Dark Sector, released nearly 12 years ago in March of 2008, is a game I think about a lot. Which is to say, given the minimal thinking I'm able to do in a day, I think about Dark Sector most of the time. For a few reasons! Honestly, the biggest one being that it reminds me in ways of my beloved Metal Gear, which both is and isn't a fabrication of my memory of the game. I played it those years ago when it came out, and pretty much haven't touched it since. Until now.
Perusing the mall's GameStop before whatever movie I was catching that day (it might have been Bad Boys for Life? A movie that features a gun-toting Martin Lawrence justifying said toting with claims of Christian fervor. There's stuff to unpack there, people), I happened upon a pristine PS3 copy of Dark Sector for a measly $1.99. I mean, I had to get it! I've purged the vast majority of my Xbox 360 software, where I originally played the game, and so, despite the frequency with which it crossed my mind, I didn't actually own Dark Sector.
So I've been replaying it, which has been a sort of hilarious experience following my 90+ hours with Death Stranding, a game so meticulous and nuanced in its attempts to elevate the medium that a good 'ol kill-em-all like Dark Sector feels oddly pure in contrast. But for as much as I ultimately enjoyed Digital Extreme's action romp, Hayden Tenno and his killer frisbee have not aged well, leading me to wonder whether the Eastern European excursion was ever truly the killer quarantine I remembered. But first, backing up a smidge.
Dark Sector, if you weren't aware, is a third-person shooter/action game in which you're Hayden Tenno, a CIA wetworks operative imperializing about in the fictional Eastern Bloc country of Lasria, a stand-in for any number of post-Soviet countries in which war and a sudden collapse left things in shambles. Ripe for some good old-fashioned American interventionism! On assignment to track down biochemist and terrorist Robert Mezner, Hayden navigates the barren streets of Lasria--currently a warzone in which Mezner's Technocyte virus runs rampant. Bloody bodies pile up in biohazard bags while fascistic soldiers, looking like a fusion of Half-Life's Combine and the Helghast of Killzone, patrol the streets. And your typical mutant monsters, of course.
Hayden, assailed by a humanoid metal monster of Mezner's manipulation, is infected with the virus. Surprise suckers! Hayden is affected with rare and absolute congenital analgesia, rendering him unable to feel pain. Surviving the trauma of infection, Hayden mutates, grows a metal monster arm, and sprouts a bladed frisbee he can throw and recall like a boomerang.
Defying logic, I want to jump past Dark Sector's grim biohorror aesthetic to talk about Lil Hayden's problems; I want to end this revisit still liking Dark Sector! In 2008 I think it's fair to say a lot of us were pretty into that there Gears of War. Releasing in 2006, Epic Games' curb-stomping saga had a major sequel on the horizon when Dark Sector sauntered into town, and everyone was pretty much down for the cover-based third-person shooter. Gears of War is one of the most influential games of the 2000's, and a frankly incredible series. This I will not waver from. But like anything, it came from somewhere. That somewhere, I think most will agree, is a little game called Resident Evil 4. Rebooting the unquestionably iconic horror franchise, Capcom popularized the "over-the-shoulder" third-person shooting we know and love today, exploring a dire European countryside blasting helpless Spaniards as Leon S Kennedy, AKA "Should Have Been a Model." Call it revenge for Cortez killing all those American natives.
Anyway, Gears of War and Resident Evil 4 before it revolutionized third-person action games in the way we controlled characters, with Gears introducing the rock-solid roll-into-cover system that still feels tight and weighty to this day. Dark Sector, trying its infected hand, takes a lot from both of these games.
Hayden can roll and dive into cover, locking onto pillars and corners from which he can peek out and pop off a few shots or toss his frisbee (Dark Sector calls the bladed frisbee the "Glaive." I'm going to keep calling if the bladed frisbee.) at his gasmask-clad tormenters. You can acquire rubles and deal with a shady merchant ("What'reya buyin'?"), perform execution moves on injured foes (I will never forget the way Gears of War scarred [and bettered?] me by allowing me to curb stomp downed enemies), and generally perform tasks the way we'd come to expect from games like this. It followed a mold that was quite established already in 2008.
So Dark Sector is a bit of an imitator. Who isn't! To level any criticism retroactively for the ways the game steals from the best would be a mistake. However, whereas both Gears of War and the fourth Resident Evil deliver the same thrills today as they did all those years ago, Dark Sector might not cut the mustard in that regard. Hayden is... floaty. He's a featherweight. He's goshdarn ethereal, is what he is. Controlling Hayden (note also that everytime I type "Hayden" I need to correct myself from typing "Holden" in some weird flashback to a Catcher in the Rye essay) can feel like all of Lasria's dilapitated streets have been renovated and repurposed as ice skating rinks in some mass appeal to the Russians and their love of ice hockey. Hayden slips and slides around, rolls into cover with the grace of a toddler learning to fall, and waves his pistol around with the abandon of an American police officer. Ouch. Really though, the gunplay in Dark Sector is no bueno, with impacts hardly registering beyond the splashes of crimson and the decidedly-popguntastic sound effects. And actually aiming is the most peculiar chore, with the squeeze of a trigger to steady your aim dialing down movement to a crawl on consoles, making for tracking enemies an ordeal. It just don't feel great.
