Dark – Preview
by Mark R
Literary evolution is a strange beast. When the term ‘vampire’ was first coined in the 18th century, it told of a twisted and gnarly creature resembling a half-rotted corpse who fed on the living in order to stay alive, but by the turn of the 18th century, and the birth of a character by the name of Lord Ruthven, the word had taken on an entirely new meaning. While feeding was still very much their raison d’être, they focused solely on blood as their life force and were now associated with aristocracy and the gentry. Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel Dracula helped seal this vision of the misunderstood and tortured soul and from that point on, vampires were viewed more as romantic anti-heroes than vile hell-spawn. Until Twilight came along, of course.
For their upcoming stealth-based action RPG, Realmforge have taken the familiar – and not so familiar – traits of the vampire mythology and placed them into the character of Eric Bane, a former special ops who, much to his chagrin, has been turned to the ways of vampirism and is seeking a way to become human once more. Rather than the traditional method of being sired by a head vampire, Bane’s affliction appears to have been manufactured and, as is generally the case these days, it is likely to be the product of a faceless corporation, GeoForge, using renewable energy as a front for their underground plot to turn unsuspecting victims to vampirism.
In order to discover the cure for his disease, Bane must investigate and infiltrate GeoForge, but this is not without its dangers. Even as a vampire, our protagonist is far from indestructible and relies on energy to be able to carry out special ‘shadow moves’ in order to stay alive and take down enemies. These special moves are your weapons because, in true stealth style, there is neither a gun nor a crowbar in sight and so the only offensive move available to you is bloodletting which, in turn, will also boost Bane’s flagging energy.
While other games in recent years have tried to shoe-horn a stealth aspect in at the expense of immersion or even natural flow, the stealth thread has been expertly woven through Dark ensuring that, without it, there is no game. It’s neither a bolt-on or a mini-game sidestepping from the main story… Dark is how stealth games should play out. The first of eight shadow moves we encountered was the Shadow Leap, which can be summed up as an instantaneous teleport from one area of darkness to another, and it was used to great advantage as Bane managed to avoid a room full of GeoForge guards to get to the other side where he promptly emerged and, in a swift move, sank teeth into the neck of one unsuspecting guard, refilling his blood level and leaving him in a better position to take out the rest of them.
In true stealth style, however, killing or draining a victim of blood and leaving their lifeless body lying around won’t cause other NPCs to nonchalantly step over their fallen comrades and continue on their pre-defined path; they will register that something is awry and alert others in the surrounding areas so your cover is immediately blown and any others will be actively seeking your presence. It’s therefore vital, in some of the more populated areas at least, that you hide any bodies by dragging them into the cover of darkness or dropping them into an industrial mincer, if you can find one.
When no areas of darkness are available to him, such as if a target were standing in a heavily-lit area so getting to them undetected was impossible, there’s still an option to use the dark abilities in a more in-your-face approach. In this particular instance, the Shadow Kill feature was used and Bane vanished from his point of origin into a sinister twist of black smoke, appearing in the open square directly in front of the guard, immediately taking him down as he emerged from the black wisps.
Were the guard to drop a gun, or a night-stick, there’s nothing we could do with it. This was not about stealthing around in the shadows, slowly making our way to each target in turn and bopping them on the back of the head with a gun-butt or clouting them with a discarded baseball bat; in Dark you embody what it is to be a vampire and act on primal instincts so, just as a lion would pounce on its prey and rip out their throat for a quick kill, or an alligator would clamp its victim and pull it underwater to drown it, so to do you rely on your feral ways – you are no longer human; you are a vampire.
Another of Bane’s new-found abilities is the vampire vision, which is similar to Arkham Asylum’s ‘detective mode’ or Oblivion’s ‘detect life’ spell except that, rather than simply showing you where your enemies are by highlighting their presence through walls, the screen greys out, gameplay slows down to a pseudo bullet-time where you can dart from one target to another, taking them out with a graceful swiftness. For extra eye-candy, the final kill is also displayed in a more cinematic style to further exaggerate the macabre nature of the beast.
That said, it was made very clear to us that Dark is all about stealth rather than death. While the blood levels do have to be replenished by making a kill, it’s also possible to complete the game without any unnecessary killings, relying solely on stealth to traverse each of the levels and going in for the kill only when you reach each of the level bosses. In contrast, as with many releases these days, there is also the option of leaving a trail of carnage in your wake, taking out each and every target as well as any civilians who happen to cross your path en route to the endgame and XP is gained whether you use the shadow moves for killing or stealth, so the choice is entirely yours as to how you pick up experience to progress through the various skill trees.
The only modern-day vampire stereotype that we saw squeezed in to the game was a nightclub, The Sanctuary, which plays the part of the main hub, complete with pounding music and countless potential victims all oblivious to their fate as they dance around their handbags. Having said that, as expected as the inclusion of a darkened nightclub was, it does serve its purpose. The club is owned by a vampire by the name of Rose, and her underground connections become the driving force for Bane as Rose communicates with him through an ear-piece giving him intel at every stage and is akin to Watchtower.
With a cel-shaded art style, and very high contrast imagery used throughout with vibrant lighting used to highlight the darkness, there is more than a few nods to the comic book genre within the aesthetics of Dark. At times, thanks to the aforementioned contrast and vivid palette, the on-screen action looked like it had been ripped out of a graphic novel and yet still retained a quiet subtlety in places without ever detracting from the atmosphere. And it has atmosphere in spades; skulking in the shadows and moving with the fringes helps to place a heavy sense of isolation on the shoulders of the player and a feeling of being one of society’s outcasts, although the more shallow gamer would probably see it as being a game where you kill folk at night.
Sadly, the build we saw was still in pre-alpha stage although, it has to be said, the difference between the E3 and Gamescom builds was considerable and the movement appeared more fluid than before, but there is certainly enough to highlight the potential of Dark as one of the upcoming stealth titles to look forward to. At the moment, Realmforge are talking about a ten to twelve hour campaign, which is a little on the light side for those of us who like to set aside weeks for gameplay rather than days but, if they continue in the way they’re going, it should prove to be an exciting and inventive twelve hours.
Last five articles by Mark R
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