Previews
Dark

By Seán O'Sullivan - November 18th, 2012

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Fans of stealth games have been spoilt for choice lately, with Dishonored, Mark of the Ninja, and the forthcoming Hitman: Absolution – each providing a different take on this longstanding genre. When Dark, from Munich-based developer Realmforge launches next spring, it’s taking firm aim at this hardcore stealth demographic, with its offerings of traditional predatory game-play and gothic fantasy underpinnings.

The game starts off with the protagonist waking in a busy nightclub with amnesia, and the player joins him in piecing together who he is. The initial few minutes are spent in conversations featuring Mass Effect style dialog wheels that allow the player to drill into the lore or skip straight to the action.

As it turns out, he’s half-vampire; and within the rules of this fantasy setting, he needs to track down his creator to drink his blood before he degenerates into a ‘ghoul’ – an ugly zombified husk with no remaining humanity. Finding his creator is a difficult task, so to stave off his fate, he embarks to drink the blood of legendary vampires to buy himself some time.

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Vampire or no; if I had a gun shoved in my face, I’d probably “schattensprung”, too.

I’m not a fan of these kind of gothic fantasy settings, but the world that Realmforge has created sets up a clear driving force for the story and a robust grounding for the game mechanics. The game-play is standard old-school stealth fare, but with vampiric powers thrown into the mix to make things more interesting. The human guards follow set patrol paths, and can be killed in one blow if caught unaware. There are no light/dark mechanics – the enemies operate on line of sight and sound, so you need to stay low, use cover, and avoid treading on loud surfaces to stay undetected. Your hero is fragile, and incapable of dispatching groups of enemies head-on, so if your presence is revealed, you will have to scramble to get away from the scene, particularly if there are multiple enemies in an area.

To charge up special abilities, the player needs to sneak up on the guards and drink their blood where they stand, a process that takes a lot longer and makes a lot more noise than the alternatives, adding the elements of risk and reward to each encounter.

The two most crucial abilities are the vampire instinct (which highlights warm blooded enemies throughout the level) and a short-range teleport* (that facilitates moving from cover to cover without having to wait for the guards to look away). Using these abilities in combination is key for survival, and since the teleport is on a cool-down timer, judicious use is necessary in case you need to make a quick getaway.

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Finding the bathrooms in these stealth games is a pain in the ass.

Other abilities include the teleport kill (useful for picking off sentries quickly), the shadow pull ability (which grabs an enemy and pulls them back to your position), and a distraction skill that can be used to clear the way or lure enemies into traps. Other abilities not demonstrated include projection (which seems to be a freecam mechanic to scout ahead without being detected) and an invisibility power. As the game progresses, these abilities will level up, and the Vitae meter that fuels them will grow.

The first mission involves breaking into a museum that’s teeming with guards; but since each room is laid out like a puzzle with a conflict-free solution, patient players are rewarded. This stage introduces the ghouls into game-play: they are mostly blind, but have highly acute hearing and can lob acid spit at you. Later stages featured heavily-armoured enemies that can’t have their blood drained, and UV light systems that must be circumnavigated – so the player will have to revise their strategies as the game continues.

The art direction is particularly strong, using a comic book style evocative of Telltale’s The Walking Dead games, or The Darkness 2. Different enemy types have distinct silhouettes, and despite the name ‘Dark’, environments are rarely drab, instead offering colorful and distinct sections even within levels.

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Gathering intelligence based on office gossip is effective using this method.

The version being demoed was an alpha, and it’s clear that a lot more work is planned. There is currently no voice acting, and a lot of the animations are placeholders (so what should be grisly death animations look like lazy, romantic neck nuzzling). The scripting broke down at several key moments, and the objective way-points were often more misleading than helpful, owing to how intricately layered the stages were.

It’s possible that in its slipshod state, I’m giving the game too much of the benefit of the doubt: the high-fantasy dialog could easily slip into farcical territory if the voice acting isn’t spot on, and it’s hard to feel immersed in a world with sparse sound effects and robotic animation. All that said, for all the polish that’s required, there’s a compelling system at its core, so I’ll remain optimistic that the twenty-man team at Realmforge can pull it all together before the game’s launch in April.

* – Art designer Victor Linke is chagrined that Dishonored’s blink mechanic got there first, as they thought that they had invented a game-changing mechanic for stealth games.
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  2. This sounds pretty cool. I tried Dishonoured at the local EB/Gamestop and I couldn’t really get into it.

    But vampire stealth play? Hmmmm…

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