Sometimes, a game has such a great concept that you can't see how it will fail. Even if it merely ends up being average, the strength of the idea should make it fun.
Dark Void is one of those games.
The basic premise involves using a rocket pack and helmet à la "The Rocketeer" to battle aliens with the aid of Nikola Tesla. It seems almost impossible for the concept to not be fun for at least a few levels, but Dark Void bucks the odds and produces something quite unexpected: a game that isn't any fun.
Set near the beginning of World War II, Dark Void tells the story of Will Grey, a retired military pilot who takes private contracting jobs. His latest client is his ex-girlfriend, Ava, who has to make a delivery to an island located in the Bermuda Triangle, and the situation turns out to be more complex than either of them had expected. The island is a gateway to a mysterious parallel dimension called The Void, which is the home of The Watchers, a group of reptilian aliens who claim to have once ruled mankind. They're eager to do it again, and the only force stopping them from invading Earth is a ragtag group called The Survivors, comprised of humans who have been lost in The Void and famous folks from the era, such as Tesla. Will is forced to don a prototype rocket pack to fight off The Watchers and find a way to return home.
While this is an interesting hook for a story, players shouldn't get too excited. Dark Void's story is dull and incoherent. The cut scenes are poorly scripted, incredibly short and rarely make sense. Characters pop in and out of the story without rhyme or reason, nobody acts in sensible ways, plot concepts are introduced and dropped at a moment's notice, and by the end of the game, I barely understood what had occurred. Dark Void is one of the few games I've played where the story makes the game less fun and appealing, and this is due to one simple reason: Every aspect of the story serves to remind you of Uncharted. Will is basically indistinguishable from Nathan Drake, up to and including being voiced by Nolan North. His interactions with other characters, quips, general attitude, and even his relationship with Ava only remind you of Drake. Although Drake is an homage to action-hero stereotypes, it hardly matters because the similarities come too fast and fierce to be ignored.
Unfortunately, Dark Void lacks any of Uncharted's most appealing features. The characters are dull and uncharismatic, plot details are revealed seemingly out of thin air, nobody reacts to anything or talks to one other, and the entire thing makes no sense. This is made even worse by the fact that, unlike Uncharted, Dark Void is nothing but a sequel-bait game, where none of the plot is resolved. It ends with an "homage" to "The Matrix" movies that will have even the most dedicated of gamers rolling their eyes. Dark Void makes one of the most dangerous mistakes a game can: It constantly makes you want to play another, similar and far better game. This is something that could be justified if Dark Void's gameplay were good enough to make up for it, but alas, it isn't.
Dark Void is generally divided into two segments: on-foot and flying. It's technically possible to switch between the two at will, but due to the way the levels are designed, you'll rarely do that. On-foot gameplay is where you'll be spending most of your time. It's mostly identical to any of the hundreds of other cover-based shooters that have come out in recent memory, although for various reasons mentioned above, Uncharted is what comes most readily to mind.
The major difference comes in the addition of Will's rocket pack. While on foot, the rocket pack lets you hover around the battlefield. You can hop into the air at basically any time to come down on your opponent's head or move to a different position. This is a nice idea in theory, but it isn't really supported by the game. The number of levels in which you can take full advantage of the rocket pack can be counted on one hand. Most of your time in the game is spent in cramped indoor areas where the rocket pack's only use is to allow you to reach a balcony or higher floor. In certain areas, you can also take "vertical cover," where you can take cover by hanging on a vertical surface. This is a neat idea but is never used as well as it should be. Once you get the fully functioning jet pack, it becomes nearly useless, and there are only a handful of areas to use it. It adds very little to the overall combat, which is otherwise pretty dull.
