Dark Void Review

By Sterling McGarvey - Posted Jan 19, 2010

Dark Void tries to combine high-flying action with cover-based shooting, succeeding at the former and stumbling on the latter.

The Pros
  • Flight controls are stellar, once you get the hang of them
  • Bear McCreary's score is excellent
The Cons
  • Awkward on-foot controls
  • Forgettable art style, visuals, and villains
  • Cliché-ridden story

Gamers often complain that games drag on a bit too long or that some artificially lengthen the experience to such a point that the game is no longer being fun. It’s ironic, then, that while Airtight Games’s Dark Void is certainly guilty of stretching out the action, it does so via the worst possible method: Holding the game’s main hook--a jetpack--until a third of the way into the game. Although Airtight, a team comprised of developers from 2003’s Xbox dogfighting classic Crimson Skies, has an idea of how to soar through the clouds, Dark Void proves that the team has its work cut out when it comes to fun at lower altitudes.

Dark Void Review

Dark Void thrusts you into an alternate-reality Bermuda Triangle circa 1938 with all the genteel tact of baptizing an infant by casting it into the deep end of an Olympic diving pool. As Will, the square-jawed aviator, you’ll kick off the game mid-dogfight with a fully functioning jetpack, guns, and nary a clue how you’re supposed to take down the myriad of UFOs attempting to smite you. From there, you’ll spend a third of Dark Void wrestling with clunky cover-based shooting, misdirected melees, and bland locales before upgrading your jetpack and unleashing your main motive for playing the game.

The premise is simplistic, if not a patchwork of predictable sci-fi “hero’s journey” conventions: Will and former flame Ava are lost in the Bermuda Triangle, which has been overrun with waves of Watchers -- an android race of aliens trying to enslave humanity. Will survives these encounters for a few chapters before running into Nikola Tesla, who sets him up with a neutered hoverpack around the third or fourth chapter.

When Will is grounded, the action is competent, but unexciting. The cover system pales in comparison to most contemporary action games and movement out of cover feels constricted. The mechanics of vertical cover-based shooting, where Will can hang from a cliff edge and shoot up at enemies using cover a la Gears of War, lacks pizzazz and ultimately feels like you’re just shooting further down a typical horizontal corridor. It’s nice in theory, but in execution it doesn’t work so wonderfully.

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Stop Me If You’re Heard This Before

From here, you’re ready to kick ass, right? Wrong. You’ll spend some time hovering before you gain control of the full jetpack and by that time, you may already have grown quite weary of Dark Void’s shortcomings. The “You Are the Prophesized Savior” story, telegraphed with all of the subtlety of a Punch-Out!! boxer’s attacks, doesn’t help, nor does the presence of Nolan North as Will. He’s a terrific voice actor, but the familiarity of his voice hurts here -- you’ll think of better games (Uncharted, Assassin’s Creed, Prince of Persia) featuring his dulcet tones.

Dark Void Review

When You’re a Jet...

In spite of the tired tropes of Dark Void’s story and the vanilla third-person shooting contained in the game, Airtight’s pedigree with aerial combat shines through, instilling an awesome sense of wonder as you loop the loop, rebound, and blast through legions of UFOs using your jetpack. It’s quite entertaining once you’re comfortable with the rhythm of aerial battles and how to perform certain maneuvers. And, in those moments, Dark Void cuts through its handicaps -- bland visuals, boilerplate storytelling and clunky ground combat -- to grab your attention. Add in Battlestar Galactica soundtrack composer Bear McCreary, and you’ve got a powerful score that intensifies these fights and set pieces.

Unfortunately, your flight only lasts for a few hours before you encounter a mission that takes away your pack, and you’re brought back down to Earth. Although you re-earn your jets to finish the fight quickly, the psychological damage is done, since you’ve grown accustomed to soaring dogfights. The sudden loss of the game’s best feature is a sore reminder of Dark Void’s weakest moments.

Dark Void Review

Not the Flyest

Dark Void could be more easily forgiven its trespasses if it tapped into more of its potential. Some visual flair or a more unique art style could have improved the game greatly as, at heart, it’s not very pretty. On the ground, Dark Void’s environments don’t feel so much lively as they do shooting galleries that you cruise through on your way to unlocking easy achievements and trophies. This lifelessness isn’t only relegated to its environments, but to its main villains, as well. 

The Watchers are largely forgettable, especially when you think of other games like Resistance, Gears of War, or even the recent Bayonetta. All of those games have ugly, twisted enemies that motivate you to quash and destroy them. In Dark Void, you’ll certainly shoot at The Watchers, but that’s mainly because they shoot first. Their plot to subvert humanity isn’t exactly the stuff of fresh storytelling, either. You’ll likely have more emotional investment in padding your gamerscore than saving the world.

I can pinpoint the great moment where Dark Void succeeds, and honestly, had Airtight Games fleshed it out, it could have been a great experience. The aerial combat truly shows off the team’s stellar pedigree in creating tense dogfights. Unfortunately, its greatest moments are far too late in coming and are ultimately overshadowed by the lackluster shooting sections, drab art style, and boilerplate storytelling in the game. During one of Dark Void’s lengthy load screens, the onscreen text reads “if at first you don’t succeed, try a different method.” It makes me wish the team had taken its own advice. It’s sad to see such great potential buried under layers of mediocrity.\

Watch here for an extended review of Dark Void featuring Sterling McGarvey and Adam Sessler.