Wednesday, 29 May 2013

Dark Void

Post-Launch Review
Dark Void (PC)
Developer: Airtight Games
Released: January 2010


A third-person shooter set just before World War 2, Dark Void follows Will Grey, a pilot thrown into another world by the Bermuda Triangle. In the Void, Will encounters an alien race known as the Watchers, who are in constant conflict with a ragged group of humans, the survivors of accidents and disappearances similar to Will's. With the help of inventor Nikola Tesla, Will dons a jetpack and joins the survivors in the hope of escaping the Void.

At Launch

Dark Void received average review scores of about 58%. Most critics felt that the shooter and flight segments blended poorly, and that flight controls were difficult. Reviews stated that ground combat lacked variety and innovation and felt repetitive, and that the game forced too much ground combat. Many critics were disappointed with the third act, both in terms of plot and the final battle. There were complaints of major technical issues including crashes and sound problems.

Post Launch

Two patches were released. The first added PhysX for boxed copies of the game, and the second improved PhysX.

The Good

Free Roam
In some levels the game gives you multiple objectives or targets - protecting someone from enemies that are both on the ground and in the air, for example. These levels are where Dark Void is at its best. The ability to transition from ground to hover to flight is exhilirating in its freedom of movement and adaptability - it's a lot of fun to be in a high-speed dogfight, drop out of the sky into cover to shoot a few ground units, and blast back into the air again. These moments are where Dark Void shines.
Vertical Cover
There are segments in the game where you fight on a cliff face or some other vertical surface. Rather than having you simply aim up, you can use the tops or bottoms of platforms as cover, and the camera orients itself so that the vertical wall is "down". You can use the jetpack to leap between ledges. To someone who's wanted to see more games use vertical space in interesting ways, this is super cool. Some of these vertical cover bits drastically change the feel of an environment you've probably seen before in other games. For example, you fight on the deck of a U.S. Navy ship - only it's hanging off the side of a cliff and the various hatches and crates and stuff are vertical cover, and the deck of the ship isn't down, the bottom of the canyon is. And some weapons (explosives) can even cause you to lose your grip, which adds a bit more suspense to the vertical combat. It's a cool idea and implemented pretty well.
Visuals & Style
Dark Void's art is pretty nice, going for a late 1930's setting mixed with futuristic alien tech and some more dieselpunk stuff from the Void's survivors. The Void's canyons are somewhat mysterious with the rock formations shrouded in fog and no visible ground below. The massive scale of the formations, the fog below, the occasional ruins, and free flight is a way cool approach to a desolate wasteland setting compared to empty ground. The graphics aren't spectacular but the art is handled well.

The Neutral

I want to like the jetpack, especially with its dual machine guns, but it feels unwieldly. Maneuvering while flying is difficult, especially with the default sensitivity set so low. It feels like mouse acceleration is forced on for flying - faster movements cause a greater change in your aim/steering, and slow movements have almost no effect. This makes it difficult to aim at and track targets while flying - move the mouse too slowly and you'll never get the cursor on target before it turns, but move too quickly and you overshoot.
It's too bad, because Will's flying animations are excellent. You can almost feel that he's moving really fast - he tries to keep his arms and legs steady behind him, but they're buffeted by the wind and jerk around a little bit. He leans into turns and adjusts his positioning. Flying looks cool, but handles poorly.
Tech Points & Upgrading
You can earn tech points from defeating enemies and from exploring the environment. These points are used to upgrade your weapons and jetpack. Some of the upgrades are simple and expected - larger clip size or greater accuracy, for example. But the top-tier upgrades are a lot of fun: exploding bullets, exploding enemies, secondary rockets on the jetpack... There's some neat stuff here.
Unfortunately, collecting tech points from defeated enemies is a chore. The little orbs remain where the enemy died, so you have to walk or fly close enough to pick them up - but they also time out if you wait too long. This is a real pain during dogfights where there's no cover and space can be very limited. The kicker is that when you're in a turret the points fly over to you automatically. Why can't the points just come to me all the time, or be awarded on a kill rather than having to pick them up?

The Bad

Sound Issues
There are a couple of problems here. The first one I noticed is that the initial audio balance is pretty terrible - I can hardly hear anyone talking over the music and sound effects. Easily fixable in the audio settings, but a bad start. Second, the game's audio completely shuts down after bits and pieces failing slowly over time. No music, no voice, no sound, even though people are clearly talking and things are obviously happening. Other times it's part of the audio - voice disappears, but music and SFX still play. Voice seems to be the most problematic, but other elements disappear too. This is a constant problem persistent throughout much of the game and is a really serious bug that substantially lessened my enjoyment of the game. Subtitles don't even help that much, because they don't identify who's talking. I liked the music I could hear, with its neat bassline, but it eventually disappeared entirely, with the only sound left being gunfire and nothing else at all.
Apparently the PS3 version has very similar sound problems.
Cutscene Freeze
A couple of times I had cutscenes lock up on me in somewhat of a weird way. Animation and dialogue stopped, but physics still functioned. As an example to show what I mean, I saw Will and Ava walking, and then they just froze mid-stride and the camera stopped, but Ava's hair kept blowing in the wind. Weird.

Install From Disc
Or rather, can't install from disc. Most (maybe all) PC DVD copies of Dark Void will not install from the disc. The install will lock up and never progress. You can get it to work by copying all the files onto your PC and then running the installer, which is annoying but it works.
Loading Screen Tips
I'm fine with a game's loading screen tips telling me little tidbits about the lore that I might miss or that aren't otherwise in the game. I'm not fine with those tips providing spoilers by telling me about plot points, enemies, weapons, tactics, or abilities that haven't even shown up yet. For example: in episode one, I don't even know what the Watchers are yet or what their motivations are, and the loading screen tips are already telling me that they're conspiring with the Nazis (though the game calls them 'fascists' for some reason) to start a world war. Why would you tell me this, game?
Control Change
So I've made it through episode 1 and I'm slogging my way through episode 2, stubbornly pushing onwards without any audio. And then, suddenly, the controls change without my touching anything. Sighting is now a toggle instead of a push-and-hold, but not always, and I can't figure out what triggers it. When I try to fire while aiming, I need to hit the button twice, because only once means no bullets. And the auto-aim is massively ramped up to the point where my view is actually turning with the enemy. This is where I threw my hands in the air and quit.

The Verdict

Recommendation: avoid it.
There's some good stuff here, but it's completely overshadowed by massive bugs. I can't believe Dark Void actually shipped with the state it's in. I lost 95% of the game's audio with no apparent way to fix it, the controls changed on me by themselves, and I couldn't even install the game from the disc. That's just downright embarrassing - you'd think someone might have actually checked the discs to see if they worked before shipping them, right? Even the two patches that were issued do nothing to solve the audio or control problems, addressing only the PhysX component. I only played halfway through the game, but that's more than enough for me to recommend against playing Dark Void. Even if you like the gameplay you'll likely encounter too many crippling bugs to get through it.

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