Dark Sector has come a long way since it was unveiled back in 2004 as the first game in development for then-unidentified next-generation hardware. After the game was revealed to be in production on both the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3--and then went on to shed its previous ninja-in-space milieu for a grittier and decidedly more terrestrial third-person shooter experience--developer Digital Extremes began to refine Dark Sector's mixture of combat mechanics into a more cohesive (and hopefully, equally unique) whole. We finally got to put our hands on a controller and try out the game for ourselves as we played through a brief demo level that seemed to give a wide sampling of the different kinds of gameplay you'll find when it is released early next year.
As we've covered before, Dark Sector revolves around Hayden Tenno, an elite and covert CIA operative whose arm is grotesquely mutated as he explores a contaminated former Soviet state called Lasria. Tenno is up against a host of even more gruesomely deformed beasts, as well as a shadowy paramilitary force that wants to control these mutants, so it won't be easy for you to survive. Luckily, Tenno's mutation will come pretty darn in handy; it has birthed the glaive, a spinning, bladed weapon that pops right out of Hayden's arm, and which can be flung at enemies much like a boomerang. The glaive will be useful in all kinds of tight spots, some of which are actually less combat-oriented and more of the puzzle-solving variety.
Rest assured, though, you'll be embedding the glaive in plenty of flesh. Dark Sector plays a lot like Resident Evil 4 or Gears of War, in that you play from the third-person perspective and then go into a tighter, over-the-shoulder view to aim and fire your weapons. You can throw the glaive from the hip, either blindly while moving around or with more precision through the aiming perspective. But the most useful way to employ the glaive is as a target-seeking projectile that can take out multiple enemies in a single throw. You can quickly lock onto each enemy within your view by painting them with the targeting reticle, and then loose the glaive to have it strike all the targets you locked in, after which it returns to your hand. It's a lot like the multi-lock-on shooting in games like Panzer Dragoon. When combat heats up, you'll need to master this technique so you can quickly deal with more than one enemy simultaneously. (You can rest assured they won't be lining up so you can deal with them one at a time, after all.)
The demo saw us guiding Tenno through a ruined Eastern European city, facing off primarily against the jackbooted paramilitary soldiers, but also occasionally taking on mutant, zombie-like creatures. We got a chance to check out the glaive's other interesting property here, which is the ability to absorb certain kinds of energy for a short time. Throw it into a ruined light socket and it will become electrified, allowing you to zap any enemies you hit until the electricity runs out a few seconds later. This is where the glaive will help in solving some environmental puzzles. We ran up against an elevator shaft overrun with thick vines at one point. To clear out the shaft and ascend to the next floor, we had to find a flammable gas leak elsewhere in the level, fire at it with our weapon to set it on fire, then throw the glaive to catch a little of the flame for our purposes. Then it was only a matter of running back to the elevator before the fire died out and flinging it into the vines to burn them up and gain access upstairs.
As mentioned, the glaive won't be your only means of offense (though it's the most important one). The many soldiers you'll fight do carry all sorts of nice, high-tech weaponry--but alas, you won't put it to much use, since all these guns are equipped with DNA scanners that will disable them after just a few seconds. Luckily, you'll encounter a few underworld figures throughout the game that will gladly sell you black-market versions of all these weapons, with the DNA scanners removed, if you can muster enough cash. Digital Extremes says this is a sort of try-before-you-buy system, since you can briefly get a feel for each weapon before you decide which ones warrant coughing up the required number of credits (which themselves seem pretty scarce). And it seems like you'll occasionally need heavier ordinance anyway, since the demo wrapped up with the appearance of a gigantic demon boss character, a member of a group called the "old ones" that looked like it might laugh at your basic glaive attack.
Dark Sector's publisher D3 recently announced that the game's release would be pushed back to January of 2008, and it admirably admitted that the primary reason for this delay was simply to take the game out of a holiday release season already overflowing with Halos and Grand Theft Autos. The game is already visually quite impressive, with the custom-designed engine providing a number of nice effects, like light streaming through shuttered windows or a really disorienting color mix-up effect when you're hit by a gas grenade. We'll be curious to see how the solid visuals and various gameplay mechanics combine into a complete game next January.