by Adam Rosenberg
Up until a week ago, it had been roughly a year since I last saw Capcom’s and Airtight Games’ “Dark Void.” A cool premise and some ambitious gameplay components were overshadowed in that earlier demo by a litany of troublesome visual and functional issues. However, with “Void” currently circling a Fall ’09 release and E3 right around the corner, it came as no surprise last week when Capcom breezed through New York on a media tour with a fully playable demo level from the game in tow.
In case you need a refresher, “Dark Void” follows cargo pilot Will as he is blasted into another… uhhhh… “somewhere” after taking a small detour over the Bermuda Triangle. It’s not really clear what or where Void – the name of the place our hapless pilot ends up – actually is: alternate dimension, parallel universe, surreal dream-world… it could be any, all or none of those.
Wherever the Void is, it turns out to be the current home of long-dead scientist Nikola Tesla, one of Will’s chief allies in the game. Tesla’s contribution to the story remains a mystery, but we did learn that he provides the stranded pilot with some of the game’s most useful gear, including a hover pack, a jet pack and some kind of specialized helmet.
Capcom’s latest playable demo starts Will off with the best of that gear, highlighted by a turret-equipped jetpack. Although “Dark Void” features a level-based structure, the included flight elements demand more open environments than one would typically expect from a cover-based third-person action game. In fact, the demo opens with Will already in the air, tasked with cleansing a rocky canyon of flak turrets so that a pair of friendly transports can safely land at an enemy base.
A number of strategies can be employed in taking out the turrets. There are the jetpack-mounted gun barrels, though they felt pretty underpowered in the demo (upgrades can be purchased in the full game via earned Tech Points). Will can also lock his jetpack into hover mode at any time, granting him access to any carried hand weapons. And for situations that demand heavier firepower – like destroying a group of fixed weapon emplacements – Will is able to land on and hijack saucer-shaped enemy fighters, which are more maneuverable and pack a greater punch.
The jetpack controls feel a little stiff at this point, but Will’s range of movement is impressive. Quick turns and jukes – executed through a combination of analog stick clicks and flicks – feature impressive animations, with the pilot-turned-action hero’s flailing limbs demonstrating the appropriate level of barely maintained control.
The on-foot action is pretty standard; left stick for movement, right stick for free aiming. There’s no lock-on function, though the game does offer an Aim Assist option. Cover mechanics are entirely context-sensitive; get Will close to a crate, low-lying wall or other safe haven, and a button prompt appears at the bottom of the screen. All forms of cover offered sturdy defenses during the demo, with Will enduring even explosive blasts as he crouched behind crates and the like.
The third pillar of gameplay in “Dark Void” focuses on the idea of vertical cover. At various points throughout the game, players will have to navigate their way up and down through tight, obstacle-filled spaces. Since it will generally be too dangerous to open up with the jetpack in these locations, a more cautious approach is required.
With perspective automatically shifting in these situations, fundamental “shoot from cover” gameplay in “Dark Void” remains relatively unchanged. The big difference is that Will must move from cover to cover with liberal spurts from his jetpack; on the player’s end, this means context-sensitive button prompts which signal when it is safe to move. With stationary cover, it’s most a matter of picking the right moment to push forward. At other times – such as during the demo – the next cover point may be in motion. Advancing in those situations requires precise timing, as cover advance button prompts only appear during a brief window.
“Dark Void” has certainly come a long way since I saw it during Capcom’s 2008 pre-E3 media tour. Although there are some elements still being tweaked – the jetpack-mounted weapons may or may not feature infinite ammo/cooldown meters – the core mechanics work well enough.
The biggest X-factor for “Dark Void” right now is the level design; with the jetpack accessible at any time once it is earned, Airtight is going to have to be very careful about balancing the difficulty against that freedom of movement. If this most recent demo level is any indication however, they’re certainly on the right track. Look for more details to emerge as the game’s Fall release grows nearer.