Dark Void Review
Capcom's latest action adventure—that doesn't have you slaughtering zombies—possesses a great deal of potential and appeal. As a likable right-guy-in-the-wrong-place protagonist tasked with saving Earth from a hostile alien threat, players take to the skies with only a jet pack strapped to their backs. Toss in a narrative twist involving the Bermuda Triangle, interactions with real-life historical figures such as inventor Nikola Tesla, vertical duck-and-cover shooting, and you've got one of this year's most promising new properties. Sadly though, despite its jetpack-inspired premise, Dark Void doesn't always get off the ground. And even when it occasionally soars, it never manages to fly past the competition.
Rather than indulge another cheesy flying reference bouncing around my brain, I'll get on with exactly why this one doesn't quite earn its wings (sorry, last one, I promise). Dark Void's much-touted vertical gun-play is something we haven't experienced, at least not to this extent, in any current-gen title. However, that doesn't necessarily make it feel fresh. Take the stop-and-pop action of Gears of War, turn it sideways, and you're on your way to grasping what it's all about. As you ascend—or descend—sheer cliff faces and other vertigo-inducing surfaces, you'll exchange fire with enemies while dangling from ledges. You can hide behind these perches just as you would a ground-based patch of cover, and gradually make your way to other protective outcroppings. You can even get right under ledge-squatting goons and get all Sam Fisher on their asses by pulling them to their deaths. While it's fun watching enemies hurtle past you on their way to meeting the ground below, the firefights themselves are repetitive and uninteresting, rarely achieving the coolness the concept deserves. A few highlights, like a hair-raising scene on a vertical Navy vessel, prove the premise is sound, but fail to outshine the endless tedium of most battles.
Similarly promising, but ultimately average, is the title's signature jetpack play. Zipping around wide open environments, dog-fighting, pitching and rolling, and even hijacking flying saucers is loads of fun at first. However, once you've done it all a few times, a lack of engaging missions or formidable foes eventually devolve the skyward action into a chore to reach the next checkpoint. Still, I commend the developers for seamlessly integrating flight and ground-based combat. It is satisfying to take some pot shots at baddies on the surface, then hit the afterburners to evade their reactionary attacks. Dropping in behind someone for a quick melee kill is also pretty sweet. Additionally worthy of admiration are the intuitive flight controls; anyone who suffered through Iron Man knows jetpacks are often a bitch to control in games. Given the Dark Void team's Crimson Skies pedigree, it's actually surprising they haven't been tapped to helm Tony Stark's next game.
While the potential of the flying and vertical combat is unfulfilled, these moments are at least occasionally compelling, yielding a real sense of what Airtight Games was aiming for. The ground-based battles, however, aren't so lucky. They serve only as filler between the more interesting moments, coming off as lackluster Gears of War wannabes. The cover mechanics are unrefined, the AI is dumb, and the environments are bland. Even worse, these uninspired firefights account for about a third of the game's length. Adding insult to injury—in the air or in the dirt—are some of the wimpiest weapon audio effects my ears have struggled to enjoy. Even with the sound FX slider jacked all the way up, Dark Void's alien and human arsenals lack the satisfying aural weight so integral to a successful shooter.
The orchestral score, composed by Battlestar Galactica's Bear McCreary, fares much better, providing rousing background music that wouldn't be out of place in a summer blockbuster. McCreary's involvement mirrors many other aspects of this project that evidence its potential. The story, for one, definitely has its moments At the start of the game you travel over the Bermuda Triangle, only to have your plane sucked down onto a mysterious island; as a fan of television's Lost, I was immediately engaged by this opening. Furthermore, the attacking alien race is comprised of slimy reptiles that inhabit menacing robotic skeletons. Nolan North's voicing of the main character is also very good. That said, because North also plays Uncharted's Nathan Drake (and about a million others), I was constantly reminded that Dark Void is outclassed by Naughty Dog's expertly produced series.
Despite my many criticisms, Dark Void did manage to keep me flying and fighting till the final credits rolled. There's definitely some mindless fun to be had, helped by some decent pacing. The three distinct gameplay styles fall short individually, and could never support their own games. But broken up over the course of the adventure, and complemented by the occasional bit of interesting action or storytelling, they at least serve to craft a campaign worth completing. Of course, once you've done that, there's little reason to continuing playing. It's no secret I could do without multi-player modes in most games, but I honestly believe this one could have benefited from it; online competitive play may have actually provided the competent flight controls a better canvas than the solo game.
If the thought of having two canisters of jet fuel strapped to your backside gets your adrenaline racing, then you'll probably have a pretty good time with Dark Void. It's certainly flawed, especially when it's trying to be a third-person shooter, but it also has lots of great ideas. It will surprise you sometimes, but mostly it'll leave you feeling like it could have been so much more. If we hadn't just finished a year that gave us the likes of Assassin's Creed 2, Uncharted 2, and Arkham Asylum, I could possibly let the few bright spots outshine the obvious lack of polish. But with groundbreaking games like those having set the bar so high for this genre, it's impossible not to draw comparisons, especially when you're continually teased by all the promise and potential trying to peek through.