Review: Dark Void (X360)

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Dark Void will make you angry. Not because of its sometimes iffy controls or the fact that it isn’t the next Crimson Skies. But because when you think that you’re about to win a desperately fought fight, it often decides to shut you down by locking up.

But that is only the first of several issues that have made Dark Void a bitter disappointment for this would-be Rocketeer.

Airtight Games was formed by several developers that had left FASA Interactive shortly after completing Crimson Skies, taking with them some of the imaginative expertise that had created one of the most unique arcade fliers available for the PC and console crowd. Instead of embarking on another prop-driven fantasy, they decided to head into the unfriendly skies with an upgradeable jet pack stuffed to the turbines with hot lead. It’s almost as close to a love letter for Disney’s film adaptation of The Rocketeer could be without turning this into another movie tie-in. It even starts in the same year that the movie does: 1938.

You are cast as Will, a leather-jacketed, daredevil pilot that has seen better days. Both he and a friend are getting a special, midnight cargo run ready for a mysterious courier who turns out to be Ava, Will’s former paramour. But any hope or rekindling those feelings in the air are brought to a crashing halt over the Bermuda Triangle during a nasty storm. Suddenly finding themselves stranded with a few other lost humans in a place called the Void, they also run into an alien force known only as the Watchers who don’t take kindly to visitors.

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It’s not a bad premise and mixing in conspiracy theories along with Nikola Tesla sounds like it could be fun. But even with Uncharted’s Nolan North putting in a solid performance as Nathan Dra- er, Will, alongside other well acted characters, the story doesn’t come off as much of a coherent adventure because of how little of it there actually is. Other than a few notable scenes, the presentation of its high flying yarn does a weak job of tying your actions into caring for anything else other than in shooting up more bad guys, a stark contrast to the vibrant color that the characters and setting of Crimson Skies had done so well with. There are journals scattered around that shed a little light on what is going on, but much like Resistance 2′s approach, all of these little details will be lost to anyone that doesn’t take the time to find them.

Even the opportunity to integrate Nikola Tesla feels wasted as the vaunted inventor is used in only a few scenes leaving the impression that he was only included for his name. I’m not asking for him to have been treated in the same way as Leonardo da Vinci was in Ubisoft’s Assassin’s Creed II where he proved to be helpful and as much a part of the story as the lead, but having more than a few cameos would probably have made him more than a passing fad.

But another factor to the story’s weak ability to draw me in has more to do with the Void itself which is about as empty and as uninteresting as it sounds. There are a few sets that are great to fight through, but for the most part, once you’ve seen one alien base or rocky outcropping, you’ve seen it all. The stylized look of the characters added a bit more color to the storytelling cinematics, but some of the animations appeared pretty stiff and Ava’s freakishly long fingers were just hard to get out of my head. On the plus side, the venue does provide plenty of vertical options to explore via jet pack or on foot. And Battlestar Galactica’s Bear McCreary orchestrates a fantastic soundtrack that is worth listening to even if the rest of the game doesn’t quite match its intensity.

The third-person action is divided into the flying stuff and the action on the ground as you take Will into a shoot ‘em up against a seemingly endless, and extremely dumb, army of robot warriors. The ground action is as basic as it comes with a cover system, blind fire, and the handy ability to carry two different weapons at the same time. There are even upgradeable options that can be explored thanks to picking up “glowing balls” that bestow “tech points” Will can spend in between stages or at special weapon lockers. Each weapon has three different upgrade levels giving the player an additional incentive in exploring every corner of the Void for hidden caches, but the drudgery of the actual fighting makes even this endeavor unexciting.

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The enemy has about as much genius as a rock thrown at you even if they do resemble the Geth from Mass Effect They can hurt you, sure, but they mostly use the same tactics making them, and the gameplay formula, painfully predictable. One neat trick that the game throws at the player is the ability to flip down a cliffside onto ledges and platforms below without fear, using those as vertical cover against enemies coming up. Once Will snags a jet pack, he can head up in the same way and this twist is pretty cool for awhile until the actual fighting and the sameness of your enemies turns this into yet another boring exercise.

But this is a flying game because the really awesome art on the case says so (the manual is also nice to look at). So it does better there, right? Sort of.

The flight mechanics take some getting used to. When the game begins, it literally throws you into the role of some guy with a jet pack in the Void, making another case for how slapdash the story is because it makes little effort to actually tell you just what you are looking at. Anyway, it will take you through the basics for when Will actually ‘borrows’ the rocket pack invented by Tesla (apparently he’s okay with that…or not…that’s also never made very clear) but it could have spent more time with what matters most: taking off.

