Dark Void Preview: Where There's A Will

Capcom's great shooter hope for 2009 lets you take to the skies in a jetpack.

Capcom brought the latest build of Dark Void to Sydney recently. I check out the game on Friday, thanks to THQ, Capcom's Australian distributor. What did I think of it? Let find out...

What Is It? Part third-person shooter and part airborne dogfighting, Dark Void gives you a gun and a jetpack and lets you loose in some rather sizable levels. It's from Airtight Games, a US studio comprised of many former member of FASA Interactive, the Microsoft-owned developer responsible for Crimson Skies, MechCommander, MechWarrior 4 and Shadowrun. So they have pedigree in both genres Dark Void attempts to marry.

The world is a stylised sci-fi, all gleaming metal and curved surfaces. It's actually a parallel universe governed by an ancient alien race that our hero Will finds himself dragged into. The aim is to band together with other so-called "survivors", find a way back home and close off the standard hole in the space-time continuum guff.

What We Saw Capcom showed us one level that nicely illustrated the airborne and ground combat. We saw Will flying through a canyon, protecting a convoy and blasting turrets. He then landed as the convoy docked and headed underground on foot, dispatching various grunt enemies and a mini-boss before the final encounter in a towering vertical shaft.

How Far Along Is It? It's scheduled for a September release, so the team is now finalising content before adding those final touches of polish.

What Should Change? Slow Show: There was a distinct lack of speed when Will was jetpacking around. More work needs to be done to add motion blur or a shakey cam to really make it feel like you're streaking through the sky. Audio cues, such as the wind whistling in your air, would help, too. Too often it felt like Will was merely floating, rather than flying.

Lit Up: For the most part, especially indoors, the lighting was all a bit flat and drab. I know the art design is deliberately geared towards that shiny Halo-esque vibe, but it left me cold. In particular, the contrast between the harsh outdoor sun and neon-lit interiors was not as striking as it could have been. And the final room - a giant shaft pulsing with electricity - should have been spectacular... but instead looked generic.

It Never Happened: It was often hard to tell how much damage Will was dishing out. Robot and mechanical enemies don't throw out helpful sprays of blood to indicate you're hitting them and Airtight needs to find something equivalent - sparks, perhaps? Will's weapon just lacked a bit of oomph all-round and the weak-looking explosions appeared to be placeholder (hopefully).

What Should Stay The Same? Looking For Astronauts: Vertical cover is a great idea. Like most third-person shooters, Dark Void offers a cover mechanic. Unlike others, however, you can utilise cover above and below you. Leap up at platform and Will can grab hold of the edge, his jetpack allowing him to hover underneath the ledge. From this position, he can shoot at enemies further up or even grab the ankles of those standing on the same platform. The switch to fighting vertically is quite startling at first and the best genuinely fresh idea evident in what we saw.

Start A War: Will salvages all kinds of technology throughout the levels, and can often return to previously visited areas to find more once he's unlocked certain abilities, Prince of Persia-style. This tech all ends up in the hands of Nikola Tesla, the famous electrical engineer, who Will discovers is a fellow survivor and can hook him up with the weapons he needs to take the war to the Watchers. It's a neat gameplay mechanic and also sets up plenty of cool alternate history type twists to the plot. Fingers crossed.

Baby We'll Be Fine: Although the level we saw was clearly delineated into a jetpack and an on-foot section, it's not quite so obvious. In the canyon there were plenty of opportunities for Will to land and even in the confines of the underground base he was able to use his jetpack to boost at any moment. The seamlessness of shifting from the air to the ground and back again is what Dark Void needs to set it apart and really add some tactical variety to the combat. What we saw suggests Airtight are well aware of this.

Final Thoughts Dark Void is a mixed bag right now. For every novel feature there's something equally generic. It's doing things that few other shooters are trying, but it also seems to be playing it too safe in other areas, most notably the art direction. There's still time to add more polish, but I can't help but think this is going to get lost once BioShock 2, Modern Warfare 2, Halo 3: ODST and the other higher profile shooters hit later this year. I wonder if Capcom would consider delaying it until early '10, just how much better it might be...


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