Xbox 360 Review

Dark Void

Martin stares into the void

There's a point near the start of Dark Void where Will, the game's hero, unsuccessfully leaps off a collapsing bridge, his outstretched arm mere inches away from solid ground. He's caught by Ava, the game's female love interest, in what is clearly intended as a dramatic moment but is an unnecessary conceit: Will's wearing a bloody great jetpack, after all. Later on, a character asks him how he manages to achieve the things he does. Our protagonist laughs, proclaiming that he just tries to stay out of his own way. But, really, the answer - once again - is his amazing experimental jetpack. It's made by Nikolai Tesla and it's got guns on it and everything.

Dark Void is all about the jetpack, though developer Airtight Games seem to think it's not enough: Halo isn't just about trying to barrel roll a Warthog, Gears of War is more than the colour brown and Modern Warfare 2 didn't sell itself on shooting civilians in an airport alone. Will Grey - if he wants to stand on the shoulders of giants - must surely require more than being able to propel himself at 300mph.

Except he doesn't. After learning to ping about at whim, the game reveals its single most thrilling moment: the initial kick of the jetpack is feistier than the Buckaroo mule on a bad hair day. Other flight games give players the skies - where it's possible to fly at hundreds of miles an hour without colliding head-first into a wall - but Dark Void, though it spends plenty of time doing the same, also gets us perilously spiralling through restrictive, claustrophobic indoor environments. And that's terrifying. It's just a big shame almost all of the game's levels make such satisfying inertia-defying antics impossible.

There's no need to protract the verdict: Dark Void isn't a very good game. The game purports to seamlessly transition from ground to air, but in reality the levels are neatly divided up into telegraphed sections. You rarely use the flight mode on the jetpack unless you're outside, when you'll be able to nip about in open space for some adequate dogfights with the same four enemies (a flying saucer, sometimes with shields, a turret, a transport ship and some aliens with their own in-built jetpacks) or, if you're feeling particularly saucy, you can leap into an enemy UFO - complete with the exact same animation and mini-game every time you do it - or pilot an allied aeroplane, although neither are as fun as watching Will's body fling about in the open air. These sequences end when you shoot down a requisite amount of enemy forces, and then the player is clumsily shuffled (often by level transition) to the ground.

The bulk of the game is a weary Gears of War knockoff, with you nipping behind cover and popping rounds into spindly alien robot enemies reminiscent of the droids from the second batch of Star Wars movies. Except sometimes you can hover in the air for a bit. Will's been accidently transported from 1938 - where he fights the 'fascists' - to an alternate dimension, the eponymous dark void, via some sort of cheeky portal in the Bermuda triangle where aliens run amok in robot suits and threaten to enslave the whole of humanity. Thank the heavens our Will is an excellent and fearless test pilot who happens to stumble upon that oh-so-useful jetpack.

The problem is one of over-ambition and poor direction. The jetpack is intended to be the glue which binds the decent-enough aerial combat and weak ground combat seamlessly together. It doesn't. Developer Airtight Games have simply nicked off with a rudimentary form of Gears of War's combat and some of Mass Effect's blue hues, crudely affixed it into their trusty Crimson Skies (which the core team at Airtight Games developed) mould and trussed the whole thing up with the kind of dour, self-important epic pomp reserved for games with fifteen times the budget. Or the Twilight movies. The storyline is tiresome, and the sloppy presentation doesn't help, either, despite efforts from Nolan North's top-tier (if slightly over-exposed; you can also check him out in this week's Army of Two: The 40th Day) voice acting and Bear "Battlestar Galactica" McCreary's decent soundtrack.

There are bits, for instance, where you walk up to the side of a ledge and hit a button, which causes the camera to position itself at a different angle to allow the player to begin their vertical traversal. Here the player, now restricted to a 2D plane, jumps from ledge to ledge - thankfully there's an on-screen prompt to serve as a guide - shooting the odd alien robot along the way. This isn't necessarily a bad gimmick, but it's definitely not the sleight of hand technique to make the player forget about everything else: Dark Void gets the basics all wrong, and no amount of trimmings can help redeem it.

The worst offender, other than bland level design, is that enemies are dangerously, maddeningly stupid. They seem to have no idea where they are or what they're supposed to be doing; I found myself cruising through the game on its highest difficulty with absolutely no problems. To compensate for their lack of smarts they've been turned into bullet sponges, with some common enemies eating multiple clips before collapsing into a clunky pile of metallic bits and pieces. The sloppy graphics also forces them into comical animation routines whilst they're being shot at, jumping and stuttering around as if someone was making them dance by firing a machine gun at their feet. These lowly production values are further exacerbated when you level up your standard Lancer-esque (sans chainsaw) rifle to its maximum level, with each bullet conjuring up a wispy puff of fire that looks like it would be at home in an FPS from a decade ago.

It's a game that gets worse the more you think about it. It's riddled with daft touches, such as how Will's way of switching through his two weapon inventory is similar to Marcus Fenix's 'reach for the gun on your back' animation, only in Dark Void the guns aren't actually kept there. Or how the game's aiming reticule makes getting headshots - which the game tells you to go for - in the wide-open spaces nigh on impossible, but when you level your guns up it seems as if you'll pull off a perfect headshot regardless of where the crosshairs are pointed. The game gives you a total of six weapons, all of them useless at level 1 but completely overpowered at maximum level 3, and allows you to pick your inventory at the start of each mission so you'll only ever need the standard rifle, which, handily, always comes with more than enough ammo to get you through.

What Airtight Games needed was more confidence: their pedigree with the flight sim genre would have probably been better served if they'd kept their game in the skies. Gears of War might be a popular game, but a sloppy imitation with tacked-on flight bits isn't going to win anybody over. Dark Void might want to soar, but it never finds a way to get its feet permanently off the ground.

E3 Trailer