The Double-A Team is a new feature series honouring the unpretentious, mid-budget, gimmicky commercial action games that no-one seems to make any more.
Last week, Christian Donlan went out on a limb with Bionic Commando. This week, we’re taking Dark Sector for a spin.
If Double-A games tend to be aimed at the sort of audiences who appreciate disreputable B-movies then Dark Sector scratches a very particular itch, using a very particular implement. Originally released in 2008, it is a perpetually overcast urban shooter with a luminescent sprinkling of sci-fi that clearly evolved in the broad-shouldered shadow of Gears of War, the chunky, in-yer-face triple-A champ of the era.
That explains why your screen surrogate Hayden Tenno – otherwise a physically svelte CIA neck-snapper with a surprisingly graceful diving dodge – has a barging roadie run complete with wobbly camera. It is hardly the best way to navigate the gulags, sewers and graveyards of Lasria, Dark Sector’s stereotypically blighted Soviet setting. Tenno is there to track down a rogue scientist and assess a mysterious techno-organic viral outbreak. While operating in the same grubby but cinematic milieu of Gears, Dark Sector has an extra trick up its sleeve. Or, more accurately, a tungsten death frisbee welded to the end of your infected arm.
If you want to put it this way – and, I really, really, really do – the relationship between the player and Tenno is weirdly comparable to that between Rihanna and Calvin Harris: they found glaive in a hopeless place. This spangly weapon – a killer disc formed of three wickedly sharp scythes, like the world’s most lethal 45rpm record adapter – is catnip for anyone who loved the feral kid’s killer silver boomerang in Mad Max 2 or was exposed to shonky sci-fi fairytale Krull at such an impressionable age they thought a gigantic homing throwing star was the coolest thing ever.
A Krull-style glaive is the sort of daft weapon that only really works in movies or games. In Dark Sector, it is a hungry sharpened Aerobie that you fling out into the world at enemy soldiers and mutated monsters only for it to unerringly snap back to your (thankfully now fortified) palm after completing its mutilating flightpath. There is a deeply satisfying snap and flex to the action, bolstered by a whirring sound effect and a squelchy clang on retrieval. You can even use it to hoover up ammo and items if you simply cannot be bothered roadie running over to where they have been dropped by your sliced-and-diced enemies.
Over the course of ten brisk chapters, Dark Sector remains a crunchy, decently-crafted shooter with spluttering SMGs, bucking miniguns, old-school rocket launchers and useful turrets. But while the gunplay is fitful, throwback fun, it feels like it’s always trying to nudge you toward Tenno’s signature weapon. A particularly punishing glaive strike can set up enemies for swift and bloody finishing moves, which helps speed things along. Guiding your glaive through flames, sparking electrics and other environmental hazards – Lasria’s utility companies seem to have taken their eye off the ball a bit during the outbreak – juices it up with elemental abilities to facilitate either heftier damage or some moderate puzzle-solving.
A decade on and a lot of this stuff feels like a time capsule. But unlike a lot of half-forgotten games eligible for Double-A status, Dark Sector has enjoyed a surprisingly rich and varied afterlife. Even while carving a path through Lasria, developers Digital Extremes always had its sights set on something much grander. The spirit of Dark Sector lives on in the thriving free-to-play shooter Warframe, a galaxy-spanning far-future space shooter where an ancient humanoid race called the Tenno plug into bio-mech avatars to blast various futuristic interlopers. As Warframe continues to expand, Dark Sector could claim to be the most successful Double-A game of all time, or at least the one with the most fruitful lineage. But personally, I still prefer the original’s focused spec ops mission to Warframe’s overwhelming space opera sprawl. And if Dark Sector wasn’t fun to return to, what sort of boomeranging glaive game would it be anyway?