Friday, 19 March 2010

Video Game Review: Dark Void

With every video game, dare I say every form of entertainment, a single feeling tends in retrospect to define the time you've spent with it. Be that feeling excitement or disappointment, humour or heartbreak, fear or fun - the list goes on to encompass every high and low-point along the breadth of human experience - that one takeaway comes in time to signify, like a perfect mnemonic, all the myriad quirks and individual aspects of a thing.

If and when you play Dark Void, the latest effort from Crimson Skies developers Airtight Games, the thing you'll feel most often is that this curious hybrid could have been great. Equal parts shooter and arcade-esque flight sim, in the end, too many cooks rather spoil the Dark Void broth. It tries to innovate in a genre that, if not quite stuck in a rut, has certainly done little more than tick over since Epic Games made cover systems and stop-and-pop gameplay a must in any shooter outside of the Call of Duty monolith with the ubiquitous Gears of War. It means to do this... with a jetpack.

In Dark Void, after a few levels of dreary, uninspired third-person shooter fare, your player character - voiced once again by Nolan bloody North (though as per usual he turns in a naturalist, spontaneous-sounding performance) - meets Nikola Tesla, who instructs you on the fine art of aerial combat. Shortly thereafter, things take a turn for the better; you strap on your jetpack and take to the skies, where the fun lives.

Airtight Games do a fine job of making the transition between flying and shooting seem as natural as a good cheese sandwich with some nifty perspective trickery and a selection of energetic, impactful animations, and from the moment you spread your wings, it's plain to see where the developers' real strengths lie. The strange world of Dark Void - previously composed of janky in-game assets, stuttering audio, muddy textures, invisible walls and monotonous enemies which look like they've been carelessly repurposed from the Mass Effect art department's shredder - finally opens up.

At last, you can create your own entertainment out of the curious patchwork of experiences Dark Void has to offer. Shooting for the sun and freefalling to the ground from thousands of feet up only to ignite your jetpack thrusters at the last possible second and soar across the lowest point of a valley, sending up spray from the river blurring beneath you.

These are far and away the most memorable moments of Dark Void, and kudos to the developer for allowing them at all. But such sequences are never incentivised; too many players will plough through the eight-hour single player campaign without straying so far from the beaten path. Still more damningly, one short-sighted restriction or another keeps you from such gleeful exuberance for the majority of the experience, be it an invisible wall, a dead zone or a mass of textures that serve no greater purpose than to say ye shall not pass.

Mostly, though, you're stuck on terra firma, where the action amounts to a hollow barrage of budget shooter scenarios that feel forced and artificial. Neither is there much to the so-called 'vertical combat' which the publicity would have it was to distinguish Airtight Games' latest; hanging off perilous abutments and peering into bottomless chasms while wielding a weaponised Tesla coil should be utterly exhilarating, but it wears out its welcome quickly - it's just the same old moment-to-moment from a different perspective.

Dark Void should have followed the advice of its own scattershot story, which has carbon-copy clones of Drake and Elena from Uncharted 2: Among Thieves stranded in an in-between world where elements of humanity strive against the odds for freedom from their alien oppressors. Ironic, perhaps, that a game which has the boundless freedom of flight as both its primary narrative drive and the highlight of its otherwise insipid moment-to-moment gameplay instead feels claustrophobic in light of its many limitations - and I don't just mean in technical terms. Dark Void is all about what could have been; what is, isn't all that.

1 comment:

  1. Looks like an awesome video game. I just found you through the Book Blogger Hop. I love your blog and am now following you.

    Isn't this hop fun?!! :)

    Tweezle from Just One More Paragraph