Death is something which usually isn’t a problem for vampires. They’re already dead, killed in the process of becoming vampiric. Usually it’s sunlight which is the thing to finally put the nail in their gothic, fantasy-fulfilling coffins. However, in Kalypso Media’s new vampire stealth game, Dark, death is pretty goddamn debilitating.
You creep up behind a guy, ready to break his neck. There are two other vampire hunters just ahead, they’ll see you if you don’t do it quickly and smoothly. You are right up next to him. Ready to strike, but the little button prompt for “Kill” doesn’t appear. You edge slightly further forward. Still no prompt. Again, you take another step, taking you immediately behind him. Only now, when you’re nearly touching the guy, that notorious “Kill” prompt appears in the bottom right hand of the screen.
But you touch him, because you can only kill him when you’re practically touching him. He sees you.
He is immediately alerted. No “surprise” phase or reaction, no need to take you in or radio his friends. No couple of seconds courtesy to let the player get out the way. Instantly, you’re seen. You try to strike him down violently now that the “kill” prompt is present, but he has spun on the spot and can now block you, knocking you back to defend himself. In the instant he has spotted you, all of his friends see you too. Within about a second and a half, at a stretch, you’re dead. Riddled with bullets, your body flopped over in a ragdoll mode. And this is on normal difficulty.Then, due to some awful, awful checkpointing, you’re thrown back twenty minutes to the last checkpoint which you have been painstakingly and repeatedly trying to conquer.
Dark is a game which, in odd moments, captures some great stealth + RPG gameplay. Occasionally the level design is fantastic. There are a lot of big open areas; sci-fi-ish business offices or garden skyscrapers or open museums. It has a decent levelling and experience system: killing enemies gets you experience, passing level areas gets you experience, and doing either of these without being seen gives you a bonus. Ala Deus Ex: Human Revolution, you have a screen full of powers and abilities, which can all be upgraded, from a teleport, to a distraction ability, to becoming part shadow, to having a warning whenever a bad guy will hear or see you doing a move. Part Deus Ex, part Vampire The Masquerade: Bloodlines.
Deus Ex provides a pertinent point of comparison in the vampiric adventures of Eric Bane: Most Generically Named Protagonist Of All Time. A friend of mine, passing through, said “this looks like it’s trying to be Deus Ex.” He wasn’t wrong. The developer, Realmforge Studios, have taken on board a totally pointless (though not unpleasant) dialogue tree system (which to Mass Effect’s in some ways, honestly) the “hold left trigger” stealth cover system, and the upgrading system from Human Revolution, Eidos Montreal’s damn strong prequel to Ion Storm’s classic FPS from 2000, Deus Ex.
Surprisingly, all of the nicked mechanics work quite nicely in Dark’s universe. Eric Bane, a newly blooded vampire who has lost his memory, finds himself in a vampire-friendly nightclub, The Sanctuary. He starts with practically no powers: the ability to kill guys is all, although the player quickly learns the Shadow Leap (a copy of Dishonored’s “blink” skill) and the ability to regenerate health. Using skills like this takes up “vitae,” blood points which are a parallel of Adam Jenson’s stupid battery-cells from Human Revolution. As per DE:HR, you start with very few- really you should start with at least 3 points, but as-is, we start with 2. Frankly though, I prefer Dark‘s approach over Human Revolution’s. A vampire needing human blood to use his most lethal powers actually makes sense.
What doesn’t make sense is how few powers Eric Bane starts with.
Dark is an unbelievably frustrating game- especially if you’re a stealth perfectionist. The few abilities you are initially given are really not that useful.
For example, the Shadow Leap. In Dishonored, if you Blink behind a bad guy, the bad guy doesn’t hear you, and it takes up Mana. Dark‘s Shadow Leap has a cooldown period instead of using resources, which is good, but it makes a goddamn huge noise which any bad guy within twenty feet will hear. Which is bad.
So in the game, the players primary means for getting up and down between vertical levels, avoiding detection, and getting close to bad guys, gets you detected. Until three of four levels in, when you have enough spare points to upgrade it. And as I said, other abilities take up a vitae point, and the player only starts with two of them. After two moves, the player can’t do anything else. Except the shadow leap with its cooldown, which gets you spotted.
