Dark Angel

Review by Skinny Minnie and Toger
January 2003

Minnie's Xbox Skinny

I get my kicks playing games, so when a certain Xbox review copy hit my desk, I took a shot in the dark. I went where angels fear to tread. I played Dark Angel.

Supposedly based upon the now-defunct TV show and featuring the voiceovers of its stars Jessica Alba and Michael Weatherly, Dark Angel features Max, a genetically altered, futuristic AWOL soldier and her underground, cyberjournalist buddy Logan Cale. Playable character Max pummels her way through over twenty levels trying to bring down every member of the inexplicably evil military entity called I-Corp, with Logan interrupting every ten minutes to transmit annoying, wearisome, useless information to her. The setting is postapocalyptic Seattle, and I-Corp is supposedly a new branch of Manticore, the military group that created Max and other soldiers like her.

I never watched the show, and the game doesn't explain how Max escaped her military service or why every living, breathing being within a thousand miles of her instantly recognizes her and wants her dead, period. After a beautiful but uninformative opening cutscene, you take control of Max in the third person, and by her third step on the postapocalyptic pavement, she is being punched, kicked, dragged and thrown by droves of enemy clones.

Max does begin with a lot of cool moves, and you will unlock more of them as the game progresses. Her moves are very smooth for a 3D, third-person gaming protagonist. If you're the type who flips over hand-to-hand combat and fancy physical maneuvers (with little else going on), Dark Angel may be for you. Personally, the last game I played with punching and kicking in it was Omikron in 1999, and I'm still within backward shouting distance of the "where the hell did the vertical plane go?" stage of console gaming, so maybe it's just me. Nevertheless, cool though Max's karate kicks may be, they wore thinner than a chopstick after about five missions.

Conversations are limited to Logan's incessant, "Security is heavy in this sector; be careful, Max" and Max's sarcastic, end-of-fight-scene comments to dead baddies like, "You're done already? I was just getting started!" or "You've really gotta get to the gym more often." The voiceovers themselves aren't bad, but there's no story here and no interaction with baddies whatsoever aside from kicking, smacking, or hurling them around 'til they're dead (unless they do the same to Max first). There is precious little interaction with the environment, either. Outside of a cool high jump to about four total second-story ladders during the whole game, Max is unable even to perch upon a knee-high box for a breather.

Adventure elements are limited to picking up purple, glowing objects like health packs, tonfas and door pass cards that merely lead to the next fight scene, which only appear after the last baddie in an area is felled. I once found a radio instead, and while fiddling with it in inventory to see if I could fake a call to I-Corp's home office for a pizza, Max put it down on the ground where it immediately melded with a wall it was leaning up against. Unable to pick it up again, I moved on, and it seemed to have no effect on the game's outcome.

The dreary, repetitive scenes themselves are decently rendered if slummy and militant looking. Graffiti mars the punky alleyways and streets, while darkened halls, buildings, bridges and ships harbor similar crates, oil barrels and police cars.

Colors are drab and areas so similar that you might lose your way if not for Dark Angel's extremely scripted and linear nature. You're forced down very narrow paths, often with little choice as to how you can successfully complete an area's objective. Throwing switches to deactivate surveillance cameras or computers is about as interesting as those objectives get, too, and they're sandwiched between droves of enemies that tend to attack relentlessly with the same limited moves (except for a few bosses, who themselves are quite similar). Logan suggests stealth in various areas, and Max does have a cool, Splinter Cell-esque sneak-up-behind-an-enemy-and-snap-his-neck move, but oftentimes the camera angles are so bad (especially near walls or in narrow confines) that you can't see other baddies until they have spotted Max and set off alarms. Once the alarms are wailing, a timer immediately counts down the limited seconds until reinforcements arrive, at which point it is game over. The camera also has the annoying habit of giving a tilted, overhead view that only makes matters worse and lessens visibility even more. You can only save at certain checkpoints, which often are too sparsely placed to avoid major backtracking. I ultimately still had two minor boss fights and four major boss fights to go when I started scouring the web for cheat codes, just to get this repetitive slog of a game over with. I came up dry, and were it not for a teenaged console junkie's volunteering to switch off failed levels with me, I probably never would have seen the uninspiring ending scenes.

The music is good and sound effects are limited but okay. However, not much could rescue the overall redundancy of the action and the high frustration level (due to poor camera angles and having to constantly repeat levels due to timeouts) of Dark Angel. The only thing saving this game from cornpoop is Max's smooth moves, and this game is a rotten egg even at that.

Toger's PS2 Play-by-Play

I have a confession to make. I didn't finish the game I'm about to review. Shocking, isn't it? Read on, dear reader, and know my pain.

Ten years after terrorists have unleashed the Pulse—an electromagnetic shockwave—the US has become a Third World nation. Martial law is the standard of the day and armed soldiers patrol the streets to keep order.

Max is one of several genetically enhanced humans created and trained by the Manticore Corporation to be the perfect soldier. After witnessing one of her siblings killed, she and several others escape from Manticore; each going their own separate ways to avoid capture.

While operating as a cat burglar, she meets Logan Cale, an underground cyberjournalist and hacker. Together, they bring about the destruction of Manticore.

The game's events take place after the downfall of Manticore. The I Corporation, another company researching and developing genetically engineered soldiers, has identified Max as a viable genetic sample and has made her capture its number-one priority.