The basic gameplay is similar to Uncharted, but it lacks any of the other game's high-quality level design or clever enemies. Instead, every on-foot sequence is long, tedious and unpleasant. You'll either spend all of your time behind a wall, blasting at one of a small number of brain-dead foes, or you'll take advantage of the rocket pack, which the enemy AI seems incapable of dealing with. The absolute worst segments are at the beginning and near the end, when the game takes away your rocket pack. Without the benefit of the fun that comes from jetting behind enemies or hopping into new locations, the worst aspects of the title become very obvious. The enemies are mind-numbingly dumb, something I'll touch on more later, but even the gunplay is slightly awkward due to the way the aim assist feature works, causing the crosshair to jerk around sporadically. Beyond that, most of the stages are long, linear slogs through uninteresting and unmemorable locations. The best sequence comes early on, before you get your fully functioning rocket pack, in a level where you have to escape an enemy-infested crashing ship while using the vertical cover mechanic. The rest are an endless stream of identical corridors or bland desert scenes.
In on-foot gameplay, you can carry up to two weapons at once, from a total of six different guns, and you can switch weapons any time you find a new one in the field. In the various weapon lockers or at the start of every stage, you can also switch to any weapon you've already found at least once in the game. There's a good variety of weapons: two kinds of machine gun, a grenade launcher, a sniper rifle, a laser beam and an anti-gravity gun. Each weapon can also be upgraded by using tech points, which you earn by killing Watchers. The majority of these upgrades make the weapons do more damage or hold more ammo, but they don't actually change the weapon. Some weapons hold so little ammo that it isn't even worth the trouble to upgrade them. It's very likely that you'll use the default machine gun for most of the game. It carries an obscene amount of ammo, is fairly accurate and does a lot of damage. Unless you grind and search every nook and cranny, tech points are limited enough that you can't upgrade more than one or two items. The weapons upgrade feature only assures that you'll be using a couple of weapons for the duration of the game, instead of switching weapons when it is appropriate.
In comparison to the on-foot segments, the flight segments are rather neat, at least at first. At the touch of a button, Will can go into "flight mode," where he basically becomes a plane. You can fly around with great ease, and the controls are quite good. You can take off into the air by double-tapping the Triangle button, and you glide around with the analog stick. Tapping the Triangle button again boosts, while Square brakes. Your rocket pack is equipped with twin machine guns and, later on, rockets, both of which have infinite ammo and can be used at the touch of a button.
By pressing X, you can enter "Hover" mode, which is the aforementioned on-foot mode. This is useful if you want to target an enemy while standing still, although you have to change to your regular guns instead of the high-powered machine guns to do this. Perhaps the only really awkward bit involves performing special air maneuvers, such as a U-turn or barrel roll. In order to do these, you have to hold down the right analog stick and then press both analog sticks in certain directions. It's a bit strange at first, but you can easily get used to it. The other annoying feature is that, by default, control inversion switches when you go into flight mode. The y-axis is normal while you're on foot but inverted while you're in the air, which takes some getting used to, although you can switch this from the game menu. You also have the ability to skyjack vehicles by flying nearby and pressing the Circle button to hitch a ride; enemy UFOs require that you complete a short minigame first. Vehicles are basically identical to your regular flying mode, but with slightly better weapons and more armor. You can ditch a vehicle at any time as well, so you should be in a vehicle unless you're in a stage where it is useful to take advantage of Hover mode.
While they're a little fun, the flight stages make up an exceptionally short part of Dark Void. There are only a handful of times you'll be able to fly around freely because most battlefields are too small and are closed in by walls, either visible or invisible. The rocket pack functions fine in wide-open areas, but you're likely to smack your face into a wall if you try to use it anywhere but the dedicated locations. The biggest problem is that even with the extremely limited number of flight stages, the lack of enemy variation makes the flight stages grow tedious rather quickly. The Watchers don't have many air units so the bulk of your foes are UFOs. Occasionally, bombs or anti-air guns may show up, but they're barely worth mentioning. The UFOs are not interesting foes to fight, and they very rarely prove to be a threat; their weapons are weak enough that you have to actively try to be killed. It's fun to fight UFOs the first few times, but it loses its luster once you realize that it's not a very challenging experience. Some of the boss fights are enjoyable, although none are particularly noteworthy. Fighting a giant flying dragon or an enemy battleship is certainly more exciting than seeing the same bland UFOs over and over again.
