- From space to eastern Europe, Dark Sector has come a long way. We chat with Digital Extremes about the game's present and possible future.
Congenital analgia is a genetic disorder the prevents sufferers from experiencing pain. For Hayden Tenno, lead character in new PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 game Dark Sector, this curse is something of a blessing.
Hayden is the star of Dark Sector, a contemporary third-person game developed by Canadian studio Digital Extremes. Central to the project is the idea of change.
Hayden is a straight-talking anti-hero who, through his genetic abnormality, is able to withstand the effects of the Technocyte virus, a biological weapon that is running out of control in the eastern European country or Lasria.
The Technocyte virus, Digital Extremes' Dave Kudirka explains, turns everyone unwittingly exposed to the disease into horrible, blood-thirsty creatures. Everyone, that is, except Hayden. Thanks to his analgia, Hayden is able to withstand the devastating effects of the virus - a good thing, even if it bears the side-effect of making him persona non grata among the infected.
Don't expect this to feel like an episode of House starring Spawn, though. "We certainly didn't focus on that in the game, but it's still there," Kudirka says. "We didn't drive the point home that Hayden has that disease, but that was in the original design document, and it's still what makes him a little bit different, a little bit adept to handle the infection."
Making Hayden stand out from the crowd was part of the reason why Digital Extremes took a new look at the game, and it's why Dark Sector is a contemporary game set in Europe rather than the futuristic one set in space it was originally planned to be.
"For us, the original idea [was that] all Hayden's powers come from a suit. And we figured that a guy wearing a suit in space with other space ships, robots, space stations - he doesn't stand out as much. It's not cool. So we thought it would be way better if these powers come from within Hayden himself - kind of Spider-Man, Incredible Hulk style, the monster within type deal. We felt that that kind of character was a lot more compelling, and if we dropped him into a more familiar, more modern setting. That way he'd stand out a lot more."
Standing out is something Hayden won't have to be concerned about. Thank to his partial resistance to the effects of the Technocyte virus, he'll mutate as you play through the game, and along with the mutations come new powers that complement the traditional weapons and glaive Hayden carries.
One design problem behind an idea such as this is how to keep it simple, so that people, no matter how experienced they are, can pick up the game and still enjoy themselves. For Digital Extremes, the answer to this is dynamic difficulty and the staggered introduction of new powers.
"The way we do it is we introduce these powers incrementally throughout the game, so you don't have all these powers at once," says Kudirka. "We give you a power, we teach you how to use it, let you play a bit with it, and then we give you the next one."
Underlying this is a dynamic difficulty system that tracks how you're playing the game. Get stuck in a tough section and the game will ease back, allowing you to make it through without getting frustrated.
Features such as dynamic difficulty aren't new, but then Digital Extremes is proud of its quickness in spotting new trends. Part of the focus of the team is to introduce as much new technology in its games as makes sense. It's a process that requires a lot of work.
"As the game developers, our programmers, especially those that work on the engine, do a lot of reading, and we play every game that comes out. So if we see something that's cool, like some kind of effect or technique, we definitely want to read up and find out about it. We want to take it a step further than games in the past, but in order to do that you've got to match them first," Kudirka says.
One of the changes the team has implemented over the past year is to make the game more vibrant. The somewhat-dour colour palette seen in early versions of the game has been replaced by one that's more varied and colourful.
"We don't want to be dark and gloomy through the whole game," Kudirka says. "We don't want it to always be compared to Gears of War for that art style, that colour. So we really tried to mix it up, and have different colour palettes, really vibrant colours, cool bloom effects and that kind of thing."
Getting Dark Sector right is a big deal for Digital Extremes. The company has previously worked with Epic Games on several games in the Unreal series. In 2005 the company made Pariah, a so-so reviewed Xbox and PC game about a broken-down doctor struggling to survive in a dangerous prison. The team is up for the challenge.
"We're hoping this is the best game we've ever made. We really want to capture a new audience. We would also love to do well enough that we could continue the story, that there can be sequels," says Kudirka.
"Our expectations are pretty high and we're slaving in the studios to make sure this game is everything we hoped it could be."
Dark Sector will be out for PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 during March.