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One part third-person shooter, one part arcade flight; Dark Void is a bit of a muddled mess...
- Strong controls.
- Satisfactory aerial gameplay.
- Repetitive combat.
- Uninspired challenges.
- Dull boss battles.
Considering recent comments coming from Capcom following Bionic Commando's less then stellar performance, it seems Dark Void could mark one of the last titles of a strategy that saw the Japanese publisher team up with Western developers. Given the sales of the GRIN developed title, who can blame them?
Formed from the ashes of FASA Studios, Dark Void is the first title to emerge from Airtight Studios and can trace its influences to the former Microsoft studio's work on Crimson Skies. A third-person shooter that straps a jet-pack on the main character, Will, and spuriously claims to be the "first fully 3D shooter", Dark Void's claims are tenuous at best, but suggestive of the fact that combat isn't exclusively restricted to the ground.
Set in a parallel universe that finds Will and his companion Ava battling against an alien race known as the Watchers in a plot that surrounds a Fascist movement to world war, Dark Void's incoherent approach to cut-scenes and plot fails to really portray the story and the game's backdrop to any sufficient effect. Perhaps it's an element of indifference, but Dark Void managed to leave us genuinely mystified as to what actually happened once the end credits rolled - but not in a good way. Characters such as the Imperator, an Oracle of sorts, are mentioned but never explicitly shown and flashbacks are seemingly thrown in at random without any apparent cause but to hint towards a romance. Ultimately, Dark Void's characters and plot fail to leave an impression and don't provide any draw or compulsion, leaving the player detached from the proceedings as a result.
So it's left to the actual game, a mixture of insipid Gears of War styled third-person combat, elevated by the ability to hover in the air for an aerial advantage or take to the skies in gameplay that's more in common with arcade flight games like the aforementioned Crimson Skies. A bit of a jumbled heap when it comes to gameplay, which is also evident throughout many facets of the game. In many ways it seems it began its life at another publisher, with an adventure tone and cast of characters unmistakably shaped like Indiana Jones while cries of "Stay on target" and warnings of 'bad feelings' are nods to another Lucas universe - even the translucent blue subtitle font is identical to the one featured in numerous Star Wars games. But underneath this the game is unmistakably a Capcom game, if only by it's punishing difficulty. It's not necessarily a trait of advanced AI or clever design, but remnants of game design from a bygone era. Difficulty stems from frustration in Dark Void; moments such as checkpoints respawning you in the middle of a gunfight which brings an instant death and a vicious cycle of reloads.
Once the jetpack is fully equipped the game does at least become mildly entertaining. The game's strengths lie with the flight controls, which are smooth, responsive and capture the excitement of flying with nothing but a jetpack strapped to the back pretty well. Will's limbs flail like crazy as he shifts around in the air, while evasive manoeuvres such as quick turns and spins are controlled with a slightly strange technique of clicking the right thumbstick and pressing different directions on both sticks. It's a control system that initially seems bewildering, largely because it is. It never truly feels comfortable, but does eventually become less cumbersome with further play and perseverance even if it doesn't quite handle the scope of Dark Void's vertical combat. Strangely there's strong similarities to Capcom's Bionic Commando, where the dynamic of the bionic arm was a sound concept but not fully realised or developed. You can trace Capcom's influence in both titles, but it's apparent that a more watchful eye was needed.
There's a very good reason why most shooters keep targets largely limited to a horizontal plain, as controlling a reticule in a shooter can be tough at the best of times in shooters that are more vertically challenged. The idea that opening this up to both horizontal and extreme vertical dimensions isn't necessarily anything new, but it's a concept that has still yet to be fully realised. The various Watcher units have a habit of taking to the skies, and without an auto-aim or slight assistance, the very basics of targeting the enemy can be a frustrating routine, albeit one that becomes easier the more you play. It's not a flaw of the control system, but just a big question mark over the fundamental design of the game. Occasionally the Gears of War cover is taken to the vertical dimension, with the ability to jet pack to an elevated ledge. Although the Watchers do handle the freedom of the environment and the vertical dimension quite efficiently, such sections quickly suffer from extremely repetitive whack-a-mole gameplay. Further still, it's only designated ledges that Will can latch on to, which leaves you constantly asking: "If he's got a jetpack, why can't he use it?" Thankfully, Dark Void doesn't even attempt to do anything beyond combat. Whenever the game involves control panels or locked doors it's simply a case of shooting them, rather then traipsing around the uninspired levels looking for keys or attempting a mini-game. For that, we're pretty appreciative.
It's also hard to get too excited by the average production values. Dark Void isn't the worst looking game to be powered by Unreal Engine 3, but it's certainly not pretty. The main grief stems from the lack of ambition granted to its overall presentation and direction. Uncharted 2 has demonstrated how to weave cut-scenes and gameplay to create a tighter, more immersive experience. Dark Void's stale, static structure of gameplay and cut-scenes now feels archaic and leaves you asking why certain, more explosive action depicted in cut-scenes couldn't have been incorporated into gameplay more efficiently.
Ultimately the game suffers from an inescapable sense of monotony. Although flying is a better alternative to walking in a humdrum third-person shooter, it doesn't help to raise the tedium of the action. Occasionally an objective such as bringing down the shields and taking down an installation from the inside helps to alleviate the tedium, but Dark Void never manages to instill a sense of excitement - a killing blow for a shooter. Even boss battles, surely a staple ingredient of anything with Capcom on the front, are few and far between and fail to really dramatise the action to any significant degree. Worse comes from the fact that the game suffers from some pretty severe bugs and glitches that should have been stamped out during the Q&A stage. A pretty routine section brought the most severe slowdown we've seen in a video game for years, to the point of almost becoming unplayable, while a replay on the final boss made it impossible to switch between hover and flying states, forcing a reset of the system.
The game's 14 stages come to an end in an average number of hours and a thoroughly unsatisfying manner. With such an abrupt ending you'd imagine it's been left open for a sequel, but surely such chances seem remote given the game's likely performance at retail. Reward for completing the game comes in the form of an enhanced radar that shows the location of all of the missed collectables; forgive us if we didn't jump straight back into the game to discover everything. If Dark Void largely manages to provide an unremarkable experience, some surprise comes from the lack of a tacked on multiplayer mode. Typically we moan at such attempts, but we're certainly shocked that Airtight Studios didn't see the opportunity of aerial dogfights to at least add the illusion of replay value.
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