James Cameron has made a career of producing dystopian films, often about the plight of humanity vs. technology or societally discarded heroes and heroines vs. megacorporations. After all, this is the man who wrote the script for Strange Days, introduced quintessential screen heroine Ellen Ripley to a planet full of her worst nightmare in Aliens, and gave us the best example of technology run amok in the seminal Terminator series. Well, Cameron took his dark vision of the future to television in 2000 with his creation of James Cameron’s Dark Angel, a near future post-apocalyptic show set in Seattle. While it managed to develop a rabid fan base, it was cancelled after two short seasons. However, it managed to capture the attention of Radical Entertainment and Sierra, who were in the process of making a game version of the series.
Dark Angel’s premise is pulled directly from that of the TV show, so if you didn’t check it out during its run on Fox, allow me to provide a quick overview. In 2009, terrorists managed to trigger an electromagnetic shockwave, dubbed The Pulse, that manages to cripple not only the U.S., but the entire world’s computer systems as well. In the minutes that followed The Pulse, a young girl and 11 other children escaped from a top-secret genetic research lab that was trying to develop next-generation super soldiers. 10 years later, that young woman has now grown into Max, a bike messenger by day, a cat burglar and reluctant crime fighter at night. Continually searching for answers to who she actually is, Max constantly fights against thugs from -- I – Corporation while trying to survive in post-Pulse Seattle.
Although she looks like a regular human, Max is anything but. Her DNA has been recombined and infused with feline DNA, giving her superhuman agility, reflexes and strength, amongst other powers. In concert with numerous punches and kicks that Max strings together into various combos, she can also perform throws, somersault attacks and acrobatic wall bounces. Successfully landing these attacks builds up Max’s Rage meter, which can be triggered to pull off more powerful attacks and deathblows. Triggering her Rage meter puts Max in a pseudo-“bullet-time” movement, where she can use her enhanced dexterity to fully get the drop on his enemies. While she does eventually gain access to both a stun gun that shoots incapacitating bolts of electricity and tonfas, which are essentially police billy clubs, the majority of her combat will be through either stealthy eliminations as Max strikes from the shadows, or full on brawls against three or more combatants.
Graphically, Dark Angel has paid a lot of attention to its star, attempting to completely capture the facial and physical characteristics of Jessica Alba, who they’ve recreated quite admirably. Her information contact, Logan, is also well rendered, although you’ll rarely see him outside of cutscenes back at Max’s hideout. Yet, the cutscenes are nicely drawn, with a lot of close-ups and camera angles that suggest shots from the TV show. Additionally, the designers must’ve spent quite a lot of time either motion capturing her fighting style or watching back episodes of the show, because Max does pull off her attacks and stalking rather lithely, with each action animated very well.
However, once you scratch the surface of the game, you’ll quickly realize that the game suffers from a disappointing surplus of repetition. Almost every single enemy, with the exception of bosses, looks exactly the same, with only a few character model variations. It’s understandable that Max is basically fighting against the thugs of a faceless corporation, but when there’s very little distinction between your enemies, it decreases your interest in trudging through mission after mission. Similarly, many of the environs are virtually indistinguishable, with the ubiquitous dumpster/flaming oil barrel/graffiti wall set that many games have displayed for urban settings. Granted, there are a few variations, such as markets or building interiors, but for the most part, many of the levels are stacked with levels that are linearly connected, offering very little room for exploration. Pair this with a camera that gets stuck frequently on corners or even inside of walls, and you’ll notice that the graphics are a bit disappointing.
Sound seems to fall victim to the same curse of mediocrity as the graphics. Although Jessica Alba and Michael Weatherly provided their voices for their characters of Max and Logan, respectively, their delivery manages to fall rather short. Unfortunately, when Alba’s voice is heard, it’s usually saddled with useless one-liners or comments that seem labored, as if she’d never be caught dead saying those words. Logan’s hushed, clipped delivery – fitting for the secretive hacker that he plays on the show – feels a little forced, primarily because you’ll never get the sense that Max would be in danger from the petty thugs she faces. Stacked atop the usual rock/techno soundtrack for most future-based games, and you’ll experience effects that have been done much better in other games.
Which, of course, brings us to the gameplay, which I’ve been holding back on discussing. Just as Dark Angel is guilty of repetitive character models and backgrounds, the game design is guilty of repetitive action, which is unbelievably stagnant. There are some levels that merely fall into: beat up guys in area A, obtain keycard that unlocks area B where you’ll do fight more guys, etc. This monotonous course of action has been used in hundreds of games, but there’s nothing in Dark Angel that really distinguishes the action. Even the few items that are included as slight variations on the action becomes predictable. Coming across a lighter or an explosive means that there’s a stack of barrels or other obstacle very close by that you will need to blow up in order to proceed. Since these obstacles never change, all you have to do is find these objects in the mission and you have a decent idea of what you need to do.
Most of the thugs that Max will face are easily defeated, even with overwhelming numbers, making the fights little more than an annoyance as you navigate through each level. Part of this problem with the game balancing comes from the control scheme, which allows you to pull off combos effortlessly. While this is typically a great feature for a fighting game, Max’s unchecked combos allows any player to run roughshod over the computer. This power also illustrates another flaw within the title, which is that the additional weapons and items that are provided are practically unnecessary during gameplay. While you’ll pick up ammunition and spare Tonfas throughout levels, you’ll rarely need to use them if ever because Max is so effective. However, even if you do decide to use these weapons, there’s a certain moment of incredulity when the weapon simply disappears. Tonfas don’t break after multiple hits on enemies, and Max doesn’t discard the stealth weapon, they merely disappear, which relegates spare weapons into the realm of basic powerups.
The last major flaw with the title is the stealth portion of the game. Unlike other titles that have seamlessly integrated stealth sections, focusing upon it as an essential part of gameplay, such as NOLF, Hitman or Metal Gear Solid, Dark Angel’s is poorly implemented and seems to have been a design feature that was never fully fleshed out. This is illustrated in multiple ways. The first amongst them is the visibility feature that Dark Angel attempts to implement. Max will often get missions where she’s supposed to try to sneak from one point to another without being seen. Players get to gauge her visibility based upon an onscreen meter that alerts them to Max’s vulnerability towards detection and attack. This would reasonably mean that you’d have to depend upon sneaking into the shadows to cover your intrusion attempts.
Well, shadows usually won’t provide enough cover to protect Max, often flinging her into combat even when you’ve been trying your best to be covert. Many times, Max can be completely hidden in shadow and still be detected and attacked. What’s more, the visibility meter often spikes so violently, that taking one single step outside of what the game considers to be “adequate” cover can make you a target. Further complicating this problem is the fact that you can never attempt to evade the enemy once you’ve been detected in a level; you’re forced to eliminate every single enemy on that stage within a specified time limit before platoons of reinforcements show up and overwhelm Max. (At least that’s the implication when the game ends abruptly if you haven’t killed everyone.) Since she’s so very effective with taking out enemies, you shouldn’t have a problem taking out these enemies, but having to deal with the time pressure is not fun at all.
Overall, Dark Angel could’ve been a very cool game. The initial premise of the show was a cool one, and one that should’ve translated over easily. However, repetitive gameplay, poorly balanced game mechanics and a lack of detail hampers this title significantly. If you’re a fan of the show, I might suggest a rental to see if you’re interested, but otherwise, you’ll probably want to pass on this game.