I'm a PC gamer. I enjoy shooting aliens as much as the next guy but, damnit, I will not stoop to aiming at them with analog sticks! What do you take me for?! I am a man with a mouse!
While I've been exercising my nerd snobbery a new genre has risen up on the consoles and become rather popular. Cover-based third person shooters are the new hotness, I'm told, and series like Gears Of War, Uncharted, and Army Of Two are selling by the million. Dark Void wants to join that club and on this occasion Airtight Games and Capcom have invited us mouse-handlers to the initiation.
I was more excited about playing Dark Void than I ever was about Gears and that's because of its setting. Modern sci-fi is great - it's dark, it's gritty, the humans aren't necessarily the good guys - but there is something very special about the B movie visions of the future from the early to mid 20th century and Dark Void promised to scratch my itch.
You are the extravagantly named William Augustus Grey; a pilot who crashes in the Bermuda Triangle with his ex-missus. Tough break, Will. The pair soon find themselves under fire from robots with other-worldly energy weapons and as it's 1938 they naturally assume that they're an evil weapon of "the fascists." As they flee, leaving bullet-riddled krautbots in their wake, they run into the tropical island's human population and it's at this point that they meet Nikola Tesla. Nikola goddamn Tesla!
As the preeminent Tesla researcher of the North Yorkshire region I was rather excited to bump into my hero in a video game. Unfortunately he turns out to be little more than the deliverer of Dark Void's gimmick: the jet pack.
This may be a cover-based third person shooter but Airtight have a background in arcade flight games and they wanted to play to their strengths. The first jet pack the game gives you only allows you to hover or make quick leaps to specific platforms but soon enough you acquire the real deal and you're sent out to dogfight with flying saucers. On your first couple of tries this isn't likely to go well at all. In an example of some great animation your character's limbs flail about with every slight tilt of the jet pack and his lack of control will mimic your own.
The split between on-foot shooter missions and aerial sorties lends variety but after the initial novelty wore off both became a little tedious. My objection with Dark Void is that the combat is very repetitive. On the ground your ability to hover or fly offers little of the anticipated freedom to explore and instead you're just funnelled from arena to uninspiringly designed arena. You can spot them from a mile off because of the very deliberately placed cover and each time I approached a new one I had a little less desire to keep going. The controls are fine, the weapons are fairly interesting I suppose, the problem is that even the most basic cannon fodder enemies take an excruciating amount of punishment before falling over and each fight far outstays its welcome. I shouldn't second-guess the developers but it felt a bit like artificial game lengthening.
I'm willing to personally take a little more of the blame for not enjoying the air combat because this is probably the first time I've played a flight game since Sopwith in the late 80s - the genre just isn't my cup of tea. Perhaps though that illustrates a problem in itself. How many fans of games like Gears Of War and Uncharted are also fans of Microsoft Flight Simulator, and do they really want to play a hybrid of the two? My gaming experience lies well away from flight sims so I struggled with the controls but there didn't seem to be anything particularly wrong with the set-up, aside from the consolesque demands for me to "Pull L" on the mouse. If you know your way around a cockpit I expect that you'll enjoy Dark Void's jetpack sections.
Dark Void's greatest strengths are in its sights and sounds. The central theme of the art style appears to have been realism shifted slightly towards comic book exaggeration. Colours are more vivid, metal gleams, and the characters' features are just a little disproportionate to make them more expressive. This isn't a new high for graphics but it is obvious that real care has been taken on some of the models and textures; Will's jacket is particularly impressive.
For audio Dark Void is up there with the very best. The voice of the protagonist will be immediately familiar to you if you've played a video game in the last five years. Nolan North is best known these days as Nathan Drake but he's also featured in games like Assassin's Creed, Dragon Age, and God Of War. It's been suggested that 2010 might be the year when we finally get the hump about Nolan's overexposure but the fact is he's the best male voice actor out there and he's in his usual high form in Dark Void, contributing a necessary bit of humour.
Composer Bear McCreary (Battlestar Galactica, Sarah Connor Chronicles) provides Dark Void's extremely cinematic score, probably the game's highlight. He's likely to find some more work when Dark Void's film adaptation goes into production! Before the game had even been released it was announced that Brad Pitt's production company had picked up the rights to put Dark Void on the big screen, potentially with Pitt in the starring role. Years of horrible game-to-film conversions have taught us to wince at the suggestion but I'm actually quite looking forward to this one! The plot isn't exceptional but it's good enough to work with and the setting of time and place is interesting enough to hold our attention. A good sci-fi film doesn't need to be built on Shakespeare... but there's an idea!
Dark Void isn't a terrible game but nor will we be remembering it fondly ten years from now. There are people out there who will really enjoy it for a good few hours but they'll probably be playing it on a console and I suspect they'd still rather be playing Army Of Uncharted Gears.