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Review: Dark Void

Justin McElroy

Dark Void is a great first date, but a terrible marriage.

As our numerous previews will attest, this jet-pack-toting third-person shooter makes a fantastic first impression, with its breath-taking air battles and pounding score. But that just makes it all the more disappointing that even the faintest scratching at that surface reveals a wholly unsatisfying product below.

Gallery: Dark Void | 50 Photos

You play as Nolan North-voiced hero Nathan Drake (wise-cracking star of Uncharted 2) who puts on a weird mask and calls himself Will Grey. This bizarre narrative choice is never explained and you never actually see him put on the mask, but trust us: It's totally Nathan Drake. He's a pilot, sucked through the Bermuda Triangle and into The Void, a sort of world-between-worlds where an alien race called The Watchers is plotting the destruction of all mankind. Believe it or not, everyone expects Will/Nathan to stop them. It's a story that has some cool, semi-historically grounded ideas, but they're never as coherently laid out as you'd like.

When Dark Void really comes into its own is after Will steals a jet pack from Nikolai Tesla.

You'll wage war on the Watchers with a variety of re-purposed alien weaponry, though none of them feel very fun or effective. Before I used collected tech points to upgrade the starting machine gun, for instance, I think I would have had more luck just shouting hurtful things at the robotic Watchers than shooting them. It doesn't help the whole feeling of futility that every Watcher reacts the exact same way to being shot every time.

Ground battles are waged in a now-traditional rush between cover spots, stop-and-pop, Gears of War-style. Occasionally, everything's literally turned askew for a "vertical cover" segment, which has you leaping or falling between ledges and blasting enemies above or below you. It's a neat trick, but not nearly enough to revive combat that's been done better so many times before.

When Dark Void really comes into its own is after Will/Nathan steals a jet pack from Nikola Tesla (yeah, he's kicking it in The Void too). The thrill of seeing our lead zipping through the air, struggling to keep control of the highly explosive rocket on his back is one of the real joys of Dark Void. While you can always bring down enemy saucers with your jet pack-mounted machine guns or rockets, you can also hijack an enemy craft mid-air to mix it up with some ship-to-ship battling. Too bad you have to hijack with a minigame that's fun the first time, kind of neat the second time and a chore thereafter.

Developer Airtight Games is staffed by much of the core team that created Crimson Skies: High Road to Revenge, and it shows as soon as Will/Nathan takes to the air: Flight is fun and fluid, accented by daring maneuvers mapped to different analog stick movements. I found myself wishing for a way to lock my targeting on nearby enemies, but the air combat is still the game's biggest strength.

Sadly, that all melts away when you fly near, take off from, or land on a structure causing the camera and controls to switch from flight to ground mode or vice versa. It's a transition that almost always goes poorly. In fact, I'd say about half of my deaths in the game were a result of the hazardous business of jet-packing in or around buildings or platforms.

Even though the actual flight combat mechanic is a good one, Airtight rarely gives you fun things to do with it. Most of the large scale air battles involve picking off smaller targets to protect a large friendly ship or defeat a large enemy. Just like saucer-jacking: Fun the first time, not so much for a whole game. Of course, "that whole game" is only around six hours long with no real replay value, so it never gets nearly as boring as it could have.

With such a short length, you'd expect no filler, but that's exactly what several missions feel like, made even more grating by a drab, far-too-brown world. Refreshingly, it's all set to a really amazing score by Battlestar Galactica songsmith Bear McCreary that sounds like it should be supporting a much better game.

If I sound overly negative here, it's only because I have your best interest at heart. This is a game that ends fast and gets old even faster, and probably isn't worth your hard-earned $60. But I do want to give some encouragement to Airtight, which managed to do something many other developers fail at -- and that's create a couple of original, really enjoyable central mechanics.

Now if it can only figure out what to do with them.

Editors' note: This review is based on the PS3 debug version of the game provided by Capcom.

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