Dark Void

Triumph of Will?

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.

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Presumably, Will's trousers are made from asbestos. In which case, he should get a lung biopsy done.

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).

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The Watchers are spindly, rather elegant creatures - until Will steps on their heads.

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.

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