Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Dark Void Review

Where's Jennifer Connelly?

Jet packs are right up there with flying cars on the list of things that, according to cartoons and movies, we should have by now. I am sure that somewhere in some dusty military warehouse there is a working prototype right next to the ark of the covenant, but it will never see public use. Even if it did I wouldn't be able to mount machine guns on it and shoot down flying saucers; it would turn into just another way to get to work, and who wants to do that any faster than they have to? Games dedicated to rocket men are few and far between as well. The Rocketeer comes to mind, and that was bad even for an NES game. Still, expectations were high for Dark Void. Airtight Games is made up of more than a few people who put together Crimson Skies, which was one of my favorite oXbox games, multiplayer or otherwise. Dark Void lacks air piracy, but at least there is (purportedly) flying around and shooting things, which is as good a place as any to start.

Fly around you do, in the very first level, which would be an excellent introduction if the flying was any good. I was not expecting simulator-esque controls. On the contrary, straight arcade dog fights like the ones from Heroes over Europe would have been just fine. The way the jet pack moves is certainly not realistic, but it is also far to slow for what is basically a man flying though the air with his ass on fire. Turning around to catch up with a passed opponent takes forever, forcing the use of special moves to stay on a target. These moves eat up boost meter and are very disorienting, which leads to chasing around single enemies chipping away at their health with an almost uncontrollable targeting cursor for minutes at a time. This is also assuming that another bad guy doesn't fly in behind you and fill you full of holes. The jet pack hero may turn like a much larger plane, but he takes hits like the small, squishy target he really is.

Bonus points if you knew who this was before googling Tesla.

The prologue is definitely a trial by fire, but just as I got a hold of things it ended and it was all taken away. Enter Will, the swarthy protagonist who looks a bit like Nathan Drake, acts a lot like Nathan Drake, and sounds exactly like Nathan Drake. This isn't an homage, this is lifting an excellent character from an excellent game and dropping him into a mediocre game with mediocre writing and below average dialogue (in other words, Indiana Jones 4). It would be easy to overlook if it was just his voice that was the same, Nolan North is everywhere these days and you can't fault a guy for making a living, but Will might as well be the same person. He even mumbles when he takes a hit, only he complains over and over about bruising easily and has nothing else to say. It is quite fitting that Will is an unremarkable character: up until he can fly there is nothing interesting about what he does either.

For the first two agonizing levels Will is nothing more than a thin Marcus Fenix in a game that neither looks as good nor plays as well as other games in the genre. For a game that was supposed to be about flying around there is an awful lot of time spent not flying. When Will finally gets a jet pack (from Nickola Tesla, who wins the character out of left field award) it is limited to giving him a glorified double jump. So instead of a bland horizontal shooter it becomes a bland 'vertical' shooter. This new mechanic probably sounded good on paper, but it is little more than an easy test for vertigo susceptibility. The vertical cover would actually make more sense if it were applied over larger areas instead as killer ladders with pop out targets. It's not a bad idea (mostly because it didn't make me dizzy) but it is not applied well.

What game am I playing again?

Will does eventually get a full blown jet pack, but the controls never get any better than they were in the prologue. It is much easier to hijack enemies flying saucers than it is to shoot them down, and jumping into a stationary turret is even more effective than that. I spent several long sections of a game supposedly about flying sitting in an anti-air gun. Sure, I could have gotten out and tried to actually the use the pack, but it was never worth the effort. The final level finally forces actual flying skills, but it is only for a single boss and then the game is done. Dark Void starts out shaky, and at around five hours it is never given the chance to improve. The questionable flight controls could have been overcome with more time. Instead the game ends just as it is about to begin with a lousy plot twist that matches the quality of everything that came before it.

I expected a lot more from Dark Void. I was looking forward to the easy to learn but accurate flying of Crimson Skies and I didn't get it. I was not looking for just another third person shooter which is exactly what I got. This is yet another action game with flight sections thrown in, and the flying just isn't good enough to warrant wading through everything else. A reasonable plot would have been nice, too, instead I got The Adventures of Nathan Drake's long lost brother, an uninteresting love interest, and Tesla in the Bermuda Triangle. Play it for laughs or gamerpoints, perhaps, but Dark Void is not a trip worth taking if you are looking for anything else.

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