When I set out to play a game, I often have a pretty good idea of what I’m getting in to. Whether it is from listening to podcast upon podcast or simply sifting through pages of gaming news and previews, I often know at least a semblance of what a game is about and how it will turn out before I even get a chance to put the controller in my hand. That’s why it is always refreshing to come across a game that I may know of by name, and maybe even have a slight idea of what the gameplay “hook” may be, but not having any concept of what I am starting. This was my experience walking into my local purveyor of fine video games and grabbing a copy of Dark Void to sample.
There have been few games recently that have caused as much of a mixed reaction from me as Dark Void. Developed by Airtight Games, whose pedigree includes the critically acclaimed dogfight air combat game Crimson Skies, it feels like such a mixed bag even to get a verbal description of the gameplay let alone play it. It is a concept that marries the air combat of a proper fighter pilot battle with cover-based ground combat á là Gears of War, and it does this by giving you a game built in Unreal Engine and strapping a jet pack to it. It’s about as simple as that.
Well, perhaps it is not as simple as that.
My first impression of the game was not positive, and it probably wouldn’t be for you either if you tried the demo. The game itself does a bit more to impress than the snapshot they included by pitting you in a dogfight and learning controls on your jet pack. The game then rockets you into the actual story by introducing your main characters, none of which I really grew attached to at all during the course of the game. You may recognize the voice of Nolan North who played Nathan Drake in Uncharted 2, and beyond the art style plays a very similar role as the protagonist Will. He’s introduced as a crack, dishonorably discharged fighter pilot who is lost in a flight to the Bermuda Triangle and thrown into a mysterious world where he is forced to fight for survival. It’s an interesting premise, but so poorly delivered and explained throughout the entire game that is hardly worth mentioning.
The worst part about giving you the jet pack sequence at the beginning of the game is that it takes a whole four chapters before they let you get back to that element. What they drag you through is likely the worse element of the game, the ground combat. It is pretty standard third-person shooter territory; you find cover, hide behind it and pop out every once and a while to shoot bad guys in the head. None of the weapons feel particularly accurate, so getting through some sequences can be frustrating and the game does a poor job of giving you a lot of visual cues as to whether or not you’re doing a good job until you upgrade to more explosive ammo. That combined with the fact that the enemies you are shooting at are thin and stiffly animated, it means you don’t know at what point they are going to move and whether or not you’re going to hit them from the angle you approach.
The halfway point between the air and ground combat is something the developers have deemed “vertical combat”, which is when the game goes completely topsy-turvey. Imagine looking over a ledge downwards at an enemy. Now imagine your perspective shifts such that looking down the cliff suddenly becomes looking forward, and your character defies the bounds of human physiology by bending himself over the edge to turn the ledge into some sort of makeshift cover, while enemies below use the underside of other ledges to cover themselves. Now you need to know that at any given moment, you can rocket down to an adjacent ledge and instantly grab cover, flip onto the underside of the ledge to now make the “up” direction your new “forward” and once again flip your whole perspective. If that is hard to grasp in reading, imagine your first experience playing as the idea of motion sickness creeps into the back of your head and you start to wonder if this could be your first time having to pause a game due to dizziness.
Despite being disorienting, the vertical combat is actually a lot of fun. The issue really is that enemies fall too easily, especially given that you can just fly to the underside of their ledges and press the “instantly kill them” button to dispatch your would-be assassins. Having to keep an eye above, below and adjacent to you is also a bit tricky, especially when the levels are very dark and the enemies’ normally eye-bubblingly bright blue glow seems to dim. And it’s these kinds of complaints that seemed to nag at me throughout my entire experience; AI accompany missions where the person you are protecting seems to dart into the line of fire whenever they see fit to, hovering enemies with perfectly accurate shots while similar efforts on my part felt like I was trying to do too much at once and could never quite get the aiming right. This combined with too many odd breaks in gameplay that felt like pieces of game that just never came together. Some chapters were far too short with some really fun shooting and others were way too long with gratuitous air battles that just felt stretched out.
Animations of the characters were very stiff, the story was barely explained and the dialogue consisted as many clichés as you could fit in a single sentence. When it finally all comes together and makes a good effort of making a cohesive story, it throws it out the window and becomes so ridiculous that I could hardly keep from laughing. Weak fire fights, some oddly placed checkpoints that were often far too infrequent and an end boss that was so lackluster I could hardly believe the game was over just all comes together to disguise all the good pieces and make the game feel like an unfinished concept. The pieces that were polished come out quite glaringly and make the game compelling enough that I wanted to complete it, because the flying is actually pretty spectacular once you get the hang of it. The only issue is that when your game is highly dependent on a cover system and recharging your health by taking said cover, flying around doesn’t quite fit into that and you will find yourself dying and rag-dolling through the environment if you get caught in the midst of some heavy fire, especially with large enemies gunning for you.
One of the other very confusing pieces is the fact that the game’s main menu explains the downloadable content is available. This is confusing because it seems to be not true, as I could find no evidence of DLC on the Playstation Store nor through any in-game store. There are also a large subset of trophies devoted to said DLC that were present on the first day the game came out, and I have not seen any announcements regarding that as of yet.
Dark Void feels like a game that took on a bit too much without a cohesive way of putting it all together. The combat is based on Gears of War, utilizing the same engine, and the flying combat is built on the experience the team had with Crimson Skies. Switching between these two in mid battle can yield some painful results, as by default your Y-Axis is inverted and if you are trying to aim below you when you start your jet pack you will end up bouncing off the ground until death. It’s that kind of awkward transition that sums up my experience with the game – lots of interesting pieces of a game that just don’t seem to fit together well.
So what I’m trying to say is…
I am torn about my feelings toward Dark Void, but am generally disappointed by the overall product. The story does nothing for me, and neither the ground or air combat feels good enough on its own to merit any sort of recommendation. There are a lot of strong moments in the game that bring all the pieces together, but generally it feels like a mishmash of good ideas that weren’t quite cohesively executed.
Dark Void was developed by Airtight Games and published by Capcom. The game is available for the Xbox 360 and Playstation 3, the latter of which I reviewed, and is available for $59.99. Game completed on Normal in about 6-8 hours. Time spent careening into the ground…too long.