This is probably the biggest core problem with the game:
You can’t do much by default. And the things you can do, are pretty buggy, or at least, inconsistent.
You can take cover. But you can’t swap between cover or vault it. You can stand or crouch. But you can’t go under things or sprint. You can Shadow Leap, or teleport. But it’s often incredibly inaccurate and the camera won’t adjust to let you get the right angle, so often you’re prevented from teleporting up and down verticle levels. You also, in an inexplicable move, can’t jump; so you can’t drop from higher levels or vault the tiniest obstacle.
And bearing in mind all of these frustrating issues, the game’s AI is inconsistent, too. Or at least, the design of the game’s AI is flawed.
Bad guy’s cone of vision is erratic as heck. Sometimes you’ll creep right past a someone in complete safety at a diagonal angle; other times they appear to have 180 degree vision, left to right. And there’s no margin of error. Even on normal, with an upgrade to make you harder to notice, it took guys about a second to see me. If a guy finds a body or hears something, you’re basically screwed. You might has well have set off the Alarm. All of them will circulate in on the position, messing up their patterns and walking all over the shop, seeing you with ease.
If RealmForge just changed things the tiniest bit, the game would be fine. Give the player a wider zone in which stealth kills are available. Take a leaf from The Last Of Us and make it take a good several seconds for a dude to notice you. After all, as a vampire, Eric Bane is part shadow. They could have easily played up to that more. The whole game seems tethered to some “gritty realistic” vampire style, but this actually cuts the game’s potentially powerful legs off.
Not to mention, the game’s writing is truly atrocious. It has a decent story with a decent mystery, and the universe is an adapted World Of Darkness one, so it’s got a pretty solid mythos. Although by the end, things get a bit generic, in the same manner as Bioshock‘s lame end-boss. Overall, Dark’s story is okay; it’s just the actual dialogue and writing that’s bad. Realmforge are a German company, and despite a very clear use of language in the game, it agonizingly panders to every trope and cliché in the book. I’m not sure if it’s bad translation or just a completely uncreative, derivative effort on the writer’s part. Every problem in the book is here, in plot and dialogue. The characters over-explain things. They talk in the most generic noir-thriller vocabulary imaginable, like a really badly done Max Payne. None of the characters are justified in their actions: Bane becomes arbitrarily attached to The Sanctuary, and to it’s owner Rose, who is the most vacuous and uninspiring female character I’ve ever seen. It makes no sense why Rose wants to help Bane so much, especially when she goes on about how vampires are solitary creatures. The two also have some totally inappropriate romance. The villains are the only one with a clear motive; but the logic of their plan is honestly ridiculous. Spoiler alert about that (though honestly reading a spoiler would do nothing to help or hinder this game- it just is:)
The villains are a government organisation who are trying to kill vampires. Yet, in the process, they find some possible and inexplicable combination between vampire and human, who would be an immortal and genius human being. The “next evolution of humanity”. And then! And then! When it finally happens, and they transform a really powerful vampire with their process, he comes out as a giant, retarded, raging Hulk-like dude. The next evolution of humanity indeed! He can’t even speak!
SPOILER ALERT OVER
The game is fairly satisfying and consistently sort of fun. All these problems stack up, however, and lead it to being a disappointing and unoriginal title at the end of this generation’s cycle. Having said that; I’m happy that Realmforge Studios and Kalypso Media have made the game. If it gets a sequel, a great game could definitely come out of it. There’s the potential for a clever, essential stealth title in here. They just need to playtest more, and spend more time working out how much easier they should make things for their players. As it is, Dark is an experience which wouldn’t have been out of place on a Playstation 2 or original Xbox.
I played the game for about 9 hours- though including how many times I had to retry awfully designed, difficult checkpoints, it was probably closer to 12 or 13 hours. I also nearly got 100% of the achievements: just playing the story and trying a little will get you nearly 1000 gamerscore on Xbox 360. However, the game doesn’t have a New Game Plus mode, and it feels like it is dying for that, considering how f***ing difficult it is even on normal difficulty. The player should definitely start with more powers by default, and who knows, a NG+ could have been more fun than first playthrough.