It's often hard for a new action game to stand out at trade shows like E3 and Games Convention when it's up against so many established brands, but Dark Void - assembled by a team of veterans from FASA Interactive's Crimson Skies: High Road to Revenge - faces strong competition from within as well as without. At Capcom's Captivate 08 event in Las Vegas last week, journalists were plunged into an audience with the developer Airtight Studios right after watching Jun Takeuchi show off the latest build of Resident Evil 5, while Ben Judd waited next door with Bionic Commando. Tough acts to follow.
Fortunately for Airtight, cover-based shooters are in seemingly permanent vogue, and Dark Void delivers trigger-happy third-person action with a few twists, like a hover-pack. Not quite a jetpack, it allows you to jump off a ledge and propel yourself around, giving you a new angle on entrenched foes. Facing a pair of enemies camped behind a barricade on a narrow walkway, the player can launch themselves off the side, hover to a position at the enemy's flank and take them out before they have time to react. On other occasions, it's possible to sail down towards enemies on lower platforms firing at them from above in that slightly zoomed-in, Gears of War-style over-the-shoulder perspective.
Traditional cover mechanics also exist, although despite sharing Unreal Engine 3 technology with Epic's cover-based blockbuster, Airtight prefers a manual approach to cover, getting players to hit a button whenever they want to snap to a defensive position behind a boulder or at the end of a wall. From there it's possible to line up enemies and then pop out and shoot them in a manner that will be instantly familiar to legions of Xbox 360 and PS3 fans who have spent some time in the rubble of Gears or the jungles of Uncharted. Level design will avoid cramped and adjacent cover points so that it's always clear which cover point you're committing to when you hit the button.
Dark Void isn't an urban or jungle game, though - it's set in an alien realm called the Void, which is where player-character Will, a cargo plane pilot, ends up after taking a wrong turn at the Bermuda Triangle. Will is dragged into the Void by the Watchers, an alien race that bleed gushy blue and use spindly robotic exoskeletons to protect themselves from their human prey. It's a world of tall, craggy mountainous peaks, steampunk airships and flying saucers, and the game's very vertical levels key into the thing that inspired the game in the first place: the concept of vertical cover-based gameplay.
As well as hovering around his enemies, Will can grab hold of ledges on cliff-sides and start climbing up them with the aid of rocket propulsion, grabbing onto outcroppings of rock, swinging between them with the action button. But the Watchers are quickly onto him in these situations, descending from above and firing all the way, so the player has to use the natural cover that the cliff-side provides as though it were another flat plane in a cover-based third-person shooter, with the added threat of gravity sweeping Will away if he loses his grip. If he does take a hit, a quick button-mash will allow him to recover his handhold and continue advancing upwards. The sight of enemies tumbling past Will into the abyss after they're dispatched completes the picture.
The section we're shown - about halfway through the game - sees Will, who starts the game with very little equipment, already in control of the hover pack, ascending a massive peak through a network of metal tunnels within the mountain and by climbing the side of it. He and some of the other humans trapped in the Void are attempting to reach a giant metal airship shaped like a champagne flute, and after some tasty battles with the robotic Watchers on the lower levels Will obtains a full-on jetpack that allows him to take proper flight.
It's here that the game owes most to the team's experience on Crimson Skies. Will soars through the air like Superman, barrel-rolling left and right to avoid mountains and getting into aerial duels with the Watchers' fleet of flying saucers. These can be tackled with gunfire but it's also possible to grab onto them and try and take control of them, working around the circumference of the outer layer hand over hand, trying to rip out control panels to gain access to the cockpit while the Watcher inside fires lasers blindly to try and dislodge the player. Once the cockpit's breached, a bit of left-stick waggling ousts the pilot and allows Will to take his place.
Then you can dogfight with other UFOs. Directional changes are quick thanks to a gyroscopic rotation of the cockpit module within the saucer ring, and gameplay is clearly reminiscent of FASA's much-loved Xbox dogfighter. It's also possible to leap to enemy UFOs and take them over afresh if the gun-sights struggle to line up.
After a few moments tackling UFOs, Will finally makes it to his goal and scales the side, but any celebration is cut short by the arrival of giant, insectoid boss enemies that swarm the ship. Will dodges a few swipes from the bosses' claws and valiantly scales the nearest one's head, but Airtight isn't ready to show us how this battle plays out yet, and the demo comes to an end.
Although ostensibly Western in design, Airtight devs explain that the team had a lot of input from Capcom's Japanese veterans including Keiji Inafune, who apparently described the team's bosses - the ones we haven't seen are said to be "gigantic" - as the first Japanese-style bosses he'd seen done well in a Western production. Capcom's influence has also been felt elsewhere; in terms of the emphasis on building characters as well as scenarios, and in projecting the fact that the exo-suited Watchers are organic. When Will rushes a Watcher in a corridor, he can melee attack with a knee to the groin followed by a grope and a shotgun round through the back, splashing blue innards all over the floor.
For the moment we're not being shown much else. There's an upgrade system that ties the game's equipment together (Airtight says that stuff like Will's armour, including a rather fetching bucket helmet, will be reconstituted Watcher technology) and weapons that tie in with the vertical cover system will be introduced later on. For now we're shown typical fare: a shotgun here, a plasma rifle there.
It's a quietly composed showing, even in the difficult context of Captivate 08, where the games the publisher is pushing hardest are Street Fighter IV, Resident Evil 5 and Bionic Commando. A single-player focus (there's no multiplayer or co-op) means that Airtight will need to bind its numerous concepts together coherently, and without succumbing to Lost Planet-style lapses in fluidity, in order to stand out from the rest of its genre, but the fiction's interesting, the mechanics are sturdy and evolutionary, and the developer's openly confident. There's about a year of development left to run, and we're expecting further revelations later in the year - perhaps as soon as E3 and Games Convention. It might not have the impact factor of a name as established as Resident Evil, but it's definitely worth keeping an eye on.
Dark Void is in development for PS3 and 360 and should be out in the middle of 2009.