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Joystiq hands-on: Dark Void

Kevin Kelly

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This isn't the first time we've played Dark Void, having gotten a chance both at last year's E3 and this year's CES. But, when a game is about flying with a jetpack, we really can't resist playing more. Rest assured, Dark Void seems to get better and better.

Capcom could have scrapped the compelling plot and simply released "Jetpack: The Game," and we'd have been satisfied. Seriously, the flying is that solid. You're not just leaping into the air like a rocket-propelled Superman, you're an aerodynamic missile who has to bank, roll, loop, carefully navigate turns and constantly be aware of your surroundings. You can easily forget that there's humanity to save once you hit the boost button and send the hero, Will, soaring through the air, weaving around the game world.

The level we demoed this time is set well into the game, with Will having already mastered his jetpack. The current objective is to take out the Watchers' anti-aircraft guns and to gain access to one of their bases, which serves as an internment camp for human slaves. It's located deep inside a canyon filled with sharp, stone fingers that poke into the air. As you fly around, you'll be under fire from both AA guns and enemies ... in flying saucers. Yep, just the sort of wake up call to shake us out of flying around with that big dopey grin on our face.

Gallery: Dark Void | 50 Photos

Luckily, there are guns mounted on the jetpack, in addition to a boost and a brake function, so you can slow down and fire away at stationary AA turrets, or pick off moving ground and aerial targets, which, by the way, ain't easy. For ground targets, you can switch to hover mode and pull your rifle out, but for the saucer-shaped enemies that come right at you, you're going to want to use the jetpack guns or try boarding the small ships themselves.

"The thing about Will is that he's just meat. He can't take that much of a licking."

The boarding process requires flying near enough to one of the saucers and hammering the indicated button once the on-screen prompt appears. Will automatically crashes onto the saucer. From here, your goal is to pry open the vessel's access panel, but you'll also need to scamper around the outer ring of the saucer to avoid fire from the pilot. From time to time, the pilot will also roll the ship to try and hurl you off, but you can grab on by "spamming" (producer Morgan Gray's term) the appropriate button. Once you rip the panel off, the pilot exits the cockpit and a grappling sequence begins. You toss him off the ship by flicking the right stick back and forth, and then -- you guessed it -- you've got yourself a flying saucer. As Gray puts it, "The thing about Will is that he's just meat. He can't take that much of a licking," so that's why it's a good idea to commandeer one of these sturdy ships whenever possible.

The saucer controls just like your jetpack, and you can use its guns as well, which are more powerful than the ones mounted on your pack. The only drawback is that the saucer doesn't have a hover mode. Well, "It doesn't have one yet," Gray told us. Once we took care all of the AA guns, we headed down to the battle on the base's entrance platform. If you're in the saucer, you'll need to eject to head inside. Although, the advantage of approaching by jetpack is that you can hover and lend full air support to the human rebels on the ground, and then scamper inside when the coast is clear.

Once you hit the ground, this is an entirely different game.

Once you hit the ground, this is an entirely different game. On foot, you have more firepower at your disposal (better guns and grenades), but you'll need to be aware of your ammo levels. We were spoiled by the jetpack's unlimited fuel and ammunition. Inside the base you'll face different kinds of Watchers, including a kamikaze enemy who runs up to you and detonates, sending out a blue energy sphere that does damage over time if you you don't high tail it out of range. You can pick up different Watcher weapons, too. We grabbed a couple toys that appeared similar to a machine gun and shotgun. Will can carry up to two guns, and each weapon has a melee attack as well.

Throughout battle you'll earn "tech points" that can be used to upgrade your weapons, and every weapon, including the jetpack guns, can be upgraded twice. Besides Will's rifle, the Watcher guns, and grenades, there will also be weapons that Nikola Tesla has invented called "Teslatech." You'll be able to upgrade by accessing sporadically placed weapons lockers throughout the game.

Inside the base, we plowed through a few waves of enemies, and then faced off against a hovering nasty with a serpentine tail. His powerful attack can take you out quickly, but if you circle behind him you can punish his weak back and finally send him crashing down -- which is exactly how we did in this particular mini-boss. Once past him, we moved into a vertical combat segment that ended up being the bane of our existence.

In vertical combat, Will uses his jetpack to keep himself pressed against the underside of a platform, and he can peek out and take aim either straight up or straight down a level. You can flip up onto the platform you're underneath or you can leap from platform to platform, as long as they're close enough to grab. It's a disorienting perspective from below, as you look up that long, cylindrical level laced with enemies peeking over the edges of their own platforms and firing down at you.

Whenever you activate Will's jetpack, he careens unsteadily and will die the instant he runs into anything.

The hardest part for us was getting onto the first level of platforms. We couldn't double-jump up, and whenever you activate Will's jetpack, he careens unsteadily and will die the instant he runs into anything. That is, unless you have supernatural instincts. Thankfully, Gray told us that they're going to add a "couple of bounces" to that mechanic, because as it plays now you die the instant you glance into the side of anything. We're not expecting Will to be indestructible, but it's highly frustrating to be flying along, accidentally graze a platform, and boom -- you're dead.

If you avoid death by jetpack, gunfire from enemies, instant death by touching the giant force field at the bottom of the level, and finally make it to the top (phew), then you'll deactivate the force field and continue on. This is where our demo ended, as we smashed the force fields controls with the butt of our gun. It was a relief ... after dying too many times to count. Seriously, it was embarrassing.

Overall, Dark Void continues to impress us. The flying is amazing and the combat and cover system controls well (at least, horizontally speaking -- we've still got some practice to put in on the vertical elements). At this stage in development, the game is most in need of polish. Details like damage effects are still underwhleming, for example. We were playing an Xbox 360 build, which appeared extremely solid, although Capcom assures that the PS3 version will be virtually identical. We're excited to strap on the jetpack again at E3 and see what new challenges Capcom has in store there.

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