Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Review // Dark Void

Every time Dark Void does something right, something legitimately awesome that other games don't deliver, it smacks right into a wall moments later. How could a game with a premise as awesome as "Gears of War with a jetpack" possibly fail?

What Worked

The Jetpack: Nothing is more satisfying than hurtling toward your objective, completely ignoring a dozen on-foot enemies ready for a fight, then hurtling right past them again after you've completed that objective. It feels dangerous to fly that fast, especially indoors, but that's what makes it so damn thrilling. The way your character flails in such a visceral, out of control way as you fly makes it look dangerous, too. Once you're comfortable using the jetpack, you can pull off some very cool stuff that would make playing as Marcus Fenix again feel incredibly boring.

Vertical Cover: The first time you realize that you need to take cover going down is pretty amazing. The first time you can't remember which way is up until an enemy's body unceremoniously tumbles past you is mesmerizing. If vertical cover sounds like a gimmick, it's because it is, but it's a really fun gimmick. It doesn't revolutionize the genre, nor does it need to. When the vertical cover is combined with dynamically shifting environments, it really does add a much appreciated new dimension to Dark Void's combat.

Art Direction: I really like the way this game looks. The alien structures and technology, the UFOs, the jetpack... It all has a great sense of style. The alien environments have such an interesting look to them that it's actually a shame that the rest of the Void just fluctuates between generic jungle and desert environments. Even the box art has an extremely appealing flair to it. There are a lot of iconic designs at work here, and that goes a long way toward making Dark Void special.

The Music: When it was announced that the guy who scores Battlestar Gallactica would be composing the soundtrack to Dark Void, I couldn't possibly be more indifferent. I don't watch that show, so I just took it on good faith that it was probably a smart decision. And boy, was it. Dark Void's distinctive soundtrack just pounds away while you soar through the sky, mixing traditional tribal and sci-fi music elements to ramp up the action. I can't wait for it to be released on February 9.

What Didn't

Will Grey: Nolan North is a great voice actor, but he's been in so many games recently, playing the exact same role in all of them, that his presence is actually a negative. It's tiring, and it's not even his fault. It's the fault of lazy developers that would rather just have Nathan Drake with a jetpack than create an original character. And that's exactly what Will is: Nathan Drake with a jetpack. Even if you ignore that issue, Will Grey is still not a compelling character. For instance, his relationship with Ava, his ex-girlfriend, feels so transparently shoehorned into the story that it drags everything down.

The Story: The completely awkward, out-of-place romance with Ava isn't the only issue with Dark Void's story. My biggest gripe is that it's paced way too quickly. Normally, I like fast-paced narratives, but here it simply feels like you're being rushed along for no reason. If you've played the demo, you know what I mean. Every cut scene is like this, with zero reflection given to how crazy Will's situation really is. When Will first encounters the tribal people living in the Void, they're already waiting to turn him away without explanation. One of them is already waiting to help Will out, despite having no reason to do so. Your first meeting with Nikola Tesla is so quick and without impact that I was left wondering why he was even in the game at all.

You can also expect plenty of bland dialogue to ensure that you won't get attached to any of the characters, so by the time the story takes its requisite, blatantly The Matrix-inspired directional shift, you'll already have gotten over any naive notions that this is a story worth caring about.

Aerial Battles: You know how aerial battles usually go in games. You spend half your time turning to face off-screen enemies that are busy turning to face you, and the other half getting shot at. It's no different in Dark Void. Maybe it's because I just don't like dogfighting in games without "Rogue Squadron" somewhere in the title, but the aerial battles were the least fun aspect of the entire game for me. Of course, it doesn't help that most of the aerial battles are also tied to protecting structures and are too lengthy. I found that the quickest way to power through these missions was to just man an anti-aircraft gun and ignore flight altogether. For a game about being a guy with a jetpack, that's not good.

Technical Issues: Every time I stopped playing Dark Void, it was because I literally had to. An infinite loading screen here, an outright crash there. But even when everything was "working," it wasn't always working. The frame rate, for example, is incredibly unreliable. Sometimes it would run smooth; other times it would get noticeably choppy. Throw in the occasional glitch and you've got a game that feels rushed, despite having been delayed.

Why I Want A Sequel

That Jetpack Is Awesome: Just the promise of using a jetpack in a third-person shooter is reason enough to warrant some Dark Void sequels. It's an awesome concept that can be even better once the lessons of this game are applied: Fix the aerial battles by adding lock-on targeting and homing missiles to alleviate the need to spin around so much. Add air melee attacks to make Will himself a weapon. Refine the jetpack controls to make it easier to fly without smashing into walls so much. Force me to fly faster, better, and more dangerously. Hell, chase me out of a tunnel with an explosion. Go crazy.

Make Me Dizzy: It's ironic that a guy with a mild fear of heights like me would be demanding an even more pronounced sense of vertigo, yet here we are. Games don't seem to trigger that fear for me, so I want a Dark Void sequel that makes me queasy during vertical cover sections. Also, keep the vertical cover interesting with more sections like the shipwreck and the dynamically shifting towers of cover and fewer sections of plain, static ledges. Vertical cover was already pretty cool, but I couldn't help but feel like they had barely tapped its potential.

I Want Better Combat: Dark Void's combat left something to be desired, with little enemy variety, lackluster weapon upgrades, and melee that felt infinitely more useful than bullets. Even with fully upgraded weapons, it's often still quicker to simply fly over to an enemy and punch him than actually shoot him, and that's a problem. I want a sequel to make the weapons feel a lot more powerful and a lot more creative. When you've got a free pass to design any insane weapon you want, use it.

Those Aliens Have Style: I vastly preferred the alien structures to the much less imaginative human ones, so I'd be very interested in seeing a sequel that takes the fight away from the boring, Earth-like environments in the Void and into a more fully realized alien region brimming with advanced technology. The Void is an unknown, alternate dimension, so anything is possible.

Dark Void has a very exciting premise, but it gets too bogged down with technical and design problems, an unsatisfying story, and forgettable characters. It's a decent rental, but nothing more. Hopefully it gets a sequel to fully realize that premise.

Dark Void / $59.99 / PS3 [reviewed], 360, PC


  1. completely agree!

    im gonna try and pimp this game out to as many peeps as possible cause everyone i know ignored it due to the unfair reviews.

    the good bits are SO good that the package as a whole is worth it.

  2. I second the above comment. The game is worth purchasing alone for being so groundbreakingly creative all around. The final battle was gorgeous. Pray for a high-quality sequel!

  3. The game was good, it had a few problems but nothing serious and if the developers work hard, the sequel could be as good as uncharted.

  4. Unfortunately, I remember seeing a few news stories awhile back saying that Capcom got kind of burned by the original IPs they took a chance on recently and decided they weren't going to do a sequel. I think. Which is super disappointing.