We’ve all sat through our fair share of over-long films. We’ve suffered through the needlessly overblown historical epics, the interminable action movies, the pretentious Russian arthouse flicks, and we’ve got the sore buttocks to prove it.
The duration of videogames is a common subject in genre criticism; reviewers, developers and marketeers will frequently cite a game’s lengthy campaign as a sign of value for money, and in most cases this reasoning is sound. But can a game, like a needlessly overblown cinematic epic, outstay its welcome? Can a game drag on for so long that, as you sit on your sofa both bleary eyed and sore of thumb, you begin to wish the whole sorry enterprise would stop?
It’s a question I repeatedly asked myself as I ploughed through Dark Void. Like the 30s pulp literature and B-movie cinema from which it draws inspiration, Dark Void is a grab bag of genres, themes and ideas, games as apparently disparate as Gears Of War, hoary SNES shooter Starwing and Quake are all thrown together to create an unexpectedly odd SF action-adventure.
The plot, if you’re interested, sees its protagonists lost in the Bermuda Triangle, where they encounter a race of cyborg aliens called the Watchers, intent on taking over the world. It’s an unusual, potentially fun premise, but hampered from the outset by the most generic pair of lead characters you’ll see all year: a wise-cracking, square-jawed hero and his condescending female love interest, whose voice actors reel off their lines with all the conviction of tannoy announcement.
This lack of conviction even threatens to seep into the game itself. The first hour or so amounts to a long plod punctuated by an occasional lethargic shoot-out with spindly aliens. These firefights drag on interminably, and entirely lack the visceral clatter and fizz of its inspiration, Gears Of War. By contrast, Dark Void‘s peek-a-boo gunfights are about as exciting as throwing peanuts at a tin can.
It’s almost hour two before Nikola Tesla appears to save the game from oblivion, his rocket pack invention allowing Dark Void to soar, albeit briefly. It’s here that Airtight finally reveals its oft-publicised vertical combat system – and it’s here that the game should have arguably begun.
Boosting from ledge to ledge up the faces of cliffs – and in one standout scene, up the hull of a crumbling battleship – is both fluent and satisfying, and Dark Void finally begins to redeem itself, as vanquished enemies drop down from above like so much litter.
The scenes that follow, where Grey properly takes to the skies for a bout of aerial combat hinted at in the game’s prologue, are another high point. Soaring around among some quite spectacular scenery, you suddenly get a sense of what Dark Void was surely meant to be in the early planning meetings: a game full of variety, where high-speed dogfights with flying saucers blend almost seamlessly with dizzying vertical gun battles.
But just as memories of the game’s tatty first hour begin to fade, Dark Void settles back into a familiar groove. Flaws and technical deficiencies, that were mere background annoyances at first, really begin to grate.
The aching stupidity of its spindly enemies, that will duck behind cover with their head still exposed, flit about in the air like gnats, or simply stop moving altogether, is the most glaring fault. The Watchers would make for some of the most feeble opponents in all of gaming, but for Airtight’s decision to make them take so many hits.
Most strangely, an enemy’s size has little bearing on its strength. The gigantic, floating Guardians can be brought down with fewer shots than some lowly foot soldiers. This lack of balance and consistency makes its shoot-outs something to dread rather than savour, and there were occasions when I chose to run (or hover) to the next check point rather than stand my ground – surely not what Airtight intended.
Dark Void‘s level design is similarly muddled and ill-paced. A hypnotic flight through a narrow tunnel is all-too-fleeting, yet other scenes stretch on needlessly. Where most games would require the destruction of one Star Wars-like reactor, Dark Void presents you with three. Even the aerial combat, so appealing on its first appearance, begins to outstay its welcome, with the obliteration of one wave of agile flying saucers hastening the arrival of another.
Ultimately, Dark Void is a potentially brilliant game brought low by its execution. Its character design – human and otherwise – is generic and uninspired, its graphics simply too glitchy, and too last-gen.
Airtight’s attempt to marry ground and aerial combat, a linear plot and a free-roaming environment has resulted in an uneven, muddled whole. And with games as shiny as Mass Effect 2 and Bayonetta available in the same month, Dark Void‘s ‘quantity over quality’ ethos is hard to recommend.
Dark Void will be released on January 22 and can be pre-ordered from the Den Of Geek Store.