Hayden's cutty-frisbee fares a little better, with gradual upgrades allowing the player to control the spinning death-dealer mid-flight in slow-motion (how many dashes can this van der Meer use?) to direct your blades to the nearest enemy face. Still, the throw of the discus can sometimes feel like any old firearm, only one closer to the rifles in Barry Lyndon where guys would shoot, miss, and then politely load their ball and powder while angrily staring down their enemy. Well Ryan O'Neil ain't here to save your ass, Tenno. Gradually the frisbee powers up even further, able to acquire elemental powers which open up some combat and light-puzzling options; torch your bio-boomerang so you can burn away all that yucky black infection-goop blocking your path! It won't take a rocket scientist to finish Dark Sector, but it's a nice effort. More frustrating though is the arbitrary nature of so many of these upgrades, with Hayden literally approaching a courtyard for an enemy encounter only to pause abruptly, the game giving a little shout that hey, you can kill guys in a slightly new way now. The leaps of logic bleed over to some of Dark Sector's structural issues as well.
The aforementioned courtyard brawls that comprise much of the game's hurdles can feel like a return to a simpler time, if you're feeling generous, or an antiquated slog through history if not. Dark Sector has a lot of moments where the doors are locked and Hayden's got to clean house for maybe ten minutes, face an onslaught of enemies, and move on until--wait! We've got some more meat to throw at ya! Not to mention moments of infinitely-respawning enemies, tethering your progress until some minor puzzle is acknowledged, and my return to Dark Sector feels like a return to Middle School.
The jagged pacing extends to the story as well, which is where Dark Sector will ultimately redeem itself in my mind. But truly, we're thrown curveballs of pacing that just don't make a whole lotta sense. Enemy varieties appear at random, with little fanfare in poorly-designed encounters. Outta nowhere Hayden is confronted with a menacing quadripedal Jackal mech, and one can only assume that the RPGs littering the yard will eventually take the metal monster down after it's pelted with enough of them. It's a basic solution that results in a boss fight not fun to play, given an introduction that is anything but elegant.
Elegant is not Hayden's middle name, is basically what the takeaway here should be. Dark Sector is a bit of a messy game, and for many that would spell doom. Not for a fool like I! Dark Sector has haunted my memory for all these years not for how much fun I had hurling capgun slugs into endless waves of mutants. Instead I remembered Dark Sector as a grim, biotech-horror-military-thing, recalling everything from Resident Evil (hey!) to Children of Men (huh?), with my aforementioned, beloved Metal Gear (what?) wrapping it all up. An explanation:
Metal Gear--sorry, Hideo Kojima's Metal Gear has become a point of obsession for me because of its collision of military fiction, hard-sci-fi, and social speculation. Dark Sector has... maybe one of those? In my mind, Sector's world of biotech-gone-awry, suffused with quadripedal mechs and some supersoldier initiatives coupled with the bleak Eastern Bloc scenario cemented itself as Metal Gearesque in my memory, something not entirely disproven in this recent revisit. At least superficially, the game begins with Hayden Tenno, masked in his operative garb, kneeling down to answer a radio.
Know who else kneels and answers a radio? Solid goshdarn Snake. (Actually the image in my mind coalescing with that kneel/answer is Naked Snake in Metal Gear Solid 3, but poe-tay-toe pah-tah-toe right?)
Straws. I'm grasping at straws.
But the point is, Dark Sector does in fact go for an aesthetic, one that might easily read as generic to some, but really stuck with me. The dehumanized soldiers, cloaked head-to-toe in shiny rubber suits and the near-future tech battling it out on the streets. It's at least a cool concept to think about, even if Sector's gameplay doesn't, say it with me now, cut the mustard. Even the abrupt story beats, lame side characters, and hilariously noncommittal ending are mediocre, it's the atmosphere that permeates Dark Sector that make it an aesthetically-worthwhile production.
So with all that, it's been real Dark Sector! See you in another 12 years! Actually though, I finished this replay about a week ago (if there are any annoying inconsistencies in my tenses here, play/played, that kind of thing, forgive me; started writing this up and got sidetracked with wild-drab life) and am kind of ready to revisit Dark Sector as an easy zone-out experience, which is maybe what this game is for me. I'm someone who can become so caught up in planning what to play, worrying about how long something might be, whether I'll get bored of it, this that or another, that sometimes actually playing the darn game becomes a chore. And that, friends, is not something you want to reach.
Dark Sector, for its technical inadequacies, kept me entertained. And it gives me a whole lot of cool stuff to think about when I'm not playing it! I'm paraphrasing Ethan Hawke who's paraphrasing Paul Schrader in saying that a really good movie "starts" as you're walking out of the theater. Meaning whoa, I'm going to be thinking about this for a long, long time. Is Dark Sector a really good game? Probably not! And yet it's one that I think about all the darn time. Maybe now you will too!