For those who missed out on Gears of War, Dark Sector has been quite a talking point - a similar style of "hiding from and then shooting, monsters" gameplay, and some stylish graphics to boot. It is available on both the Xbox 360 and the PS3, so this time the experience is open to all, but I have been spending time with the PS3 version in particular.
The story has more than a touch of Resident Evil about it - a virus that mutates humans has somehow found its way into the world. This time it is not an evil corporation to blame but our old friends from Soviet Russia. As the main protagonist, you find yourself infected and stranded after a mission to get the man behind it all goes wrong. This virus then mutates you, and gives you steadily increasing powers as the game goes on.
As discussed, the game is mostly Gears of War-style running to cover and shooting enemies from there. However, the main difference is the choice of weapons. The first mutation you receive means that the character (somewhat bizarrely) grows a "glaive" out of his right hand - a cross between a ninja's throwing star and a boomerang. This weapon soon becomes your best friend, and it is aimed and fired in a similar way to any gun by holding and releasing R2.
The glaive can also pick up "elements" that it comes into contact with, such as fire, ice and electricity. These cause extra damage when attacking an enemy, and certain enemies are more vulnerable to certain elements. However, the elements are mostly used for in-game puzzles. You might need to hit an old switch with some electricity to get it to function and open the door, for example.
You soon also learn the "Aftertouch" ability. Once the glaive is in flight, another press of R2 allows you to control the flight path. On the PS3, this is done with the motion sensor on the controller. It is hard to get right, and leaves you vulnerable to fire when using it, but it is used here and there for the puzzle sections. It is just another weapon in your arsenal if you so choose to use it.
You also have a pistol at your disposal, which works very well in tandem with the glaive. One hit from the glaive can be quickly followed up by a couple of shots with the pistol, finishing off any wounded enemies. Of course, the glaive is perfectly capable of slicing off limbs or decapitating enemies if it hits them in the right place, so this is not always required.
At first, you need to escape from an abandoned city. Abandoned apart from the soldiers who are intent on "clean-up" (shooting anything that moves) and the former citizens in the first stages of infection, basically zombies. After the first few levels, some more mutated beings appear here and there, having developed much more destructive abilities. You will also come across the soldiers actually fighting the mutants themselves - in this case, you have the option of sitting back and watching the fireworks, and then picking off the survivors. In a nice touch, when the soldiers see you during such a stand-off, they will not target you any more so than the other mutants, to them, you are just another infected civilian wandering the streets, no more important than the others. Of course, they soon learn their mistake.
Of all of the enemies, the soldiers provide the most interesting challenge, as they will hide behind cover and move tactically towards you. You can also use their own weapons against them, the glaive has a boomerang function that allows you to pick up any dropped guns and use them for a short period of time (the soldiers' weapons all have a mutant "sensor" that causes them to burn out if in contact with a mutant for too long). This allows for all variety of machine guns, shotguns, and rifles to find their way into your hands.
The more advanced mutants have ranged attacks but no weapons to grab, but also provide different challenges such as invisibility or extreme agility. The zombies are probably the least fun to fight, however. They flood you and it is just a case of "fire at will" and hoping you take them down before they reach you.
You also have the option of melee combat, but unfortunately I found this part of the game to fall down a bit. You only have one melee attack, used by pressing Circle, and it doesn't always connect when it seems like it should on-screen. If you hit an enemy, sometimes it will glow red and you can finish him off with a fairly graphic "finisher". On the other hand, often this opportunity will not come. It is frustratingly unclear as to why you sometimes get this option and sometimes you do not.
In between these "standard" enemies are a few bosses. These can be mega-machines run by the government forces, or particularly tough mutants. Each of these bosses has a specific trick needed to take it out. These tricks strike a pretty good balance between overly simple and frustratingly difficult, and I found each encounter added some welcome flavour to the game.
The environments certainly add to the experience - wading through abandoned urban wastelands, train depots, and the odd ship here and there - and the overall feel of urban decay is brought across very well. The only gripes I had were with the sections where you walked down an empty corridor that felt overly long. Clearly disguising some loading times, but it is as good a way as any to do it.
The graphics overall are as good as anything else around at the moment, a bit of slowdown when any fire was on the screen, but it held up well against standard gameplay, even with lots of enemies at once. Some of the mutant powers have some very nice effects which come across well, such as the fading in and out of invisibility. The sound also deserves a mention, there are always screeching and moaning noises audible, even when no enemies are around, and this makes for a very atmospheric setting.
Finally, there is the "collectibles" - you will find stacks of money lying around, which you can collect for use in the "black market". Every now and then you come across a manhole which is the entrance to a store. You can buy new guns of all sorts which won't "burn out". You can also find upgrades strewn across the streets, which if applied in the shop will improve your own guns' power in various ways.
In the end, the game was about the right length, certainly more so than Gears of War's pitifully short story. However, the gameplay stayed the same all the way through - towards the end, it felt like going over more of what you just finished. The combat is enjoyable, particularly against the government soldiers, but the game would have definitely benefited immensely from a more solid melee mechanic and a bit more variety here and there. Then again some stylish and innovative ranged combat mechanics more than make up for this, so I heartily recommend this game for anyone waiting for Gears of War 2.