Friday, January 8, 2010

Flying Fancy-Free With The Dark Void Demo

dark_void_2 So it’s 2010 and I still don’t have a jetpack. What’s the deal with that? Aren’t we in the Future now?  And if the world’s going to end in two years anyway, I should be able to spend the next twenty-four months blasting through the sky like Billy Campbell. Instead, I’m left still feeling envious of birds and airplanes – two things I thought Superman had taken care of years ago.

Luckily, Capcom’s out to satiate my hunger for rocketeering. Enter Dark Void, developed by Airtight games (the people responsible for the flawed-but-fun Crimson Skies: High Road to Revenge for the original Xbox). It’s got all the trappings of a third-person shooter: a cover mechanic, melee options, a bland and nondescript name, etc. But what sets Dark Void apart – or is supposed to, at least – is the jetpack.

Few things from mid-twentieth century dreams about the Future have persisted quite like the jetpack. Once the Wright Brothers got their oversized kite to fly off the dunes in Kitty Hawk, jetpacks became – and still sort of remain – the final frontier for human flight. A world of ubiquitous, personalized jet-powered flight continues to elude us. There are outliers, of course – scientists-cum-stuntmen willing to risk thousands of dollars (not to mention their lives) and strap experimental technology to their backs. The way things are going, I imagine we’ll be giving our children wings in vitro before we’re buying them jetpacks as graduation gifts.

But I digress. Dark Void hits shelves next week, so test driving it via the recent demo seemed like a good idea.  Does it virtually sate my jetpack lust?  Find out after the jump.

Dark Void is not the first, and it won’t be the last, game to prominently feature jetpacks. Tribes fans know all too well the joy of rocketing across a battlefield whilst raining destruction upon your enemies below. Anyone who spent time with the multiplayer in 2009’s Red Faction: Guerrilla will recall that jetpacks played an integral role in chasing your opponent to the roof of a building, only to have his teammate blow the whole damned structure out from under you. 

However, most games (with the rocket belt in Pilotwings being a notable exception) treat jetpacks as a means of vertical lift with some incidental forward motion. The character remains standing upright with the jetpack allowing him to float from destination to destination. It’s a far cry from Rocketeer- or Iron Man-like flight. And if one were to build a game around it, it would be a far cry from fun.

Flight in Dark Void feels a lot like it did in Crimson Skies: HRtR.  That it is to say, extremely arcade-y and in a third-person perspective.  Specific aerobatic maneuvers (barrel rolls, Immelmanns, etc.) make joint use of the analog sticks, though nothing feels overly complicated. Like Crimson Skies, successful dogfighting requires a steady mix of boosting and leaning heavily on the brake to make tight turns. I had some issues settling my cross-hairs on smaller targets, due mostly to the imprecise nature of aiming with a stick instead of a mouse. This can make things stressful considering your aiming stick happens to also be the one dictating movement (no circle-strafing in mid-air!), but overall the flights feels competent and satisfying.

Okay, so the flight feels good, but why not just put out another plane game? Because we game in an era of blended genres. Multiplayer shooters have RPG elements. RTS games are turning into hero-based deathmatches. And Dark Void fills the heretofore-unknown niche of third-person-shooter-arcade-fliers.

The demo – after an uninformative cut-scene in which the protagonist (voiced by current industry darling Nolan North) discovers the jetpack after throwing a wrench at it – thrusts you into a tutorial mission. You learn to boost and brake. You shoot some communication towers (your jetpack has guns, apparently). You dogfight with some Watchers – robots in giant Frisbees, not know-it-all British men with a hard-on for tomboys. Then you’re asked to land on a facility and take out some shield gener…blah blah blah it sounds like Star Wars. The game then shifts from full-on flight to hovering and shooting to landing and feeling like a Gears of War clone. It somehow manages to both feel seamless and wave its seams in your face like a toddler pointing to a juice glass it knocked over, simultaneously proud and ashamed of the accomplishment.

Camera-wise the shift from flight to ground combat is outstanding.  Nothing changes.  No cuts.  Nada.  This presents a control problem, however.  When on foot, pressing forward on the left stick moves you forward.  When flying, it sends you into a dive.  If you try to change to jetpack controls while running, you will start your flight with a nosedive – most likely into the floor.  More than once in one sit-down with the demo I flew headlong into a crate made out of what could only have been adamantium, cracking the protagonist’s unprotected head open like so many of Gallagher’s watermelons.

(Sidebar: why is this guy flying through the air without a helmet?  He’s never used this device before.  What if he accidentally bumps into the side of a cliff?  And how is his skull able to withstand bullet fire from enemy Frisbees?  I need in-game fiction to justify this, please.)

I’m also not a fan of the ground-based shooting.  These stereotypical bad guy robots barely react to my bullets, so I’ve no idea if I’m actually damaging them.  Then these evil snake-aliens come at me, and no one has bothered to animate them in such a way that clues me in as to whether or not I’d killed them.  Multiple times I was attacked from behind by an enemy I thought was already dead.  That’s not devious design, it’s bad design.

Dark Void’s flight has the potential to completely overshadow these combat issues.  And the interaction of flight mechanics with inventive environments and set pieces – if such things exist – will make the game a must-play.  It’s 2010.  I want a jetpack.  Help me out, won’t you, Dark Void?