extraordinary powers. From here things get weird.
Cue your capture by the enemy and the infection (seen in the metal guy) being spread to you. You're now able to use a boomerang-like weapon called a glaive, a spinning blade that can slice people up and home in on ammo and other pick-ups scattered through the levels. A handy tool for a half mutated man on the run from enemies to have and the weapon that looks to set Dark Sector apart from Gears of War.
Even once the glaive becomes an option you're still able to use a plethora of weapons, dropped by enemies or left in the environment. By mapping the glaive to Right Bumper and weapon fire to Right Trigger you can use both together, although early on the glaive's power leaves a lot to be desired. The cutscene directly after you learn about your new abilities sees an unaware guard's head being sliced clean off by the spinning weapon, but in practice enemies required two strikes before falling - that is until you start accurately aiming for the head. Soon enough you'll also be able to fire off a charged glaive attack that inflicts more damage, and learn to boomerang the glaive around the screen by moving to another position while the glaive is airborne.
It's hard to say how the glaive will evolve throughout the game, but early on its abilities are enhanced fairly regularly. On top of the power throw you get the ability to manually guide its path (hold Right Bumper after you've released the glaive), useful for taking out enemies and for targeting awkwardly placed switches. At this early stage I'm not totally sold on the glaive as a weapon. Although it's undeniably powerful and cool to use, in the early levels I used a trusty gun far more often than I anticipated. The glaive's ability to take on other properties will no doubt come into play later on. We've seen the glaive become icy, electrified and catch on fire, although we haven't seen a truly ingenious use yet.
Hayden's melee attack is also a viable alternate attack and can be used in combination with the glaive to perform some deadly finishing moves. One hit with the glaive will stun an enemy, leaving them open for a body slicing glaive finisher or a silent neck break. At the moment the control system and focus on glaive combat does seem to fall down slightly when a lot of enemies are rushing at you, but hopefully this can be tuned through playtesting ahead of the April 4 release date. Human enemies also have a tendency to overuse grenades. It's a good technique to flush you out from cover, but repeatedly having grenades thrown at your feet soon becomes annoying.
In what is similar to the trader in Resident Evil 4, although not nearly as mobile (that guy popped up all over the place) you can use money gathered throughout the game to buy new weapons. Upgrades acquired through pick-ups can also be equipped at these underground stores and you can sell unwanted items or store anything you don't currently need. Buying a secondary weapon to go with your pistol is essential as any weapons dropped by enemies can only be used for so long. These weapons can recognise the infection that you have and shut down after a short period - not ideal when you're trying to take out a group of shielded grunts.
Despite being very much still a work in progress, it's easy to be impressed by the visuals on offer in Dark Sector. Created with Digital Extremes' own Evolution Engine, and not Unreal Engine 3, the game has a crispness that we don't always see and a level of detail in the character models and environments that can match the best on offer. The in-engine cutscenes also look spectacular, with the opening cinematic looking so good I didn't realise that the camera could be controlled. It's easy to take next-gen visuals for granted these days, but for a game not due out until April, Dark Sector is looking very good indeed - on both systems. Hopefully the fairly inconsistent frame rate and the odd bit of tearing will be cleaned up before it hits stores.
Of equal importance is the audio work. For a game that isn't coming from one of the big publishers you might be expecting this side of the production to slip into cheesy territory, but that's not the case so far. Lead character Hayden is voiced by Michael Rosenbaum (Lex from Smallville) and first impressions are very positive. Who knows what kind of hammy acting we'll be forced to endure later on, but Rosenbaum is certainly a good choice for the leading man. The game will also include a couple of online multiplayer game modes, but we can't talk about those just yet - expect more info in the coming weeks.
Dark Sector has been in development for a long time and this April we'll see if it's been worth the wait. Based on the levels we played it's got a good chance of appealing to the action crowd and its similarities to Gears of War (although Digital Extremes are right to point out that this was in development well before Gears) should work in its favour. How well the glaive performs later in the game and the interest generated from the plot will dictate just how good Dark Sector turns out to be. Look out for a full review near the game's early April release date.