January 28, 2010

dark_void_video_game_image__5_.jpgWe were promised jetpacks.  As a society.  It’s an idea as old as time, and you can read about it in old issues of Popular Mechanics.   There it is, clear as day.  And where’d they get their proof?  Well, the Bible, to be precise.  There it is at the beginning of the Book of Revelation: “Yet before the destruction of Man was to fall, the Lord said to Man, ‘Zoom around willy-nilly; childhood dreams now incarnate, packs of rockets on your backs.”  See?  So, then comes this company Airtight Games, who’s gonna make it all come true for us – at least, in the digital sense.  So, they team up with this mega-publisher called Capcom, and they set out to give us The Jetpack Game! Wait, ok: it’s called Dark Void.  Sigh; had it actually been called The Jetpack Game, I think it probably would have been ten times better.  As it stands, instead of giving everyone the game to make our deep-seated techno-fancies come true, Dark Void rockets its way into the low-slung ceiling of mediocrity.  More after the jump:

Telling the story of one dashing ne’er-do-well, Will Gray, Dark Void opens onto a romantic 1930’s vision of a Florida airstrip, where Will is about to pilot a strange trip to the South Seas with a surprise guest, his ex-flame.  Soon Will and gal-pal Ava have crashed their plane somewhere inside of the Bermuda Triangle, where an alternate dimension holds aliens, ancient civilizations, and yes, jetpacks!  Frothy stuff, indeed!  These elements should combine to take the average gamer through an exciting romp featuring jetpacks (!), but aside from the initial potential so inherent in the idea – which is allowed to shine in brief moments – the game fails again and again to dole out the satisfaction found in most of today’s top-tier titles.

Let’s start from the beginning.  “Prologue” states the sober opening title card.  Without warning, you are careening through the skies on a jetpack, doing battle with a host of alien spacecraft.  No introduction, no context, BOOM.  You fly around, as some nameless adventurer, until you’ve shot down enough ships, after which your character dies a tragic death.  End Prologue.  The “real” beginning of the game then takes place, introducing us to the main characters, stranding them on a weird jungle continent, then slowly introducing the game’s gunplay and cover techniques.  It takes maybe a full hour before you actually ‘get’ the jetpack, and even then, it will only let you double-jump before allowing you to fly some two more hours in.  Here’s where the game already lets down its players: give us the ‘pack!  That’s why we bought the game!


Instead of indulging players’ fantasies, they hold off on the biggest selling point for too long, which leads us to think, “Hey, they know what they’re doing.  We’ll play these bits, and we’ll understand why they are holding off in serving up the golden egg.”  The average player will be wrong in thinking this.  The events leading up to the promised and most thrilling elements – the jetpacking – are very average placeholders compared to many titles out there.  So, the game starts out a bit of a bore.

Yes, the game’s initial ‘real’ offerings are its ground-based combat features.  Imagine Gears of War, and you’ll understand how the game works.  No real surprises here; you can carry two guns, you can pick up the enemy’s weapons, you take cover behind low walls, etc, and you regain health when out of harm’s way for a moment or two.  Pretty standard stuff.  The only real addition to this sort of combat is the ability to “burn” grenades by holding them after you pull the pin.  It was thrilling to time the throws just right to take out groups of enemies.  The average gunplay is fun, if not very similar to a lot of what’s out there, and all of this would be just fine, if the jetpack elements outshone these, the freeing motions of flight scrubbing away the dullness!  Sadly, since the flight elements don’t quite come together either, the ground elements stay that way – average.

Next, the vertical cover system (the game’s second bullet-point), is what constitutes a large portion of the early game, and however intriguing on paper, it’s almost used too much.  See, Will can use his ‘pack to scale large portions of walls, essentially turning the world on its side and offering a neat perspective on the now-classic Gears of War cover system.  While it works well, there’s not too much to differentiate itself from the ground combat, other than the fact that you can really spam the melee attacks in this mode to soar through the sections.

