Never mind trade shows - not being Resident Evil or Street Fighter, poor old Dark Void struggles to make itself heard over the din at Captivate. It - wait, hang on, I've done this intro before. Then again, in its Captivate 09 demo of a playable level from midway through the game, Airtight Studios is in same-again mode too, emphasising the contrast - and cross-polination - between the jetpack dogfighting that draws from the studio's roots in Crimson Skies, and the third-person cover combat that makes up the rest of the game.
Not that a little reiteration isn't welcome, because we haven't heard much from the Void since it made its entrance last year. Speaking on the opening evening of Captivate 09, Capcom executive Mark Beaumont said he thought it could be one of the publisher's "most significant" games of 2009 by the time it comes out simultaneously on PS3, Xbox 360 and PC. Is it?
The demo begins as protagonist Will - stranded in The Void, along with Nikola Tesla (his mechanic!) and others who stumbled through the Bermuda Triangle - approaches a prison installation along with his allies. The prison is run by the game's antagonists - the mysterious Watchers, who generally take the form of bipedal robots, despite Airtight's hints that their occupants are somewhat different to you and I.
Initially it's a mixture of dogfighting with UFOs and taking out anti-aircraft guns that are targeting your allies in transport ships. Using the left stick to manoeuvre and turn through the air and the right stick to move the camera, it's a slightly disorientating hybrid of flight combat and third-person action. Will can change to hover mode and use a fairly standard zoomed-in over-the-shoulder third-person attack, or he can zip around like Rocketman firing willy-nilly. There's a radar in the top right to help locate enemies, and a right-bumper "nearest enemy" indicator, which spins the camera to lock on so you can steer onto target, although you have to aim manually either way.
The AA guns are pretty straightforward to take out, but the UFOs can be fought unconventionally by hitting the hijack button as they pass or you get onto their tail. This swings Will onto the exterior, where he has to dodge laser blasts and try to rip open a panel to expose the pilot, who he then executes after a bit of left-stick quick-time waggling. It's then possible to pilot the UFO - its gyroscopic cockpit rotating in opposition to the outer ring that sweeps this way and that as you tour the sheer geology of the Void, darting between craggy spires amidst unnatural lighting.
With the AA guns dispatched, Will descends to the landing pad and engages in God of War-style cover shootery, dodging between and hurdling cover points manually or when prompted, and engaging enemies with left-trigger zoom and right-trigger gunfire from the standard assault rifle. The prison structure embedded in a cliff-face is a mixture of Close Encounters' otherworldly colouring suffused with discomfiting post-Covenant purples, amidst slickly nefarious technology bristling with alien utility, within which you can also toss grenades, and make use of your jetpack's hover function to try and flank if you're that way inclined.
Enemies are Terminator-style exoskeletal warriors to begin with, and give up fairly easily - you can even run up to them for a quickie melee execution, before retreating to take advantage of the regenerative health system. Just as well too, as some of them self-detonate into an expanding blue bubble of damage. As you head inside though, you encounter one of the game's heavies, the Knight (they all have chess names, apparently - one of Tesla's quirks), a broad-chested mechanical brute who flies around firing lasers and rockets and swishing the tentacle he has in place of legs. He takes a good bit of ammo to go down.
Then you drop further in, hovering through claustrophobic shafts and corridors until you reach the prison's core, a central pillar encircled by rotating blades and other protrusions, which you ascend by leaping to them with help from the cover button. Airtight says that vertical cover is meant to bridge the gap between aerial combat and standard cover gameplay, and is optional - you could just fly up to the top if you're skilled enough to dodge everything - and the Captivate demo is an evolution of the prototype shown last year. The way the platforms rotate around the central pillar changes the cover dynamic, moving Will and his enemies around and in theory forcing you to readjust regularly to avoid being flanked.
Although we're only shown one level, Airtight also says only a little about other areas and systems. Beginning with a basic jetpack that lacks full flight capacity, you will be able to unlock upgrades for this and other equipment throughout the game by harvesting what are currently called tech points - energy drops from downed Watchers - and there are a trio of difficulty settings. The developer says that the flight combat skews easier while cover shooting is more intense, which they reckon reflects the gradient of skill across the target audience's experience of the conflicting genres.
Actually playing the demo raises some concerns though. The UFO hijack attacks quickly fall into a mundane routine, while the bridge between hovering and full jetpack acceleration is quite pronounced, and a poorly measured transition can be suicidal. The third-person shooter sections are also rather cold and lacking in drama, and while it's difficult to get a handle on the AI, the lack of hit-response is rather jarring and vertical cover is less tactical than it probably sounds.
All the same, Dark Void continues to look interesting, and both of the last two years' reveals have spoken to more gameplay diversity than either the flight combat or shooter genres are used to individually, which is a good thing, because while flight combat may be wide open, Gears of War 2's single-player campaign raised the bar significantly in scenario design, and the one-player-only Dark Void is pinning its hopes to the campaign alone. We'll find out whether Mark Beaumont is right to be cautiously optimistic closer to the end of the year.
Dark Void is due out simultaneously for PS3, Xbox 360 and PC in late 2009.