Let's talk about the voice work, shall we? Did the actors pull an all-nighter before recording their voices for this game? Perhaps they hadn't had their morning caffeine injection yet. Whatever the reason, the voice work for Dark Angel was horrible. Dialogue delivered by the "stars" was so emotionless as to be sleep-inducing. The voiceovers for the various and sundry enemies had more emotion than these two. And while I'm at it, let me mention the lame one-liners that Max delivers just before taking on a new set of enemies ... On second thought, forget I mentioned it.

Dark Angel is played in the third person, with the camera located just behind Max's shoulder. Well, most of the time that's the view. Other times, I'm not quite sure what the view is supposed to be, as the camera appeared to have been attached to the bottom of the Goodyear blimp as it soared high over Yankee Stadium. During what I call "balloon on a string" view, it was impossible to see if any soldiers were lurking around corners or hidden in the alleys created by all the crates littering the landscape. (Why exactly are all those crates and boxes lying about? Are the longshoremen and truckers on strike?)

For the most part DA is hand-to-hand combat with the occasional opportunity to pick off the patrols with a stealth/stun gun. (I have to say when using the stealth gun it was very entertaining to see these guys dance in a web of blue light.) Max is able to achieve an astonishing array of moves by pounding the heck out of the square, X, triangle and circle buttons. Included among her repertoire: head kicks, back flips, aerial side rolls, jabs, spin kicks and the ever-popular "ball breaker" (yep, that's what it's called and that's what it does). My favorite move was sneaking up behind someone and using a chokehold to quietly take out the I-Corp minion. What I couldn't understand was why Max couldn't climb over the hundreds of crates and boxes just sitting around. Curiously enough, even though she can make a four-foot or higher jump to grab the end of a ladder, she can't jump higher than the curb anywhere else.

Once you've played about five missions, and I'm being generous here, you've pretty much seen the entire game—sneak, kick/punch/choke some soldiers, pick up a keycard, open the gate. Rinse and repeat. On occasion, you'll need to blow open a locked door with the conveniently dropped packet of C4 explosive. In this game, you'll never be at a loss of what to do or where to go as the developers lead you by the nose ... er, hand throughout the entire game, even going so far as to flash a picture of what you'll need when you get there.

During some combat sequences, the game will highlight some of Max's moves by showing them in slow motion a la Max Payne or The Matrix. I'll admit it was cool to watch, at first, but quickly got annoying later as it interrupted the flow of the combat.

Speaking of annoying, let's talk about the "help" that Logan gives during the missions. At the beginning of each mission, you'll receive a transmission from Logan providing back-story for the mission. During missions, he can and will contact Max with information that he feels she needs—like telling her she's halfway there. I cannot begin to tell you how irritating it was to be in the heat of combat and have to stop to receive a worthless transmission from Logan! On the upside, if you ignore the transmission icon long enough, it will go away.

Dark Angel also incorporates some stealth elements. I say some, 'cause just between you and me the stealth elements didn't always work. Maybe it's just me, but how can you sneak off the top of a train, being patrolled by moving light sensors, when the only move open to you from the top of the train is a double somersault in the tuck position (naturally). And you can't peer over the side of the train to check the position of the roving lights? Where's the stealth in that? Getting off that train is simply a matter of I-hope-the-light-isn't-aimed-at-the-bottom-of-the-ladder-when-I-do-my-dismount. (Do I score a 10 for that dismount?)

There's a stealth meter incorporated in the game to give you an indication of how close you are to being seen—it ranges from blue, meaning all clear, to red, which is just before they cart you off in cuffs. The stealth aspect is, at best, iffy. You never really know if an enemy will truly see you, and when it does the meter progresses to red so quickly you have no chance of saving yourself.

The AI for Dark Angel is ... interesting, to say the least. For instance, I discovered if I stood in a doorway—just enough to trigger the door to open but not step across the threshold—I could target and take out a bad guy with the stealth gun. (And I mean stand in the doorway, not just peeking around the corner.) His companions might notice him doing the electric slide and come to investigate. Then again, they might not. You really never know unless you play the level over and over and over again. As is invariably necessary.

Visually, the game was decent, although the character sets for the bad guys were so limited I was beginning to think they were all clones. I especially liked the shadows cast when Max, or anyone else for that matter, stood within view of a light source. The shadow would darken or fade based on the distance of the light.

Dark Angel's music was suitably rocking and not at all intrusive. To tell the truth, I didn't notice it for the most part.

Now you understand why I didn't finish the game. I probably got very close to the end, but I just couldn't endure it any longer. The wretched camera angles, the lackluster level design and the repetitious gameplay were more than I could take for a full 25 missions. If it weren't for the music, halfway decent graphics and Max's cool moves, this game would have garnered the FFC pile o' cornpoop. As it is, it's nothing more than the rotten egg.

If you're a fan of the Dark Angel TV series, maybe you should just wait and buy the first season DVD set. However, if you're a bona-fide, die-hard fan and must have all things Dark Angel, at least wait until the game hits the bargain bins; which should be in about 5 ... 4 ... 3 ... 2 ... The End

The Verdict

The Lowdown

Developer: Fox Interactive
Publisher: Sierra
Release Date: December 2002

Available for: Xbox PlayStation 2

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