Dark Sector, and Poor Game Design

May 19th, 2008 by Tommy Gun

darksector_1.jpgMy roommate just signed up for GameFly, and got Dark Sector. I was never really all that interested in the game, but I figured I might as well play it since he’s only renting it. I’m not going to write a full review since I haven’t finished it (and probably never will), but I want to talk about a few things. For the record, I got to chapter 7 (out of 10) before I stopped playing.

Quick Thoughts

Dark Sector isn’t a terrible game if you’re a fan of the genre, but there are a lot of weaknesses. Enemies respawn far too often, which amounts to you ducking behind a wall for ten minutes shooting the same enemies. It copies Gears of War too much, including things that don’t make sense: as GiantBomb pointed out, your running and sprinting speed is the same as GoW — which makes no sense here as Hayden (your character) is a skinny guy, not a giant man in armor.

The “glaive” is great, and is one of the only things that sets this game apart. It’s a blade that acts as a boomerang; throw it to slice enemies in half, and it’ll come back to you. You’ll gain an “aftertouch” ability which lets you slow down time and actually direct the glaive mid-flight, which is what I spent most of the game doing.

Aside from that it’s a pretty standard shooter.

Poor Game Design

Countless times throughout the game I found myself wandering around wondering what I was supposed to do next to proceed. The game is terrible about giving you any sort of direction, and assumes you know what to do or where to go despite never “teaching” you anything.

Example 1: You come to an area where there’s a door on the other side of a locked fence. You need to throw your glaive over the fence, then use aftertouch to steer the glaive down and hit a button to open the gate. Sounds fine, but there are a few problems when actually playing the game for the first time.

  1. You have no idea you’re supposed to go through that door in the first place.
  2. The game has never taught you that you can hit a button with your glaive (and at this point in the game I don’t think you’ve ever even seen those buttons before).
  3. The button isn’t very obvious.

I figured that part out fairly quickly, but I play a lot of games so I know the drill. Valve has a three step approach they use in games like Half-Life. First they teach you the basic mechanic (button opens door), then they give you an easy puzzle using the same mechanic to make sure you know it, and then they give you a tough puzzle with it. Dark Sector really needs something like that.

As for #1, that’s a big problem with Dark Sector. In other games you’ll have radar, text telling you what to do, or some guy on the radio giving you instructions like, “find a way into the compound!” This game has none of those, so you’re left to search a bunch of boring rooms to find where to go.

Example 2: At the start of a checkpoint, you find yourself in a room with a turret that shoots rockets. You gain a new ability: a temporary bubble shield around you. The game tells you that it can reflect rockets to wherever you’re aiming. Okay, I try aiming at the turret to blow it up. Doesn’t work. I try aiming at various walls or doors to find a way out. Doesn’t work. The game keeps telling me I can reflect rockets with my shield. I’m trying!

There is another room you can go into, but it has some ammo and that’s about it. Oh — and it also has a door you simply have to walk through to load the next section. Wait, what about that turret? Apparently (after just now reading an FAQ), there was in fact a door I needed to blow up to get out of that first room — I guess when I tried to blow up the turret it also hit the door. The problem was that I had no idea I blew up a door, and the “tutorial text” still kept popping up telling me to use my shield. It was completely misleading and made me think I still needed to do something with it. As for the other room, well there are a lot of those in the game; side rooms that contain ammo and nothing else, so I didn’t think that was the way out.

Again, a small radar would have been perfect here. Not a map, just a little blip telling me the direction I was supposed to go in. It would have led me to the other room with the door out. It’s not that I spent an hour reflecting rockets or anything, I found the other door after a couple minutes; it’s just bad design.

Example 3 (minor spoilers): The first real boss you run into climbs up the walls and throws rocks at you. I figured out the first part quickly: throw your glaive into the fire, then hit the boss with it to make him drop down. Now he’s on the ground for a few seconds where you can…shoot him? Glaive him? I tried both those things for a while, but the boss doesn’t have a health bar, and there’s no indication that shooting him isn’t working! A simple “bullets bouncing off” sound effect would have been sufficient to let me know I was taking the wrong approach.

Eventually I figured out that you’re supposed to run up to him when he’s on the ground, and initiate a Quick Time Event (series of button presses, a la God of War). In retrospect I realize he was flashing red when on the ground, which, if you’ve performed a “finisher” on a normal enemy, you would know means you can hit a button. But the game never taught you that, and I didn’t know that at the time. I only know that now after playing the game for a while and figuring it out. Perhaps the manual mentions it, but I don’t have it (GameFly remember), and games should not require manuals. Also, what if you’re playing this game as a shooter? Then you never would have gotten close enough to perform a finisher.

There’s a difference between hand-holding and teaching you how to play a game. The former is annoying, the latter is a necessity. Dark Sector could learn a thing or two from Valve.

Improvements

For me, the glaive was the only thing that kept me playing as long as I did. As it stands, the game is pretty forgettable, but there are some things that could have made it much more interesting and fun.

Increase the speed
Hayden is a small guy, let him run quickly around the levels slicing enemies up.
Add more hand-to-hand combat
Give Hayden more up-close glaive moves, and focus less on the boring shooting.
More glaive puzzles
There are some interesting puzzles in the game, but not enough. If they teach you how to use the glaive in strange ways, then they can throw some complicated puzzles at you.

To be honest, if they removed the guns completely (and adjusted the levels to make up for it), I would have enjoyed it much more.

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