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Dark Sector can't escape the comparisons to other games. It's one part Gears of War and another part Resident Evil 4. Despite the fact that developer Digital Extremes has been quick to distance the game from these two modern classics, in many ways it's a good thing. With Gears of War's stunning visuals and cover system, and Resident Evil 4's modern take on survival horror working in tandem, surely Dark Sector is one of the best games of the year? But just how good is it?
Something Dark Sector doesn't really have going for it is a strong storyline, not that there wasn't potential for it to be pretty special. You play as Hayden Tenno, a hit-man for the CIA, who develops special powers after becoming 'infected'. New details are revealed and the story is fleshed out as you battle through hordes of mutated monsters, hundreds of suited up soldiers (they all wear yellow boiler suits), chain-gun carrying robots and more. It's never a dull experience, that's for sure, and the environments are often quite stunning, but the story comes and goes without making the impact it could have.
As well as using standard weapons Hayden has access to a spinning blade known as the glaive. On the Xbox 360 (the primary version we played) you fire the glaive by hitting the Right Bumper on the controller. If you've got time and want to behead a hiding enemy you can pull up the aiming reticule and aim exactly for the neck, but freely firing in the rough direction is also extremely handy, especially during the more intense fights against wave after wave of the Infected.
What makes the glaive so special though is its range of abilities and uses. A simple throw is just the beginning. Early on you'll learn the power throw, which effectively takes out enemies in a single hit if you time the release properly, and the ability to follow its flight and manipulate its movement enables you to target enemies hiding behind corners. How about using it to pick up ammo left in dangerous enemy-filled areas? Just target the ammo with the glaive and it's delivered straight to you.
But that's not your lot either. Your glaive can be thrown into objects to take on certain properties, be it fire, electric or ice. See a burning car and a horde of stampeding Infected? No problem. Simply throw the glaive into the fire, then target the enemies and watch them burn. Numerous mild puzzles are built around this mechanic and it adds far more to the gameplay than you might imagine. What's more, eventually you're able to effectively detonate the glaive mid-flight, sending a wave of fire, electric or ice into the surrounding area - great for taking down numerous enemies at once.
Add to these the general abilities you have, including the bubble shield, and being able to fire the glaive and a pistol at the same time (switching between the glaive and a more powerful weapon takes time), and you've got a game that gives you all the tools of destruction that you'll ever need. In the second half of the game, when the enemies become stronger and your abilities are nearing their peak, you'll become a half-mutated-man killing machine, capable of tearing through Infected like no tomorrow, setting them up and then performing brutal finishing moves from close quarters. It can get very intense at times and occasionally overwhelming, but the combat alone makes Dark Sector worth experiencing.
Although very Gears of War in terms of the cover system used, it's sadly not nearly as smooth. It's by no means bad, and certainly does its job, but Gears gives you more options while in cover and Hayden is often a little sluggish coming out of cover. Where it easily beats Gears, though, is in boss battles. You'll encounter arena-like end of level bosses fairly regularly and they're great fun - although not without their annoyances. The biggest problem is how little feedback they give, meaning it's hard to tell if what you're doing is killing them or just temporarily disabling them.
Other areas of the game don't quite work either. Underground black market traders offer you new guns, at a price, but I often found myself without the required funds to splash out on expensive new kit. The upgrades system, which lets you assign collected upgrade kits to free upgrade slots for each weapon, is let down by the inability to swap and change upgrades. Once you've added an upgrade to a weapon it's locked to it forever.
Dark Sector's campaign will last around 8-10 hours on your first play through, with a harder 'Brutal' mode unlocked upon completion. As well as being one of the most action packed games you'll play on the Xbox 360 or PS3, the campaign also serves as brilliant training for the online multiplayer modes. There are only two modes on offer, Epidemic and Infection, but both are worth spending some time with.
Epidemic is a team game, pitting five against five, with the twist being that only one member of each team plays as a super-powered Hayden - the others are standard soldiers. Kill the other team's Hayden first to win. Infection pits one Hayden against up to 9 standard soldiers, with the goal being for Hayden to kill as many of the soldiers as he can. With only one player able to use special powers it's a game of hunter and hunted and works really well when Hayden is played by someone with experience. Slightly disappointing is the lack of standard deathmatch and team deathmatch modes, but these could be added at a later date.
Both versions of Dark Sector look great and for the most part run at a nice frame rate. It's a shame neither manages to maintain the silky smooth motion seen during quiet periods, but the glorious architecture and abundance of screen-filling special effects are worth the compromise. When fighting against a gang of Infected, a couple of robots and an army of soldiers, few next-gen games look better. A few rough edges here and there and the odd low-polygon object are really all there is to moan about.
A special mention must also go to the audio, with the surround sound implementation being worthy of particular praise. The Infected sound brilliant and are truly terrifying when their screams are heard on a loud audio set-up.
Other than minor presentation differences between the Xbox 360 and PS3 games, the PS3 has Sixaxis motion control of precision glaive aiming and Entitlements, although the Xbox 360 game has marginally superior online functionality and Achievements. Rest assured that both games are very good.
Dark Sector's had a long development cycle and at times we were more than a little worried about how it'd turn out, but Digital Extreme's debut next-gen release has been well worth the wait. It's not going to set the world alight like Gears of War and it doesn't revolutionise survival horror like Resident Evil 4, but its thrilling combat and sensational visuals make it well worth adding to your collection.