Dark Void might sound like the world's most disappointing Thornton's selection box, but it's actually a colourful third-person blaster that comes with a wonderfully pulpy, Saturday matinee-styled 1930s narrative.
The setting is a strength, and senior producer Morgan Gray knows it, too: not only has he chosen to demo the game for me while wearing a snappy Chicago newsboy cap - "I'm bald," he admits sheepishly. "This is my surrogate hair," - but he's happy to fill us in on the game's backstory via a performance heavy with pregnant pauses and mock profundity.
"You pay as Will, he's a cargo pilot who makes a detour on a mission. A detour through the Bermuda Triangle. He ends up in an alien dimension. An alien dimension known as The Void. In The Void he ends up teaming up with a rag-tag band of humans trying to escape back to Earth and throw off the shackles of his alien oppressors known as The Watchers. He's got a jetpack to help him out, and some advanced alien weaponry, and it's his job to help get the Ark, humanity's mothership, back home."
Playing out as a mixture of run-and-gun shooter and breezy jetpack sim, Dark Void continues two recent Capcom mini-trends, both kicked off with Grin's flailing grapplespasm Bionic Commando: games built by Western, rather than Japanese, development teams (Dark Void's creator Airtight is based in Seattle), and games where you move around the world in a moderately novel manner. Fingers crossed similarities will end there: Will's weaponry isn't weak and lifeless, by the looks of it, and he heads into battle wearing a smart metal rocketman helmet rather than a clutch of muddy gap-year dreads. I guess it's safe to hope for the best.
That said, Dark Void does have invisible walls - but how it chooses to handle them is indicative of the overall approach. Rather than swiftly kill you off with clouds of radiation as Grin chose to, the game's outer limits merely flip you, acrobatically, back into the environments. Besides that, the story's numerous levels seem to take place in rather large and accommodating spaces in the first place.
"Scale in Dark Void is interesting because you go super fast," says Gray. "We call the edges turnaround volumes - you hit it and you will go 180 degrees back into the action, but for most of the game, you really have to go hunting for them. The smaller maps are about five by seven miles, so we think there's a lot of room out there even at the start." (We didn't encounter any such walls in the demo, by the way - I just brought them up because I'm a jerk.)
That's just one sign that Airtight knows what it's doing when it comes to aerial combat. It probably should, seeing as the studio's formed from an alliance of developers responsible for Crimson Skies: High Road to Revenge, and Ed Fries, the former chief of Microsoft Games Studios, who commissioned that title in the first place (and, incidentally, a man who appears to be so finely made his head looks like it's been sculpted from porcelain by artisan hummingbirds).
In motion, in fact, despite the zippy chrome jetpack replacing your good old stunt plane, Dark Void seems more of a spiritual successor to Fasa's much-loved dog-fighting classic than you might have been expecting - albeit a spiritual successor with quite a few of its own ideas.
The level I'm shown certainly has a distinctly Crimson Skies agenda. An episode culled from the middle of the narrative, The Watchers have found the Ark, and want to destroy it. With UFOs converging on the mountainous launch site, it's up to Will to protect the massive ship as its engines power up, ready for lift-off. A simple enough mission, then, and one that starts right where Airtight might be expected to feel most at home: in the sky.
The level's environment - a kind of alien Arizona filled with teetering spars and columns of red rock - seems like a large, blessedly open space for dog-fighting with a fleet of nippy flying saucers. Following a quick overview of the basics - Will's pack allows him to hover in place or scythe through the air at the touch of a button; fuel is limitless but boost juice runs down with use, needing time to recharge - we're into the battle.
The animation is excellent: Will, in leather aviation jacket and no-nonsense boots, is every bit the matinee idol, and he flails and kicks his way through the sky in a charismatic manner, bringing a grizzled physicality to flying. Meanwhile, the focus on relatively close-quarters fighting means you won't be shooting at distant dots all the time: Foo Fighters get up in your grill, buzzing you violently, before twisting away from your gunfire.
Expiring in a flash of blue flame, you can also hijack nearby UFOs (those last five words serve as a rather efficient reminder of why videogames are the best thing ever) via a QTE, to provide a bit of extra armour and firepower. Or maybe, in another echo of Crimson Skies, you might choose to drop onto the hulking Ark itself, to chew through enemies more thoroughly with AA guns.
But air combat is only really half the deal here. With the UFOs dispatched, we zip down to street level for a fight through the narrow alleyways of a supply camp. Screaming out of the sky to land seamlessly in the middle of a ground war shows the flexibility of Airtight's design: while you can run and gun and stop and pop in the manner of Gears of War, Dark Void would really prefer if you didn't.
Each level is happy to provide plenty of cover for you to snap to, but the game really comes alive when you remember that you're still strapped into a jetpack you can fire up whenever the mood strikes you, whether you use it to hover above the battlefield to circumvent enemy cover, set about strafing and dive-bombing any nearby Watchers, or even loft yourself up to a distant peak to play sniper for a while.
Wherever you end up, there always seems to be plenty of options, and the environment, which initially appears composed of little but thin air and craggy wallpaper, reveals a lot of secrets as you poke around: exquisite encounters lurking in mazy little supply depots, hidden chambers bitten deep into the rock, where you could simply get shot in the nuts for your trouble, but you might also find a handy piece of kit, such as the experimental Hyper Coil - not, alas, a counter-factual contraceptive, but rather a gun that fires lightning (which, I guess, would probably do the trick, actually, but at a fairly extreme price).
Last stop is a baby boss battle against Archons - giant gecko-like mechs with elaborate metal spines and laser cannons for mouths - and, again, you have a fair degree of scope in choosing how to take them down, from weak spots to target, QTEs to fiddle your way through, or a simple sustained barrage from the Hyper Coil (still funny).
It's a surprisingly tough battle: Will's leather jacket doesn't allow him to take too many direct hits, in a move that forces you either into acrobatics or lateral thinking, and as he succumbs to another round of plasma fire, Gray admits to me, rather frantically, that he's promised someone back in the US 100 dollars every time he dies demoing the game (trip total so far: just shy of a grand).
It's a thin slice of the wider game. Beyond canyon runs and bosses, Dark Void also comes with vertical combat, with Will hopping from one cliff ledge to the next (and covered in our last hands-on), a faddish RPG-lite upgrade system that sees you collecting tech points to power weapons and armour through three levels, and it even has good old Nolan North, the busiest man in digital show business after his performances in Uncharted and Assassin's Creed sequels, on vocal duties.
North's increasingly hard to avoid - Shadow Complex's astonishingly dire script proved that, even if you're going to have a witty and charismatic actor on board, you'll still have to give him the odd interesting thing to say - but his casting might just be a masterstroke here, with his smart, folksy brand of heroism a perfect match for Capcom's throwback adventure.
And, despite the presence of cover systems, big guns, and that peculiar Unreal Engine sheen, Dark Void remains an unusual prospect: an inventive leftfield genre piece with a lovely splash of jet-age charm. Rather than gamble its ideas on a bland presentation that will, at best, offend nobody, Airtight's opted to craft something that could potentially drive a certain portion of the gaming crowd absolutely wild with delight.
Dark Void is due out for PC, PS3 and Xbox 360 on 15th January 2010.