Dark Angel - Retro Reflection


In the good old day there was a game genre called "beat'em up". I am not referring to Street Fighter or Mortal Kombat; I am talking about games where you confronted gangs of thugs with your bare fists, like Final Fight or Double Dragon. Although action games have ruled for years this particular genre is practically dead now. I don't know why, maybe companies thought it had no more potential or did not try to modernize it. Dark Angel was an attempt to create something new with an old formula and captured my attention.

The game is based on a television series (2000-2002) which was co-directed by James Cameron and starred lovely Jessica Alba. The story takes place in the near future, when a terrorist attack has struck America, changing the life of its civilians forever. The protagonist is a woman "created" by a company named Manticore to be the ultimate soldier, along with other genetically enhanced persons. As a kid she escaped from the camp where she was trained and her life afterwards is a constant struggle to avoid being captured, discover her true identity and find the kids she was raised with.

Dark Angel assumes that the player is familiar with the show since characters appear out of nowhere and you are supposed to care for them although the game does not show who they are or why they mean a lot to each other. The action starts with Max, the heroine, trying to reach her apartment while hostile soldiers patrol the city streets. A friend of hers, Logan, gives her directions through electronic communication. Cut-scenes reveal that he also tries to rouse people against a company named I-Corporation, which practically governs America; that's how him and Max, who detests oppression, connected to each other.


The crux of the action is fighting and moving undetected and the basic structure of a mission is the following: Logan tells you what you must do, you read your objectives and begin. The purpose is to reach the end of the stage but to go there you must overcome obstacles such as locked doors. Usually, if you beat the security in an area the last enemy carries an object you need, e.g. an explosive device. There are no checkpoints and you save only at the end of a level, however the stages are linear and short. In addition, your health is replenished when you complete a level and if Max is defeated by a boss she restarts before the boss with full health. So, Dark Angel is not unfriendly to the player, although it does not lack challenge.

The game begins as a beat'em up and it is enjoyable to punch, kick or grapple generic foes mercilessly. Striking many guys simultaneously is satisfying, with Max being able to handle anything thanks to her speed and variety of moves. There are several combos but I preferred the long, simple ones (five punches or four kicks in a row). I loved how the last hit knocks foes down, sending them flying to all directions! This also gives you the chance to change your position and avoid being surrounded. Max cannot use weapons except for some sticks she finds in a few stages; nevertheless, she has a valuable ability that compensates for that: while she fights a meter is filled and when it is full she can enter rage mode, thus making her attacks much stronger. Entire groups of mercenaries are humiliated in seconds when Max is enraged, teaching them not to anger a woman with cat DNA inside her body! So, the beat'em up action is solid. Sure, you fight the same guys with the same moves but this is expected in beat'em ups. What matters is to give players the tools necessary to destroy the opposition and do it in an enjoyable way; Dark Angel delivers in this domain.

Enemies are normal humans and appear in small groups. You confront guys with machine guns, who should be eliminated first, bald, muscular dudes who slam you on the ground and elite soldiers who counter attack after they have been knocked down. A few combos are enough to deal with them, there are almost no cheap hits and damage you sustain is reasonable. As a result, battles are intense but fair. Bosses are enhanced humans like Max and they are defeated without much of a problem if you understand their attack pattern.


Soon, stealth is mixed into the action: Max can sneak behind someone and snap his neck, wait behind a wall or other tall object (standing or crouching) and kill an enemy as he appears at the corner or climb on an horizontal beam, wait for a soldier to walk below and break his neck with her legs (this technique, however, is used very rarely). If a soldier is not alone you may create a noise distraction to lure him to your position, by whistling (!), jumping or activating a radio (every type of noise has a different radius). In fact, noise distractions are the safest way to dispose of a guard: as soon as he comes to investigate, leave your place, hide nearby and wait for him to complete his search (you can watch him safely without being seen by rotating the camera or by hugging the wall and leaning from a corner). When he has found nothing and returns to his initial position creep behind him and take him out. It took me longer than necessary to discover this method, nevertheless it is very useful.

Initially, stealth is just a way to kill someone fast but gradually it becomes necessary. In some stages, if Max is spotted reinforcements arrive and she must defeat them within a tight time limit which ranges from difficult to near impossible. Later, she must not be seen at all or she loses immediately; I guess soldiers have acquired the medusa gaze. I retried a mission more than twenty times either because a soldier happened to look at Max's direction when she killed him or a searchlight touched her hair or for other reasons. I also had to deal with the fact that Max cannot climb on anything, so even the tiniest obstacle forces her to move around. Nonetheless, if you understand how guards react and make good use of the radar at the lower right of the screen (it shows how close an enemy is and whether he is searching for you) your chances of survival are increased significantly.

To aid you in your quest health packs and stun darts are scattered around. Some of them are hidden behind corners or even on high platforms, so a little search is required. The fact that resources are carried from one stage to the other adds a tactical element to the action, forcing you to be more careful. Stun darts become crucial in the later stages since they eliminate anyone safely from a distance (guards don't sound the alarm if they see someone be hit by a dart, they will only search in the vicinity instead, which is silly but convenient for the player). I finished the game with more than 30 health packs and only 3 darts, which shows their importance.

In relation to the graphics, I like how the scenery keeps changing, from decadent neighborhoods to Max's apartment building, a long bridge, the deck of a ship, a lab, a train station and finally the I-Corporation headquarters. The color palette contributes to the atmosphere, e.g. brown and yellow prevail in the docks. Max looks pretty, moves swiftly and changes clothes accordingly. I also love how her hands and legs glow when she strikes, making her attacks more impressive. Enemies are repeated but they are properly designed.

The music is forgettable, except for the piece played during the main menu screen. The sound effects when you punch and kick are good and the sound that indicates enemies approaching raises tension. The voices of Max and Logan, offered by the show's stars, add to the experience although they could have been more emotional. When the heroine defeats a group of enemies she often says something "smart" (like, "you should go to the gym more often") that helps to create a personality for her.

Dark Angel offered me a unique experience; I liked the beat'em up action right from the start but the stealth element changed the game's identity and it took me some time to adapt. Sure, it is satisfying to learn the layout of a stage, decide how to eliminate every guard efficiently and execute your plan perfectly, however the "instant death" aspect is annoying. Perhaps it was a way to make the game last longer or have more variety but I would have preferred more missions instead. Despite that, I completed Max's quest and felt well doing it. Afterwards I discovered there are some nice extras in the DVD, such as interviews with the stars and director of the series, samples from the novel "Before the dawn", which I found exciting, and photos of Jessica Alba. In total, as an original combination of different gameplay styles, Dark Angel mostly succeeded.

Game Information

Platform:
Sony PlayStation 2
Developer(s):
Radical Entertainment
Publisher(s):
Sierra Entertainment
Genre(s):
Beat 'Em Up
Mode(s):
Single Player
Other Platform(s):
Microsoft Xbox

Source:
Purchased

Article by Dimitris
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