Dark Void Review «

If you’re a fan of comics, or of retro culture in general, you may remember “The Rocketeer,” the Dave Stevens series of the 1980s — or the 1991 movie that was adapted from it. For those who don’t, it was a story set in the late 1930s that followed a brash, headstrong pilot who gets hold of a rocket pack invented by an aging engineer, and uses it to fight Nazis.

Capcom’s Dark Void, by contrast, is a story set in the late 1930s that follows a brash, headstrong pilot, who gets hold of a rocket pack invented by an aging engineer, and uses it to fight aliens. And they say Hollywood is unoriginal.

Potential copyright issues aside, Dark Void sits somewhere between a Gears of War-esque cover-shooter and an Ace Combat-style flight simulator, ultimately splitting gameplay between these two paradigms. At its best, the game allows you to seamlessly switch between flying and third-person shooting, taking on challenges in the air and on the ground. Indeed, the on-foot sequences are frequently enhanced by flipping the perspective, so you’re fighting on the Z-axis — shooting at enemies either directly above or below you. In a particularly cool sequence at the beginning of the game, you fight your way to the top of the crumbling wreck of the notorious USS Cyclops, a real ship that disappeared without a trace in 1918.

The inclusion of the Cyclops is a great nod to history, and one that’s typical of Dark Void’s imaginative setting. The setup is that your alter ego flies through a spatial anomaly in the vicinity of the Bermuda triangle, and ends up in a parallel universe in which the local humans are subjugated by a race of aliens called “the Watchers.” The locals worship the Watchers like gods, and it’s up to you and your mentor, the unceremoniously-plopped-into-the-plot Nikola Tesla (who invented the jetpack and runs the obligatory in-game shop) to free them from subjugation. br>
But while plot isn’t the game’s strong point, the aerial combat sequences are exciting and benefit from sharply responsive controls and well-planned levels. This stands in contrast to the ground-pounding stuff, which is far less sparkly. Mostly, this is because the enemy AI is about as swift as a big guy covered in tar and molasses in a high-gravity environment with slow motion turned on. But it’s also because Dark Void’s vaunted cover mechanic is of minor use, at most. Engaging in actual shooting matches with enemies is a waste of time; it’s far easier to sprint or fly up to them and use your all-powerful melee smashes to smack them down. All of this is compounded by the fact that Dark Void’s weapons are about as novel as non-fiction. Sure, you can upgrade them by spending “Tech Points” you collect throughout the levels, but the upgrades add scant pizzazz to what is effectively a basic machine gun, a pew-pew rifle, and a few area-of-effect weapons.

Another big issue is that the game takes for-freakin’-ever to get to the actual flying bits. A good two hours of gameplay are spent slogging through boring foot-soldier missions before you even get a jetpack. To be fair, a short sequence at the very beginning — in which you’re thrown into out-of-nowhere aerial combat — is included, but this feels bolted on, and once it’s over you get all boots-on-the-ground stuff for the foreseeable future.

Again, it’s not that Dark Void is a bad game — the designers included some nifty gameplay elements and an engaging, Stargate-type setting — it’s just that it doesn’t feel like it knows exactly what it’s doing. The ideas weren’t taken to their logical conclusions; the designers stuck their toes in the water, pulled them back, and decided they needed to gather a little more gumption before they could dive in. Maybe in Dark Void 2, in which a brash, headstrong pilot gets a hold of a jetpack created by an aging engineer and uses it to fight zombies, we’ll see the full-fledged realization of this game’s genuinely interesting designs. Until then, however, jetpack fans will have to settle for half-baked.


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