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.
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