Version tested: Xbox 360
Anyone who remembers The Rocketeer has probably noticed something a bit familiar about Dark Void. I can't imagine that even the most indignant of Capcom executives would deny that the graphic novel and film's visual cues have been echoed somewhat in their "vertical cover shooter". Everything from the pack itself to the leather jacket and natty helmet has been a clear influence on the design of game's main character, and the Boy's Own Adventure ethos is firmly in place.
On playing, however, the clearest inspiration that emerges is Uncharted - which is no great surprise given that Dark Void is really a third-person cover-action game wearing a new dress. Main character Will is very much the pseudo-Drake, all hangdog aphorisms and last-gasp ledge grabs. Voiced by the ubiquitous Nolan North, he spends the first level looking for ruins in a jungle with his ex-girlfriend, professes to be no action hero even whilst taking down four enemies with one bullet, and sports a Lampard-esque range of practical-casual couture. The imitation is so blatant that it's a bit embarrassing.
Sadly, pithy asides and poor fashion choices are about as close as Dark Void gets to Naughty Dog's adventuring crown, as the game's selection of promising ideas fail to gel into anything substantial.
One thing which Uncharted doesn't have is a jetpack, and developer Airtight Games has done a decent job of evoking the feeling of reckless speed and manoeuvrability which you'd imagine might come from putting the business end of a F-111 in a rucksack and strapping it on. Being able to fire up the boosters from anywhere, standing, falling or hovering, means that there's a seamless fluidity to the switch between ambulation and rocketry. The open environments which form about half of the game's levels really facilitate this sort of tactical freedom - Will is never more than a double tap away from Mach 2, and swan diving from a ledge into free-fall before swooping up into a .45-calibre-spewing parabola is a thrill which never really gets old.
Control of the pack is simple enough, and probably considerably easier than conventional physics and bone density would allow, with boost and brake controls complementing a limited range of emergency evasion techniques. Dogfighting isn't easy, but usually offers a sensible level of challenge, made simpler if you can manage to get close enough to an enemy craft to latch on for an attempted hi-jack.
These take the form of button-prompt QTEs, spiced up with a bit of turret-fire avoidance. Functional rather than ground-breaking, they get a little repetitive in longer engagements, and there's no variation whatsoever in the takedown animations which are the end result of any successful attempt. This means that every time you swoop heroically onto an alien craft whipping past at 400mph, rip open its control surfaces and beat the pilot to death with his own weapon, it feels exactly the same, and not the exciting feat of derring-do it so clearly should be. This menial, lacklustre experience is a constant curse in Dark Void, as epic aerial encounters quickly become routine, suffering the death of a thousand identical cuts.
Several of the game's boss battles take place mid-air too, and they offer a slight change of pace - with one larger Watcher craft requiring classic Capcom piecemeal destruction. This also means switching over to hover mode and landing yourself carefully on the deck of a ship to pull it apart bit by bit. This is an interesting way to emphasise the heroism of the vulnerable, un-armoured protagonist and his plucky assault on the forces of evil - the fly biting the tiger - but it's an exception which starkly highlights the tedious norm.
Swooping around on a rocketpack in the Void's rocky canyons is reminiscent of Crimson Skies, which, come to think of it, also features a folksy hero in a leather jacket flying unlikely contraptions. There's the same comic-book pacing permeating the experience. Being caught up in a whirlwind dogfight of detonating future-biplanes and gung-ho radio chatter is Dark Void at its best: exciting and involved. These moments are all too brief, however, as long battles and stingy restart points quickly become tiresome, especially during the many escort missions.
On the ground, it's much the same story. Occasionally there are glimpses of what the vertical cover system can offer, when used correctly in an interesting framework. Will can 'snap' to any ledge, either flattening himself into a crouch above it or hanging from the underside and firing upwards. All of the usual cover controls are available from here, with a touch of X (on the 360 pad) vaulting Will upwards or downwards to the next ledge and A clambering him onto the surface if he's underneath.
Enemies have the same abilities too, with the various flavours of Watcher trooper flinging themselves around the girders and platforms relatively intelligently. Manoeuvrability does not equal combat prowess, however, and the robotic quasi-Geth will still hang their heads flagrantly above and around cover.
Despite a few vertiginous views and extended vertical sequences, the use of this quite clever system is never fully realised. Again it becomes mechanical and dull, cover-by-numbers stuff as the Watchers obligingly position themselves at optimum range and reveal themselves as targets for the various pew-pew lasers in your arsenal. The Watchers themselves are well enough designed, with a fair variety of enemy troopers displaying different behaviours, if not considerable intelligence.
Despite the classy, fifties, B-movie design of the Watcher UFOs and weaponry, flat textures and dully repetitive environments are a plague which sickens Dark Void beyond the point of real contention before the first hour is over - it simply doesn't have the necessary visual distinction to set it apart from the crowd. The poor camera doesn't help the presentation and occasional sudden and inexplicable deaths put another nail in the coffin. Whilst Dark Void's storyline is well thought out, its character work is pretty one-dimensional - even managing to make the inconceivably awesome Nikola Tesla seem dull and annoying.
There are a few nice touches and some original ideas swimming around Dark Void, but they're like pieces of succulent chicken in a tepid and flavourless soup. Its contextual prompts for what your next cover action will be if you hit X should be standard in cover shooters, while Bear McCreary's music lessens the mundanity a great deal. Non-Hollywood storylines are always welcome and vertical cover should definitely have a future.
The lasting impression which Dark Void leaves is still one of disappointment, however. Had Airtight been a bit braver, more willing to deviate from the norm and run with some of its bolder ideas, then this could have been a great game. Instead, Dark Void's extremely short campaign - with no motivation for replay and no multiplayer options - is more like a portfolio of half-baked concepts hurriedly crammed into an uninspired package for ease of presentation, more show-reel than show-stopper.
5 / 10