The enemy AI in Dark Void is awful. The Watchers seem to have chosen their worst, most idiotic troopers to take on Will. A majority of the enemies stand still, firing at you and occasionally taking cover with no rhyme or reason. Every so often, they may go crazy and do something weird, such as shooting a wall or standing completely still without firing. Perhaps most ridiculous is that the enemy has no idea how to deal with you advancing on them, which is extremely noticeable considering Dark Void's improved movement abilities. Rushing at enemies is actually the best way to defeat most of the game's foes. On-foot enemies rarely react in a sensible way, allowing you to tear them apart with your bare hands with greater ease than if you used a gun. In the air, chasing an enemy causes him to either forget how to dodge or to ram himself into one of the many walls or mountains littering the landscape. It's nice that that using your greater mobility lets you get a leg up on the enemy, but it isn't sensible that the brain-dead AI can't deal with anything more complex than an immobile opponent hiding behind a box.
Most of the combat in Dark Void is ruined by this AI problem. You get a small variety of guns, but you really only need to use the basic machine gun for certain rare enemies. The majority of enemies can be beaten in one way: sprint toward them and use a melee attack, which give you a tremendous period of invincibility. You can chain together melee attacks to bash enemies significantly quicker and easier than if you were using even the strongest guns. Occasionally, you may need to toss a grenade or two to break up a tough cluster of enemies, or use your machine gun to mow down a distant or flying foe, but that's about the extent of it. It's slightly more fun than hiding behind a box and blasting away at the lackluster AI opponents, but only because it is so ridiculous. Likewise, in the air, you can crush every enemy you encounter, and the only reason to skyjack is for a small change of pace, but since some segments instantly kill you for no reason if you try to skyjack a UFO, it's better to use your rocket pack instead.
As if to compound Dark Void's problems, it is one of the least polished games I've played in recent memory. New errors and glitches popped up with surprisingly regularity, something that is mind-blowing consider the gameplay length, which clocks in at seven hours or so. Some of the hiccups were relatively minor, such as the enemy AI freezing up or spazzing out, but others were far more annoying. Event flags failed to trigger on a regular basis, causing me to have to reset from the last checkpoint in order to advance the plot. Sometimes a door would refuse to open, and my AI partner would run into it face-first over and over. The sound would stutter or cut out during particularly busy sequences. The button-mashing minigames needed to kill certain large enemies would glitch and continue to activate even after I destroyed the foe. The list goes on and on. Most annoying of all were multiple occasions when the game would lock up on me, forcing me to hard reboot my PlayStation 3. Considering the short length of the game, it is packed to the brim with errors, many of which further sour an already lackluster experience. It's bad enough to play through a tedious air battle against identical foes once, but when the game freezes at the end of the sequence and forces you to repeat it, you'll be very tempted to play a different, better, game.
Dark Void is rather bland-looking. The environments are passable but completely uninteresting, though some are flat-out ugly. The character models look mediocre and don't emote very well. Because of the constant glitches, it's difficult to tell whether enemies are taking damage or not, and even when they're working properly, they tend to stand there and absorb bullets. Lip-synching was off in a few cut scenes, which is rather shocking considering how few of them there are. The voice acting is rather mediocre, with only North's Will Grey seeming to put forth any effort, and even his voice acting is sullied by the feeling that he's playing a budget version of Nathan Drake. The music is unmemorable and bland at best, and the only song I remembered was an 8-bit version of the theme song that played during the credits. The sound also hitches up or lags during major aerial battles, turning what should be intense combat music into a cacophony of annoying noise.
Dark Void is a rare game with a great idea, but isn't going to please anyone. It's one of the biggest disappointments of the year, which is impressive when you consider that it's only January. The story is bland and uninteresting, while simultaneously reminding players of other, far better games. The few interesting segments comprise a small minority of the game, while the rest consists of lackluster combat experiences against identical brain-dead foes. It doesn't even have length to make up for it, with the game lasting about seven hours. The cherry on top is the bevy of glitches and errors, which make an already bad experience worse. Instead of playing Dark Void, just pop in a copy of Uncharted and start up "The Rocketeer" in the background. You'll have the same experience, but it'll be a lot more fun.
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