Dark Void Review: Turbulence After Take-Off

Capcom’s Dark Void promises to offer a “unique third-person shooter experience” and unparalleled 3D action so compelling that Hollywood is already planning to translate it to the big screen. The latter is actually true, but the bold claim is akin to eating two halves of an egg and swearing it tastes different than eating the egg whole.

Members from the team at long-defunct FASA Studios that developed Crimson Skies for Xbox 360 are behind Dark Void, their first game under the new appropriately named Airtight Studios. The influences passed down through the transition are unmistakable as Dark Void’s hero, Will, straps on a prototype jetpack roughly one-quarter through the campaign and takes to the sky against an alien race, the Watchers, who live in a parallel dimension and have plans none-too-pleasant for mankind. When not in the air, anytime there is ground to touch down upon once the jetpack is introduced, Will is controllable as a fully functional third-person shooter player.

The problem with blending two distinct gameplay styles in the same package is both are adequate and workable but neither is given an opportunity to push any boundaries within their respective confines. Mission number one sees Will separated from his old flame, Ava, after crash landing in the Void where he must fight his way on foot to her position in a village. With only two weapons to choose from, the same enemy Watchers repeatedly and predictably attack which leads to an hour of taking repetitive pop shots in a duck shooting gallery.

Complicating third-person ground combat is the enemies become invulnerable when shot as their body flinches back in reaction to being struck. You have to wait for the animation to complete and the Watcher to snap back to his original stance before scoring the next hit. This nuisance becomes cumbersome and time consuming with the first level of upgradable weapons that inflict little damage even on Watchers at the bottom of the strength pecking order.

Ground combat morphs into vertical maneuvering as Will dons a basic jetpack and is gifted with the ability to leap twenty or so feet in the air. This opens up several series of linear ledges in which Will must either descend or climb to reach various objectives and clear levels. Combat on these levels is initially fresh and exciting, and for those challenged by Vertigo perhaps even disturbing. But the predictable Watcher movements and monotony of having to scale a giant wall over and over again after dying outlasts its welcome before the top or bottom is finally reached.

A discovery of a prototype jetpack sends Will fully into the air where controls are a lot like flying a helicopter. You can speed forward as Will’s legs flail wildly behind him, hover in place and, in a nod to Crimson Skies, perform a quick flip 180-degree turn using an awkward and difficult to master clicking of one thumb stick and maneuvering of the other. These controls are relatively tight and fun to maneuver within wide open spaces where you can switch between exploring on the ground and taking flight to assess a battle from above, of which unfortunately there are not nearly enough of.

A compelling story might have help Dark Void overcome its game play inadequacies but in this case the writers were trying a little too hard to force twists and turns surrounding the Watchers and in the process skipped relevant information and back story along the way. The narrative comes across as fragmented and incomplete with characters and situations mentioned briefly then never expanded upon. Aliens and science fiction inherently provide promise, but for Dark Void much of what needs to be said never escapes the Void.

Shortcomings that affect the story reach the visuals with fairly mundane graphics for a game running on the Unreal 3 Engine. The character designs and landscapes are not bad per se, but Unreal 3 is capable of much more detail, shadowing and intensity. When the game froze twice requiring a console reboot and replaying the level, the only logical explanation is buggy code as there is no way Dark Void pushes Xbox 360 or PS3 to its limits.

Ribbing Dark Void aside, despite its flaws there is a relatively decent good time to be had flying through the air and taking out Watchers and their machinery while a cinematic score strums in the background. Replay value is restricted however to having hidden items marked on the map after completing the campaign with no evidence of a multiplayer mode anywhere. Given a game that touts itself as offering a “new unique experience,” Airtight Studios was foolish to overlook such an integral basic aerial combat game element.

– Dan Bradley

Shop for Dark Void on PS3 or Xbox 360 at a discounted price from Amazon.com.

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