- Dark Void
Release Date: January 19, 2010
Platforms: Microsoft Windows, Playstation 3,
Xbox 360 (Reviewed)
Developer: Airtight Games
Genre: Third-Person Shooter
How Could a Game About a High-tech Transport System
be so Darned “Buggy?”
It may be time to rethink the term “Original IP” if Dark Void, the latest release from Airtight Games and Capcom, somehow qualifies. What exactly is original about a third-person shooter emphasizing cover mechanics about a reluctant hero, played by ubiquitous videogame voice-over superstar Nolan North, in which the player fights robot alien Nazis in World War II? Dark Void attempts to deflect these observations by giving the protagonist a nifty jetpack, but while the dogfights have their charms and the somewhat interesting vertical cover system works well, they do little to hide the game’s flimsy story, repetitive action sequences and frustrating technical issues.
You play Nolan North, playing Nathan Fillion, again, playing cargo pilot Will Grey shortly before World War II in a story that probably worked like gangbusters in the design document, but falls completely flat thanks to thin characterization, awkward storytelling and flat dialogue. At the beginning of the game, Will is hired by his former flame Ava to fly into the middle of the Bermuda Triangle (for some reason), where they predictably crash and land on a mysterious island filled with spindly one-eyed robots – on loan from every generic sci-fi story ever made – who want them both dead. Will, being the practical type, only wants to repair his plane and return home, but Ava, who broke up with Will over his reluctance to join the war effort, chooses to stay and join the rebellion against the evil Watchers, an alien race who are aiding the Nazis in a clandestine attempt to rule the world. Along the way they team up with Nikola Tesla, whose many inventions – like the aforementioned jetpack – aid Will in his efforts to save the world, get the girl, and prove himself worthy of her affections. Oh, and naturally there’s a prophecy about some kind of chosen one, but to its credit Dark Void gets 1/3rd of the way through the game before it mentions this, which in videogames is probably some kind of record.
It’s easy to see the appeal of this narrative. The bad guys are alien robot Nazis (effectively combining every faceless antagonist in videogame history), Will is a relatable reluctant hero and Nikola Tesla has an undeniable geek appeal as the underappreciated genius whose achievements were overshadowed by a less talented rival with a better marketing department (effectively making him the Conan O’Brien of science). But ironically for a game in which you strap a jet engine on your back, it never fires on all cylinders. Nikola Tesla is never even properly identified in the game, so if you didn’t know who he was you might fail to understand that he’s in Dark Void at all, or even why his presence is such a big deal. Tesla is introduced to Will and Ava as just some guy who builds things, and then he’s kidnapped, eliminating the kind of historical team-up wish fulfillment his inclusion in the game promises.
And while, yes, Dark Void is clearly revisionist history, it’s hard not to cringe at embarrassingly anachronistic lines of dialogue like, “The war on Earth has begun. France will be the first to fall.” You’d think that for all the horrific atrocities Poland went through at the hands of the Nazis, they would at least get credit for being the first in line. Dark Void also curiously never mentions the word “Nazi,” either, choosing instead to refer to any human antagonists as “fascists,” presumably so little German gamers can pretend all those evil aliens are only talking about the Italians.
Gameplay fares somewhat better. There may only be six guns in the game, but they work and are somewhat varied. The cover mechanics effectively provide cover even in aerial and vertical action sequences, a concept which does distinguish Dark Void from its competitors a bit, and the dogfights are generally engaging affairs that will initially satisfy any Rocketeer fantasies the player may have been harboring since childhood (or at least bring back positive memories of the much-lamented Crimson Skies franchise). The moment in which Will engages his jetpack is particularly well-animated, the sudden rush of power and speed both disorienting and exhilarating the protagonist until swiftly he regains control of the fantastical propulsion system, and somehow it never loses its appeal. Yet Dark Void’s most successful attempt at innovation is the simple mechanic which automatically reloads Will’s weapon whenever he picks up ammunition, rather than forcing the player to manually reload beforehand in order to max out their inventory. Implausible? Definitely, but no more so than regenerating health, which quickly became an industry standard due to its similar practicality.
But these well-executed touches never entirely compensate for the inherent flaws in the gameplay. Level design generally consists of “protect so and so until you’ve defeated the allotted number of enemies,” or “travel from Point A to Point B in uninspired and often repetitive level designs.” There are moments of excitement punctuating the familiarity, like a sequence in which Will has to climb up a large ship as it falls off a cliff, but these are exceptions to the rule. Other problematic design elements include Quicktime Events in which the player hijacks an enemy UFO but is still vulnerable to outside attacks, so it’s not uncommon to suddenly die through no fault of your own in the middle of what is essentially a cut scene, which as game design goes is even more unforgivable than Instant Kill QTEs, which are at least subject to the reflexes of the player rather than the random whims of a malicious artificial intelligence. Frame rate drops can occasionally become a problem, infrequently plummeting down to as little as 2-3 frames per second.
The worst offender was a progression break in the level “Defending the Ark” approximately two-thirds of the way through the game. The level in question features Will defending what is essentially a floating battleship as it moves – ridiculously slowly – through a long canyon. The initial problem with the level is that it proves easy for the player to defeat all the enemies in any given section very quickly, particularly using the Ark’s turret guns (which are egregiously overpowered). Only a certain amount of enemies are scripted to appear in a given location, so the player ends up twiddling their thumbs for sometimes minutes on end waiting for the Ark to hit the next arbitrary location that will cause more enemies to show up and actually entertain us. I got bored with this and scouted ahead, which indeed caused more enemies to show up, but then I accidentally face-planted into a wall and died, which triggered a cut scene introducing the level’s final boss, some manner of enemy warship, way too early. This broke the level completely, preventing the boss from ever actually showing up in gameplay and causing the Ark to suddenly blow up for no reason at all after a few minutes. While this issue certainly won’t occur for every player (if it did, there’s no way Capcom would have released the game), the fact that it did occur drops the game’s rating from “forgivably mediocre,” to “well below average.”
Dark Void isn’t an awful game experience, and the things it does well (cover-based third person shooting, Rocketeering, Bear McCreary’s excellent original score) are done well enough to satisfy anyone who either rents the game, picks it up from a bargain bin or receives it as a birthday gift. But it’s too generic, buggy and short (you’ll be done in 6-7 hours, tops) to ever consider purchasing at full price. Dark Void may not be the worst game of the year, but you should probably “a”-void it anyway.