Every once in a while, a game comes along that makes you rethink the standard genre conventions. Dark Void is one of those games. Capcom has been pretty quiet regarding the property since the E3 demo, so when we headed out to a preview event on Monday evening, we weren't sure what to expect. In a move that is quite atypical for the Japanese publisher, Capcom not only had a few levels of the game available for play on the demo stations, but it also handed out early versions to take home and play. With nearly two-thirds of the game on disc, we did just that.
The story begins on a rainy night in Nassau, August 1938. A rugged cargo pilot by the name of Will has just been hired by his feisty ex-girlfriend Ava to ferry some important cargo. Midway through the trip, their plane is caught in the Bermuda Triangle, and the two are sucked into a mysterious parallel world, known only as "the Void." The Void is populated by the Survivors — a group comprised of random victims of the Void over the past few decades — as well as the alien Watchers.
According to the game's lore, the Watchers originally came to Earth centuries ago and were responsible for elevating man from simple primates to the self-aware, intelligent beings that we are today. Posing as gods, the Watchers were eventually overthrown by man and banished to the Void, where they have been trapped all these years. Recently, though, the activity inside the Void has intensified as both the Survivors and the Watchers are gearing up in an attempt to return. It's up to Will to ensure the survival of the Survivors and prevent the Watchers from returning and subjugating the entire human race.
Ground fighting is fairly standard third-person shooter fare, with an intuitive cover system and the ability to carry two weapons plus grenades. The Watcher forces have better firepower than you, so effective use of cover is a must. Those who prefer a stealth attack will appreciate the melee button, which allows you to take down most grunts with one hit. The catch here is that you have to be up close to use it, and the Watchers usually attack in groups. Both the Watcher AI and the friendly Survivor AI are generally intelligent, though there were a few spots where the enemy would seemingly get distracted and stare off into space while we rained down the lead. It's not a huge concern, however, as there is still plenty of time for the developers to tighten up the AI. When it isn't distracted, the AI works well, providing a solid challenge without being unbeatable.
Where Dark Void stands out from the pack is in its innovative integration of a jetpack into the level design. Flying levels have been done before, but not quite like this. Once Will has obtained the jetpack, you can use it anytime, anywhere. If you're flying and you can see a strip of ground, you can land on it. It sounds a bit confusing when first described, but in practice, it works and works well.
Enemies will come at you from all directions, and you can fight back with your choice of tactics. Want to run and gun on the ground, ducking behind cover? Go for it. Want to hover in mid-air, moving vertically and horizontally to avoid fire? Works great. Feel like screaming down from the skies to perform a strafing run with your machine gun? That works too. The jetpack's flight controls have been designed to give you the maximum amount of movement and flexibility while in the air. Aside from a moment of slight uncontrollability when you first take off, the jetpack feels tight and responsive pretty much all the time. Since it's just you and the pack, you can turn tighter and faster than most of the airborne vehicles, which gives you an in-air advantage as well.
Dog fighting with the jetpack is heavy on the aerial acrobatics with flips, spins and rolls all filling your move list. When you first start out with the jetpack, instinct tells you to fly it like a plane, but you can push it faster and harder than any other vehicle in the game. You aren't limited to just the jetpack when it comes to flying. Will can also hop on board the Survivor bi-planes or hijack one of the Watcher UFOs — in mid-flight, at that. Hijacking a UFO requires you to fly in close before activating an optional QTE (Quick Time Event) sequence. If you can successfully avoid the pilot's fire and hang on when he tries to shake you off, Will can smash the controls and toss the Watcher pilot out of the cockpit.
Once at the controls, you have full access to the UFO and its weapons system. This can be useful when in a heavy dogfight because the UFO's missiles cause more damage than your machine guns. Sure, you lose a little maneuverability, but when the flak is flying, it can be worth it. The UFO also acts as a damage sink since Will doesn't take any damage while inside. You have to keep alert, though, because once the damage siren goes off, it's time to bail out. If the UFO explodes with you inside, the game's over. Thankfully, the jetpack means that you can bail out at any time, which opens up even more combat possibilities. Kamikaze, anyone?
Having all these combat options is great when you know what to do with them, but if they were all thrown at you at once, it would likely be a bit overwhelming. Thankfully, Dark Void does an excellent job of scaling up your abilities along with the challenge. Aside from a prologue level, which gives you an early taste of the jetpack's power, the first quarter of the game is almost entirely on foot. As you progress through the story, the game gradually introduces each new mechanic in a way that builds intelligently. Will starts out by learning the vertical cover system, moves to a basic hover pack and then, approximately one-third of the way in, gets the proper jetpack.
Dark Void's vertical cover system is a creative take on a genre standard. When scaling (or descending) a vertical surface, the view flips vertical, allowing you to look straight up or straight down. You can move side to side or hop to another ledge while in vertical cover. You can also shoot at anything you can see, up or down. One nice touch to the vertical cover is the ability to engage in a melee attack, which is a distinct advantage. If Will can get right underneath an enemy, you can reach up and simply yank him over the side.
A big advantage to the melee attack (aside from being a one-hit kill most of the time) is that you don't have to worry about dodging falling corpses. If you get hit while in vertical cover, Will loses his grip and a short QTE kicks in. Quickly smash the correct button, and Will successfully grabs the ledge, but if you fail, he loses his grip. This is the same mechanic used when attempting to board Watcher UFOs. It's simple but quite effective. While there are a few sections early on where you must use vertical cover, in the later portions of the game it is entirely optional. After all, you can always opt for the jetpack.
Throughout it all, it was the complete freedom of movement and the absolutely seamless transition from foot, to flight and back again, and that kept us engaged. How you attack a given problem is completely up to you, and it is quite possible that no two players will do exactly the same thing. Even the larger Watcher behemoths have multiple ways to take them down.
Visually and stylistically, the game feels a lot like the spiritual successor to Crimson Skies, which shouldn't be too much of a surprise since Airtight games was founded by a group of developers who worked on the original game. Officially, there is no connection, but the steampunk look of the Survivor technology is sure to appeal to anyone who enjoyed Crimson Skies. Running on Unreal Engine 3, the game looked incredibly sharp on the Xbox 360, with smooth movement throughout. Perhaps most impressive is the fact that our unoptimized copy of the game kept a solid frame rate with only the very occasional slowdown. Once the developers go through a final optimization pass, we expect the game to be rock-solid throughout.
About the only real change we would like to see is the addition of on-screen targeting arrows when you are dogfighting. The radar gives you the general position of an enemy, but given the sheer speed of some of the dogfights, it can be difficult to get a bead on an opponent. The difficulty is compounded a bit when you are fighting in the desert canyons and the red reticle blends in a little too well with the reddish-brown rock formations. It's a small point, but one that would cancel our only point of frustration with Dark Void.
Assuming the team at Airtight Games locks the frame rate and polishes up the enemy AI on schedule, Dark Void is poised to be the first major success of 2010. It's rare when a preview build keeps us up playing through the night, but this one did. It wasn't until the game ended that we managed to put down the controller and start writing. For all the Crimson Skies fans out there, this is the sequel that you've always wanted.
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