The development of Dark Angel probably should have been cancelled at the same time as the television series on which it is based.
When Radical Entertainment began work on an Xbox adaptation of the sci-fi television series Dark Angel last year, the show was a hot property. The allure of sultry leading lady Jessica Alba and the presence of James Cameron as producer and cocreator turned it into a pop-culture phenomenon. But it didn't last. The show flared out in record time, vanishing from the airwaves for good last spring after just two seasons in production. Alba moved on to a movie career, and Cameron went back to polishing the Oscars he won for Titanic.
Radical, however, was stuck creating a game for a defunct TV show. And it shows. Although it's impossible to say whether or not the developers' morale was affected by the cancellation of the series, this third-person action adventure plays like it was cranked out to fulfill a contract. Gameplay is a mix of elements from the likes of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Splinter Cell, although Dark Angel lacks the enthusiasm of the former and the exacting challenge of the latter. The unfulfilling combat system and poorly implemented stealth mode turn up the frustration factor to a level where even the most die-hard Alba fan will turn back to reruns rather than finish this game.
About the only aspects of Dark Angel that might hold a fan's interest are the story and setting, which seem to have been lifted from the series in their entirety. You play as Alba's Max, a genetically engineered supersoldier looking to find her siblings and carve out a new life in postapocalyptic Seattle. Helping her in these tasks is Logan Cale, an "underground cyber-journalist" looking to expose corruption. The corruption that you're taking on here is the -I- Corporation, a company trying to speed along its research into genetic engineering by capturing Max, a prime specimen of such science.
However, the plot is meaningless once you start playing. Max is voiced by Alba, and series regular Michael Weatherly returns as Logan, but the story is so generic that the identities of the actors don't matter. Almost every level sees Max stranded in a run-down city district, with only occasional communiqués from Logan to assist her in getting to safety. Level design consists of little more than ruined streets, gates that can be opened with keycards, and barrels that must be blown up with a lighter to expose an exit. You always know exactly where to go and what to do. The developers practically lead you by the hand from one plot point to the next, going so far as to highlight the object you need to use whenever you get close to the location where you need to use it.
Also along for the ride is the usual assortment of bad guys ready to beat you into submission. Your best bet is of course to beat them up first, which is possible thanks to the initially intriguing combat system. As a supersoldier, Max can pull off a lot of comic-book moves. Along with basic punches and kicks, she can do flying backflips off walls, spinning uppercuts, roundhouse right crosses, and grappling maneuvers like a pro wrestler. Attacks are emphasized by the use of a Max Payne-like camera that freezes Max in midstride as she delivers a devastating flurry and then returns to regular speed as the victim is hurtled in the opposite direction.
But as engaging and as attractive as combat in Dark Angel can be in isolated instances, it never changes. Repetition is a big problem, and there is little challenge in fighting here. You can slap around virtually any enemy in the game in a one-on-one scrap, so most battles are wild melees where you're engaged with around half a dozen foes. Yet even these fights aren't much of a challenge. Combination moves are ridiculously easy to activate, as most involve nothing more elaborate than pressing the punch or kick button numerous times in succession. Employing the powerful spin uppercut, for example, takes just four quick presses of the punch button, while using the killer spin kick takes just four quick presses of the kick button. Although there are more elaborate combos available, especially when you whip Max into a fighting fury by maxing out the rage bar, you just don't need them to hammer the challengers into submission. Simply engaging in unthinking button mashing does just as good a job of taking out the bad guys as does executing planned moves. You get the feeling that Radical dumbed down the combat system for the benefit of those drawn to playing this game solely because of the Dark Angel license.