It was always going to be aliens, wasn't it? There we are thinking the Bermuda Triangle leads to some parallel paradise where gamers with skills are worshipped like movie stars and eating pizza tones your abs instead of flabbing them up. But no. It leads to aliens. Big, ugly, hissing aliens hell bent on enslaving humanity.
That's according to developer Airtight Games, anyway. In Dark Void, the studio's new game, the Bermuda Triangle leads to a mysterious purgatory-like place called The Void, where The Watchers (the aliens in question) have been waiting for years, "preparing" the human race as they plot their return.
The Watchers, though, didn't factor Nathan Dra... sorry, Will Grey, Dark Void's Nolan North (yes, him again) voiced star, into their nefarious plan. But then, neither did Will. His involvement in the battle to save humanity is a coincidence. Well, so it would seem.
Dark Void begins in August 1938. Average Joe pilot Will and his lady friend Ava set off on a bog standard delivery flight carrying bog standard cargo in a bog standard plane. But, as they pass through the Bermuda Triangle, strange things happen, the plane dies and they crash land. Emerging from the wreckage, the two set out to explore their surroundings. It's at this point that things start to go seriously downhill.
If you were to play Dark Void for only its first hour, you would probably cast it aside as a badly-made Uncharted knock-off. The similarities are so stark that they border on the hilarious. Will is voiced by Nolan North, aka Nathan Drake. He also looks like Uncharted's rugged hero. Dark Void has a cover system and third-person shooting. The first act is set in a jungle-like environment. There's even a female AI-controlled co-op partner, called Ava. And they banter as they run about.
Further comparisons, however, are less favourable. The Void's jungle environment looks awful, Ava's running animation is cringe-worthy, and the backgrounds are pathetic. The Watchers, disappointing, generic aliens that attack on sight, are easily dispatched in typical whack-a-mole fashion with your unsatisfying weaponry.
One of Dark Void's hooks is vertical combat. Will can hug cover not only in front or behind him, but above and below. So, if there's an alien firing at you from behind a platform positioned directly above you, you can look up, press X (on the Xbox 360 version - the version tested) and Will will leap towards the alien and hug the platform from underneath. From there, he can pop out of the cover and shoot as normal, or, if he's hugging the opposite side of the same piece of cover as a Watcher, he can knock them off, sending them falling to their doom. The same process applies to combat underneath you - instead of leaping upwards, Will allows himself to fall - and the game automatically switches perspective as appropriate.
It's initially bewildering, confusing, and, at times, nauseating - as you'd imagine it would be if you were to attempt a similar act of insane acrobatics in real life. But, as with most of Dark Void's more unique features, you do get used to it. And it's quite a lot of fun, really, attacking enemies from above and below, leaping and dropping from platform to platform and enjoying a dash of vertigo along the way. Unfortunately, however, vertical combat can't save Dark Void's third-person shooting from being distinctly average.
Eventually, Will and Ava meet famed scientist Nikola Tesla - (who, apparently, is all the rage at the moment among technophiles). He's been helping the Survivors - the human resistance - defeat the Watchers by using their advanced technology to create weapons, planes and... a kick ass jetpack. About an hour or so into Dark Void, Tesla gives Will the jetpack. After that, Dark Void quite literally takes off. By pressing Y then Y again, Will soars into the air at hundreds of miles an hour, firing dual cannons at anything that dares to get in his way. Here, Dark Void is Rocket Man meets Crimson Skies. Here, Dark Void is good.
Like the vertical combat, the jetpack takes time to fully grasp because flight is based on aeroplane controls: the left stick controls pitch and yaw; the right stick rolls. At first, you'll smash into everything and anything, but eventually you'll start to enjoy it, boosting and breaking and barrel rolling and loop the looping to your heart's content.
There can be no doubt that Dark Void is at its best when you're flying. The flying is good, even if the environments, graphics and enemies aren't. Some of the levels are gargantuan, and seamlessly integrate on foot sections with in air sections. One minute you'll be defending the giant Ark ship from a Watcher attack, the next you'll be in a cold, blue corridor fighting against Watchers from behind cover.
It's a good idea, but poorly executed. Dark Void is about little more than shooting stuff, and it's not particularly sophisticated when you do it. In the air, Watcher craft circle you mindlessly until you destroy them. "Jacking" them requires the completion of a mindless "cat and mouse" mini-game that gets boring very quickly. Anti-aircraft turrets fire at you every now and again. On the ground, the hilariously animated Watchers hide behind cover for a bit, then stand up so you can shoot them in the head. When you are flanked and shot at, flying away to heal gets you out of jail free. When you die, it's usually because you've flown into a platform or the camera decided to have a fit.
The mission objectives are equally unsatisfying, and repeated throughout. Take out the anti-air guns, kill all the Watchers, destroy the consoles, rinse and repeat. Dark Void's feet spend too much time on the ground and hiding behind cover, when they should have focused on vertical combat and flying - all you really want to do is open up that jetpack and fly with glorious abandon.
In Dark Void's defence, being able to seamlessly transition between in air combat and on foot combat is unique. We can't think of another cover-based third-person shooter that allows you to fly away when the going gets tough. Dark Void is a new concept at a time when sequels are the norm - and that should be applauded. It's a shame, then, that things haven't quite worked out as they might have done.
Perhaps there's a story behind why Dark Void feels at best rushed and at worst unfinished. Whatever the truth, we know for certain that the frame rate is awful - and drops so frequently that you almost get used to it - the graphics are dated, the lip syncing is all over the place, and the audio glitches. We even experienced a few game breaking bugs. In one level, you're tasked with defending human prisoners from waves of Watcher attacks. Unfortunately, the prisoners failed to spawn, so the Watchers failed to show. In another level, you need to take down a giant Watcher ship by shooting turrets that pop out before disappearing again. The turrets along one side of the ship decided not to join the party.
Dark Void could have been good. It could have been the Crimson Skies/Gears of War hybrid it looked like it might have been. Unfortunately, something somewhere went wrong. After finishing the six hour campaign, you'll be hard pressed to recall any outstanding moments. One level, set in a Watcher weapons manufacturing plant, offers something a little different to the tiresome norm, and the final boss battle is decent enough. But really, we're clutching at straws.
And once the brutally short campaign is over, Dark Void is over. Without a multiplayer mode (which, we reckon could have been quite good), Dark Void rests on its single-player. Unfortunately, it's not up to the standards set by the best, and there's no motivation to play through it twice. Dark Void isn't bad, or broken, or busted. It's just average, generic, and instantly forgettable.