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Previews

Dark hands-on - a pure-blooded vampire stealth experience

Nothing like Twilight, an awful lot like Blade

Eric Bain has just found out he's a vampire. And he's taking it remarkably well, going from shocked disbelief to happy throat-ripping in the time it takes to say "load tutorial level". It's understandable, however: he needs to quickly convince players that he's not the kind of glittery pretty boy that could be played by Robert Pattinson in a potential movie adaptation.

This is an edgier vampire story, as the pounding beats of the nightclub hub level, the underdressed female characters, and the bloody takedowns should help you understand. If we're being honest, Realmforge is simply swapping one set of clichés for another: True Blood has provided plenty of material for those who like their vampires half-naked and covered in viscera over recent years.

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Still, Dark is a surprisingly focused stealth game - one that never allows guns or any other form of projectile to puncture the jugular of its core fantasy. And that fantasy is a straightforward one: you're a deadly creature of the night, and everyone else is your prey. Eric has plenty of powers that help him distract, slip past or confound guards, but he has to get up close to break their necks or sink his fangs into their throat.

The personal touch
"Not having guns was actually the first decision we made for the game, everything else was based around that,"explains art director Victor Linke. "We really wanted to make a purely stealth-based title. Games like Splinter Cell have become action games recently. We're not a huge company, we had to focus one just one gameplay idea."

So whereas Sam Fisher can use instant headshot takedowns and fancy gadgets when a mission goes bad, our failures during Dark's first level see us quickly riddled with bullets and bumped back to start of the checkpoint. We're in a museum after dark, on the hunt for an ancient vampire lord Eric needs to feed from to make his transformation into a vampire official. If he can't find said lord (or even better, the vampire who turned him in the first place) Eric will eventually transform into a mindless ghoul. Sadly, a bunch of gun-toting vampire hunters are at the museum too, and thanks to them we have to creep and stalk amongst the exhibits.

Each level has its own theme and colour scheme, the purples of the museum contrasting with the muted greens of an ensuing laboratory environment. They also tend to reveal more fantastical, horror aspects as you travel through. While the vampire hunting soldiers will be a persistent threat, you'll also fight other, newly created vampires who never drank from their makers and then went insane.

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Dark's art style has been heavily influenced by comics, with Blade being a particularly obvious source of inspiration, according to Linke. That said, the studio has tried to keep the cartoon look to a minimum, preferring a slight hint of stylisation. The punky gothic feel also takes a few cues from games like Thief and fellow bloodsucker's fable Vampire: The Masquerade.

Dark arts
Eric has some useful powers, like a teleport similar to Dishonored's Blink, but naturally you'll need blood to charge them. You can feed on any of your victims, but nearby guards will be able to hear it. Once you're powered up there's something reminiscent of Arkham Asylum in the way you can toy with enemies, though Dark lacks that game's verticality. We unlock and try one power with the experience we've earned by stealthily killing guards: it lets us temporarily confuse enemies so that Eric can stroll behind them for an easy kill.

Eric can also remain in an enemy's sightline for a few moments, his "vampire powers" allowing him an extra few seconds to skulk back in to hiding. The game is explicit about the fact that cover will keep you completely hidden even if, say, a foot appears to be poking out. It's nice to play a stealth game that's so clear about its rules, even if they do, at times, seem a little bit artificial.

Dark's a pure stealth title in a genre that's increasingly muddled with insta-kills and cover shooting, but it also lacks the polish and scale of something like Arkham City. It's back-to-basics, then, but it might be too basic for some.

Dark hits Xbox 360 on 14th June. Let us know what you think.

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