DARK – Review
by Adam B
I’m pretty sure this game just skipped a decent chunk of its story without explanation. There I was, sitting through a painfully-badly voice-acted cutscene in someone’s office, containing the usual pre-boss fight posturing and some weirdly-out-of-place questions about what vampire society is like when the game faded to black. Next thing I know, I’m standing in an alleyway being told I need to hurry to a nightclub that’s under attack from the game’s resident paramilitary group before it’s overrun. I have literally no idea what happened to the intervening gameplay; I don’t think I fell asleep at any point and there’s nothing to suggest that it’s any kind of intentional narrative device. Following on from this mission, I somehow know exactly where to go to rescue my kidnapped allies, with no explanation as to how. Welcome to the world of DARK.
The story here is pretty vague; you are Eric Bane (ugh), newly-sired vampire with amnesia who must hunt down a series of powerful vampires and drink their blood because your sire ran off without letting you drink his blood, and if you don’t get the right stuff soon you’ll go feral, apparently. Your base of operations is the Sanctuary nightclub (no, really), where vampires go to listen to the same dance track on loop all night despite the DJ always being too busy “mixing” to talk to you, where there’s not really anything for you to do other than talk to the four plot-dispensers – I mean NPCs – who hang around there. On the whole, the voice acting is dreadful – like Resident Evil dreadful – as if most of the dialogue is being spoken by people who have never heard English out loud before, putting emphasis in all the wrong places and failing to convey any meaningful emotion.
DARK bills itself as a “stealth-action game” but the “action” is primarily the short bursts of undirected panic that occur whenever somebody spots you. Being seen is almost always a death sentence. The game lacks anything that I would call a real combat mechanic; instead you are expected to dispatch your enemies by sneaking up behind them and either insta-killing them or feeding on them to gain blood, which is the unit of choice to power your various vampire abilities. Some of the abilities do allow you to kill from afar, with the higher-tier upgrades also disintegrating bodies, but you’re rarely able to make full use of them due to the limited blood supply, especially later in the game when enemies become immune to feeding. This means that if there’s more than one enemy in the vicinity and you’re spotted, there’s usually very little you can do before you’re cut down in a hail of automatic weapons fire and have to reload from the last checkpoint or a quicksave. The checkpointing can be extremely harsh in places and you’re only permitted two quicksaves per arbitrary area and so you will find yourself repeating the same sections over and over again.
The AI is generally as dumb as bricks, their sight range is rather short and on numerous occasions I “hid” from patrolling guards on the other side of glass panels, leaving them blissfully unaware of my presence. Once you’ve dropped a couple of points into any of your skills your actions become virtually silent, meaning that as long as enemies’ backs are turned you can do pretty much whatever you like without being noticed; there are some interesting ideas, such as having debris on the floor which makes noise when you move over it, but it’s so rare for anyone to actually hear you do it, that I found myself more confused than anything else when it finally alerted someone.
The only time the AI shows any hints of intelligence is when they’re looking for you; if they catch sight of you or find a carelessly-discarded corpse, they switch from dumb to unstoppable searching machine, checking every corner of the room until they track you down. The alert timer lasts for far too long and resets if they see you or another body, meaning that unless you’re in a very large room it’s pretty much inevitable that you’ll be found unless you can isolate and eliminate the searching guards without anyone seeing you or finding the bodies, so the best option is usually to reload and try again. The one exception to this is when they stumble across a body, all congregate around it and then spot the body of the previous guy you killed and then the one before that and so on until they’ve all followed your trail of breadcorpses back to the start of the area leaving you free to saunter to the exit unimpeded. The difficulty curve in DARK is probably best described as a square wave, lurching from trivial to frustrating at a moment’s notice.
The missions are very linear and have a habit of invoking a series of increasing contrived events that force you to backtrack through the same sections, magically re-populated with enemies of course, sometimes more than once but at the same time can be incredibly hand-holdy, waypointing all of the objectives, including the one or two side-quests that you pick up along the way, as well as giving you a full-screen notification every time they add a new gameplay mechanic (“These guards have put down motion sensors, don’t get too close or it will alert them to your presence”).
They have tried to make it easier to move around quickly with the Shadow Leap ability, which works a little like Dishonored’s Blink, but it’s astonishingly inconsistent about where you can jump to, occasionally allowing you to leap onto ledges above or below you while moments later restricting you to your current horizontal plane without any clear reason why. There’s not even any real choice in how you approach the missions as there is no non-lethal option other than trying to avoid combat entirely; everyone you attack is going to die and you never seem too fussed about it other than a brief mention early on about how you feel a bit weird murdering all these people and drinking their blood, as I imagine you would.
Graphically the game struggles to make an impact, they’ve tried to compensate for a rather dated-looking engine by going for a stylised, semi-cell shaded look and in places it almost works, but then you fall foul of another dodgy collision-detection issue or that guard who got stuck trying to get through a door, spasmed violently into the doorframe for a moment before vanishing from the game entirely and you’re snapped back into a game that looks three years old. The default controls on the PC appear to have been designed by someone who has never actually used a PC before; right-click serves as both the snap-to-cover button and the skip cutscene/dialogue button, which usually means you accidentally skip half the cutscenes because you’re trying to stay hidden all the time. Equally, the use of left-click for interactions, attacks and switching cover positions means that the slightest error in timing results in you leaping around a corner into full view of all the guards instead of attacking the guy right next to you as you’d intended.
DARK does have a Challenge mode, which involves timed runs through various areas of the game, trying to clear them of enemies as quickly as possible, but there’s nothing really to be gained from completing them apart from a couple of achievements and unlocking more challenges; the requirement to kill everyone, with time penalties for being seen or taking damage makes them even more frustrating than when you played through them as part of the story. I know games like this are expected to have challenges in an attempt to ape the Arkham games, but in this instance it’s mostly a pointless feature for all but the most hardcore of completionists .
Overall, DARK is mediocre at best and a frustrating mess at worst. There are glimpses of potential at times and every now and then I found myself getting into it and having some fun, but it was never long before something terrible brought me back to reality and I wished I could go play something else instead.Pros
- Satisfying stealth...when you can pull it off
- The game skips some of its content for you
- Awful voice acting
- Dated engine
- Bad AI
- Randomly-fluctuating difficulty
- Incoherent narrative
DARK is a story of half-implemented ideas and hints of something better. The voice acting is bad, the story is hard to follow and the AI is frequently just stupid; you'll find yourself spending more time retreading the same areas, either because you had to reload a checkpoint or because the game is making you do the same area again for no good reason. The RPG element of the game is minimal, with very little in the way of dialogue options and a skill tree that amounts to putting points into powers in the hope they might be useful before realising that most of them aren't. The areas that aren't outright bad are simply mediocre and there's nothing to really recommend the game over any similar stealth-action titles unless you really want something new to try.
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