Taking off without getting killed requires a little practice since you don’t automatically go zipping into the direction that the reticle is necessarily pointed at and can easily end up smashing one’s self into the ground, cliff, alien crate, or whatever else is nearby, lose control, and continue with said smashing until dead. If you expect Will to go straight up when he launches, don’t be surprised if he crashes his head into the nearest wall.

Once you’re in the air, though, the manageable controls and the pack’s mounted machine guns make flying after enemy saucers more fun than in shooting up or kicking aliens on the ground. Will also has regenerating health which blurs the screen the more hurt he gets, but staying out of harm’s way while on foot or while hovering in the air quickly put him back into fighting form. It’s odd how he recovers from damage a lot slower when he’s in flight, even without anyone shooting at him, though.

Will can also hijack enemy saucers, jump aboard human fighters as a pilot, or man an anti-aircraft cannon to sweep the air clear of bad guys. Of all of these activities, however, hijacking a saucer sounds like it could have been an exciting change of pace from using “human” weapons reverse engineered from alien tech, but I was wrong.

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Hijacking a saucer requires a mini-game in which Will has to dodge a mounted defense cannon, hang on to the flipping ring of the saucer, and somehow find enough time to rip off the rear engine cover to force open the cockpit. Another QTE sequence later will determine whether or not Will kills the alien pilot or vice versa, but if successful, you now have a saucer with some decent firepower (you just have to trust the game on the fact that he just KNOWS how to fly these things).

If you think this is way too much to ask for over simply shooting it down instead with the jet pack, you would be right. After doing it the first few times, I decided to just simply blow everything out of the sky with my jet pack especially after upgrading it with missiles. The only reason I could see for hijacking more saucers was to get the Achievement for doing it so many times.

The pacing can also grind your patience down given how most of the game consists of simply shooting everything from the sky or on the ground. There were only a few exciting moments such as when Will had to bring down an alien battleship, or when he had to save his friends by bringing down three titanic alien walkers, but most every other sequence felt like typical combat filler against the same crop of mass produced peons.

Of all of these sequences, though, the worst one was when the game forced the player to escort a large ship through enemy territory in an excruciatingly drawn out shooting gallery several minutes longer than it should be for doing the same thing over and over again. There are also a one or two boss battles, but while they certainly appeared to have the potential to be awesome showpieces (the last stage probably had the best backdrop out of the entire game), they had little else to offer other than in putting on a good show of looking big and fearsome.

The game is also short. We’re talking maybe five to seven hours worth of play with no multiplayer, no unlockable extras other than an improved radar to help find any bonus extras that might have been missed, or any other reason to go through it again. The formulaic feel of much of the action, other than in the directions that it explores, hardly made the gameplay worth it the first time through making it something that only Achievement hounds may want to pursue. Even then, there’s one very good reason why replaying Dark Void is not on my list of things to do and the real reason for being thankful that it has a decent checkpoint system.

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Dark Void is somewhat broken. It managed to freeze up no less than four times in one session and this is the same system I used with another Unreal Engine game, Army of Two: The 40th Day. I tried out a few other games to see if my system was to blame, such as Bayonetta, and everything else ran without a hiccup. Trying Dark Void again, it seemed to be working until the next stage when it froze up. I walked away from the game until the following day when it seemed to be fine, freezing up only once. But this, more than anything else, has convinced me that going back into it is far from being worth the frustration.

Remembering my time with Crimson Skies on the PC and on the Xbox made me hope that Dark Void could bring back more of the hot leaded daring it was known for backed by a rogue’s gallery of personalities. The variety of missions, the crazy stunts, and the sheer number of things that I had enjoyed there are surprisingly absent from this game. It’s not so much that I wanted another Crimson Skies, but that I wanted to play something that brought in the same spirit of adventure and white knuckled variety of action that anyone would want from a game with as much experience behind it.

There are hints that I picked up of what it could have been like, of the atmospheric flavor partly inspired by the Rocketeer, Flash Gordon, and the mysteries of the Bermuda Triangle. Will is a likeable character, more could have been made of the Survivors and the Watchers, and it even leaves it open to a potential sequel. Instead, in looking past its vertical veneer, Dark Void’s disappointingly forgettable action filled with unexpected technical surprises turn this into a flight would-be heroes may not regret skipping out on.

Dark Void
Xbox 360, PS3, Microsoft Windows
Capcom / Airtight Games
Rated T for Teen