Dark Void’s hero, Will Grey, is voiced by actor Nolan North who is most famous for delivering the dulcet tones of a certain Nathan Drake in the Uncharted series. The game opens with a brief prelude, but it’s not long before Will finds his seaplane being knocked out of the sky, plunging him into a series of jungle shoot-outs (ducking and diving behind cover!) before moving on to a spot of platforming. Now, we’re great believers in giving every game we review a fair chance, but after this opening we have to wonder what was going through Capcom and Airtight Games’ minds when they crafted it – to seemingly square-up so blatantly against Naughty Dog’s juggernaut is either supremely confident, or slightly misguided. It’s a comparison that almost inevitably leaves Capcom’s title with a bloody nose and, more importantly, places it in danger of being disregarded as little more than an Uncharted clone.
But then…we skipped over the game’s prelude didn’t we, and it is this section that is a better indicator of the game that is to follow. In it, an un-named pilot zips through dusty canyons on a jet-pack, pursued by flying saucers and flanked by futuristic biplanes; a tense but slightly bewildering dog fight ensues, and then it’s over…and off to the jungle we go…
As game openings go, Dark Void’s hints that upstart developers Airtight Games have a large degree of ambition, matched with a good knowledge of the gaming greats. That many of its staff worked on the Crimson Skies series is easily apparent, that they might not have the same level of experience with third person action adventures is at times similarly clear. Despite the latter, what they do have is ideas; when delivered with enough verve these ideas can take you a long way, especially in an industry stuffed to the gills with clones and wannabes.
The game’s plot is straight out of a science fiction b-movie. Crash-landing somewhere in the Bermuda triangle, Will Grey finds himself caught in an epic struggle between the mysterious, alien Watchers and a ragtag group of human survivors led by Nikola Tesla (an actual historical figure, famous for his work with electromagnetism in the late 19th and early 20th centuries). Its thematic and stylistic influences appear to be many – there’s a smidgen of Star Wars and a smattering of Flash Gordon blended with elements from The Rocketeer and Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow. To delve too deeply into the plot would be to spoil the experience, but we can report that the narrative is engaging, and the fantasy setting feels uninhibited and fun; while Dark Void does have cinematic pretensions, it knows that first and foremost it is a videogame. However, we can absolutely see why Brad Pitt’s production company – Plan B Entertainment – has bought the film rights; there’s potential for a cracking movie to be made using this as source material.
In terms of production values, Dark Void is solid if not always spectacular. The graphics are generally robust but won’t blow you away and the character animation can be a little clunky at times. In true Capcom style, the bosses and larger foes stand out as particular highlights, and there are a few set pieces that will stick in the mind. Much of the scenery does have a slight lack of character, but on the whole it gels together reasonably well. Of particular note is the soundtrack, which has been produced by Battlestar Galactica composer Bear McReary and recorded by a 62 piece orchestra; the result is a score that is epic, rousing and really quite lovely!
Dark Void’s gameplay is something of a shapeshifter, with the style of play changing rapidly from scene to scene. As already mentioned, it opens with a dizzying jet-pack flight, then moves on to more traditional third person action adventure territory. Gradually as the narrative unfolds, Airtight Games introduce a number of elements that are both quirky and imaginative, such as the much vaunted ‘vertical cover system’. Imagine playing a standard duck and cover shooter, but hanging on to the side of a cliff, and you’re not far off. While this is a brilliant and ingenious concept, in practice it probably doesn’t have the impact it should; it does provide a great sense of vertigo but movement from ledge to ledge doesn’t quite have the fluidity that we hoped for and, in practice it doesn’t feel that different from more standard fare. That being said, it is heartening to see something new being tried, and Airtight have laid strong foundations should they attempt to expand on this element in the future.
The other main element of the game is the jet-pack powered flight and dog fighting and it is here that Airtight’s heritage really shows. Playing very much like Crimson Skies or Incognito’s excellent Warhawk, air combat can be a visceral and cinematic affair. The jet-pack also allows for a great degree of versatility, with Will being able to hover as well as high-jack enemy craft in mid-air. Attempting the latter triggers an interactive cutscene in which you must wrench a protective control panel off the ship while dodging gunfire. For our liking, this element could have been a little snappier (the process can become a little bit of a chore over time) but nevertheless it is a nice touch.
When not dog fighting or leaping up vertical climbs, you find yourself in open combat and it is here that the jet pack really comes in to play. While we’re not sure about Capcom’s claim that this is ‘The first Fully 3D action-shooter’, we can see what they’re trying to get at. Confrontations can be fairly fluid affairs as you nip around the battlefield, soaring high to offer covering fire before dive bombing down to batter an exo-suited Watcher pawn up close and personal. How you approach objectives is also very open to experimentation.
The most significant thing about Dark Void is that it is consistently entertaining, with enough plot twists, variations in gameplay and a sprinkling of impressive set pieces to keep proceedings whipping along at a fairly breathless pace. Additionally, the weapons fit the sci-fi setting well, packing a real punch and also have a nice degree of variety. Our particular favourite is the ‘Magnetar’, that lifts foes into the air while electrocuting them. All weapons can be upgraded, adding further incentive to replay the game once completed.
Dark Void has a number of shortcomings most obvious of which is its length; clocking in at around 8 hours and with no multiplayer or co-op modes, it is a fairly brief experience. It also suffers from a noticeable number of bugs – we witnessed everything from fallen enemies’ spasming wildly on the floor, bosses failing to connect with the ground beneath them and framerates crashing to a virtual standstill. Though we must emphasise that these incidents were reasonably rare (with the latter only happening two or three times throughout the whole experience) it is disappointing that such issues weren’t eradicated before launch. The enemy A.I. also leaves a lot to be desired.
Dark Void poses something of a dilemma. On one hand, it is an extremely enjoyable, quirky and lovingly crafted B-movie adventure delivered by a developer with obvious ambition. Much of it works beautifully, combining elements that feel at once refreshing, ingenious and exciting. On the other hand, however, it has a number of fairly significant rough edges with elements that don’t stack up quite as well when compared to other titles in the action adventure genre. Ultimately, as a videogame B-movie, Dark Void succeeds in convincing you to forgive most of its blemishes by the fact that at its best, it simply feels fun and vital and when the end credits roll, there’s every likelihood that you will want to dive right back in. Whether it has done enough – or indeed if it will sell enough – to warrant a sequel has yet to be seen, but we’d be more than happy to strap the jet-pack on and take to the skies for another outing; we just hope there’s a little more polish in the next outing.
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