Friday, 22 January 2010

Dark Void -> Review

Originally posted on Game People

There's a moment in Dark Void when the mythos of the Void world, the history of the Bermuda Triangle and the shadow of World War Two come together and create a brief instant of epic storytelling. Unfortunately, that fleeting moment is buried under generic gameplay and a lurching narrative that led towards an unsatisfying and disappointing end.

It's easy to dismiss Dark Void as a derivative 3rd-person shooter with a single gameplay addition that distinguishes it from its genre bedfellows. The lazy sound bite that constantly echoed inside my mind for the first few hours was 'Uncharted with jetpacks'. Not only would that be unfair on Naughty Dog's masterpiece but it would also be unfair on Dark Void. Not that the vertical cover mechanic or jetpack addition elevates this game anywhere near the level of Uncharted, but it does share a similar Matinee-film feeling.

Set in 1938, you're on a routine courier flight that just happens to cross into the Bermuda Triangle and before you can say 'Nolan North is voicing the lead character again', you crash-land in another dimension. It's wonderfully corny stuff and taps into the same Buck Rogers or The Land That Time Forgot style that makes for a light-hearted Hollywood yarn. But this is Dark Void's high point - the voicing of Will Grey by the most Han Solo-esque actor in recent years gives Dark Void that same roguish charm that worked so well for Nathan Drake.

For the first four hours Dark Void never felt like it was going to be any more than a simple variation on the cover-to-cover, 3rd person shooter genre. The ability to hover and later fly mixes up the gameplay and suitably changes the pace of the experience so you're never slogging through levels of the same flavour. It's all pretty neat stuff and although the transition from ground-based combat to full-on flying is a little awkward, it fits the 40's sci-fi nature of the setting and adds a bit of variety to the core of the game.

This gameplay variety doesn't make Dark Void particularly interesting though. That epic-like moment I referred to earlier comes purely because the game tries to blend the fascinating fiction of the Bermuda Triangle, 30's sci-fi and the onset of World War Two. The world you find yourself in houses the malevolent Watchers - beings that have shaped human affairs from creation and seek a way back to Earth to continue their dominion. Your aim to return to Earth and close the portal that would allow The Watchers to follow you.

I loved this premise but Dark Void woefully underuses the myths at its disposal and the figure of Nikola Tesla is far from the central lynchpin the game says it is. The other figures from the Bermuda Triangle legend are even more undersold with Amelia Earheart and Flight-91 reduced to text journal entries that are filed out of sight in the menus and have no impact or importance in the game. Reading them gives a little more colour to the fiction Dark Void is trying to create but they feel more of an afterthought and badly implemented to carry any weight. Audio diaries are fast becoming a narrative cliché but if they are well voiced, as in Bioshock and Batman: Arkham Asylum, then they can enriched an experience and help to create a living, breathing world.

Without this the world of Dark Void feels empty, too clinical to carry the meaning or impact the game wants to achieve. At a certain point you come across a factory packed full of weapons and vehicles destined for Earth and the insignia on them carries huge significance as to why The Watchers must be stopped. Yet the visual design of the game at that moment is so cluttered that I couldn't make out a single symbol that was being pointed out to me. The breathtaking and chilling vista that the game needed at that point was absent and the impact of that crucial moment was next to nothing.

Similarly the enemies you face are painfully dull as well. A cross between the Trade Federation troopers in The Phantom Menace, the Geth in Mass Effect and the machines in Too Human, there's no explanation given as to what they are, how they came into being or why they talk and act like humans. Only The Watchers themselves are given a face and aside from the typical Roswell alien-look their motivations and implied effect on humanity was something I would have like to see more of. In a similar fashion the inhabitants of the Void world, both incidental and important characters alike, are badly underwritten and give little weight to the overall world.

Why this gets to me in Dark Void and why I don't dismiss the entire game as a play and forget, popcorn-thriller, is because it could have been more. I feel there's a depth here that the developers didn't have time to flesh out or didn't feel they needed to create. The Tesla technology that's underused, the obfuscation around the main plot and the way the game suddenly lurches to its anti-climatic conclusion gives me the impression that time ran out on a number of levels.

As a result a lot of the narrative and wider story feels set up for a sequel, but the climatic stages of Dark Void lack any kind of urgency and drama that make it worthy of a follow-up. It's a paper-thin experience that might be entertaining for a few hours but the awkward flight controls, the untapped potential of the story and setting mean that Dark Void is a crushing disappointment.


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