So, what does that leave us with?  The third bullet-point, of course, the bleep-bleeping JETPACK!  For a game sold this way, and hyped this way for two years now, there’s no gentle way to say it: Dark Void fails to make jetpack-fantasy a reality.  It comes down to this: a jetpack is only as awesome as the enemies it goes up against.  They allow us to outperform our fellow un-jetpacked humans.  Zipping from here to there, we revel in the freedom, and we use our powers to pull badass stunts and attacks.  Next to a plane, however, a jetpack is no toy, but it’s not a plane!  Versus humans or human-sized aliens, most would want to be able to do crazy acrobatics and maneuvers – Dark Void merely lets us hover around our adversaries.   Next to planes we would at least want to feel like we had some crazy techniques that could blow things out of the air with speed or firepower – Dark Void only allows us to slowly pick things out of the sky with the ‘pack’s cannons, or hijack alien ships with a canned minigame which plays out exactly the same every time.  We want to feel powerful with this awesome tool, and the game avoids giving us this power.  Seriously, it took my character manning a stationary anti-aircraft gun to feel truly powerful for the first time.  This was a bitter pill to swallow, as the game’s basic mechanics were shown two years ago at E3.  We were really hoping that the devs would craft these into some more thrilling and unique moments.  I, as the average gamer, could think of dozens of other things I’d wanna do on a jetpack.  How about some super-speed attack that bowls into enemies or rips through rival aircraft?  What about segments requiring precision flying through treacherous canyons?  Or even timed segments requiring you to get from one place to the next under daunting circumstances?  What about actually playing the part of rescuing your freefalling girlfriend, as opposed to just watching it in a cutscene?


The game is clearly delineated into indoor and outdoor areas, which does a huge disservice to the game’s main selling point.  If you’re going to make me fight indoors, why not make the indoor areas large enough (or my ‘pack slow enough) to allow me to use it indoors – zipping from one place to the next, or letting me use my jets to attack someone with brutal speed?  The outdoor segments, where we could get a bit more excitement from all of the inevitable flying, treat Will as a plane – a plane with guns smaller than what the competition has.  Consider this: you can eventually upgrade the ‘pack to get missiles, which make much shorter work of the annoying flying saucers, but it’s the final upgrade to get on your ‘pack.  You have to spend the game’s ‘currency,’ Tech Points, to unlock this feature, but it’s a long way off.  Once I had the missiles, I realized that I was having fun shooting down the UFOs for the very first time.  Whoops, that was the last air battle.  Why not include the fun stuff up front?  I think we all realize that the awards of gaming are really satisfying when you earn them; but don’t put upgrades in your game and work backwards.  In other words, don’t make the fun stuff happen at the top of the mountain and tell me to keep climbing.  I want to be having fun from the get-go, dammit!  Ultimately, the ability to use your ‘pack when and how you want would have made all of the difference in this game.  Don’t let me ‘really’ use it only during certain segments.

It seems as if Airtight and Capcom had some great ideas at the top, and then could not agree on how to expand on them.  As it stands, it seems that much, much work went on ‘crafting’ the game’s story (to quote the press packet), while making sure to include lots of voice acting, plot points, and orchestral music.  Bit o’ news, guys: I can serve you a Whopper Jr. on some fine china, but it’s still a Whopper Jr.


Finally, I lament the fact that the game’s story was ‘crafted’ in any way, at all.  In games, less is definitely more.  I feel that the storytelling ability of what is currently known as a video game is directly correlated to the player’s actions.  You can have elaborate plots, superstar voices, even cinematic cutscenes with incredible music, but these will never serve to engage the player as much as the actions that they take while their fingers are moving over the controls.  See any narrative game from developer Valve for that proof.  Plots can be as intricate as you want them to be, but unless the player actually touches these plots, they don’t mean a thing.  See Halo 2 & 3, for proof of this in action.  Few would argue that the Halo series suffers from poor gameplay – most would say that the elusive idea of ‘play control’ is perfected here.  When it comes to plot, however, the second and third parts of the Halo series assume that we care about the political intrigue of outer space clans and their strange designs for the overthrowing of Earth and the blah blah bleebidy blah of all that.  Dark Void makes similar errors.  The strange Void is run by aliens who are robots but also slugs, but also shapeshifters….who are bent on world domination that…..and then….and there’s Nikola Tesla, and ….and what?!  And why am I so confounded when all of the main characters are nonplussed by all of the kooky stuff happening all around them?  They just pick up guns and start shooting robots, no questions asked…

To sum up the game, take a typical indoor battle in Dark Void.  You’re surrounded by robot-alien-slime-shapeshifting thingees, and you need a quick escape.  “UP!” you shout to your jetpack companion snuggled firmly on your back.  You power on your engines, freedom awaiting you just above.  The throttle kicks in, pulling your feet off the ground, while quickly and simultaneously crushing your head into the ceiling…  After two years of wishing for a zippy, noir-ish thrill ride, and mind you, being promised that by all of the hype – we only get a stingy game that traffics in potential and nothing more.

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