What a difference a year can make. When I played Dark Void at E3 2008, it showed promise but more than a few signs of trouble. Its developers giddily pointed out the elements purloined from Gears of War while apologizing for the horrible frame rate that brought back memories of the Nintendo 64. We all knew there was a ton of potential, but the demo left me feeling cynical about how it would shape up. This year, Dark Void returned in playable form, and to our surprise, it was almost a completely new game.
The biggest addition is the gun mounted onto the jetpack, a change that transforms the flying into a sort of aerial combat game.
Developed by Airtight Games (formed from veterans of Crimson Skies: High Road to Revenge), Dark Void marks Capcom's first real attempt to build an original Western-developed property for the mass market in many years. While some of its other games, like Resident Evil 5 and Lost Planet, have made concessions toward Western control conventions, Capcom is funneling millions into the independent studio to make sure this is the real deal. The company seems to have a few original ideas, and it wants to deliver something more than the millions of "me too" games cashing in on Gears' success, but until our latest play we weren't sure if anyone there knew how to bring those ideas together.
Associate Producer Shana Bryant explained to me that the focus has been on making the game feel more like a single, coherent experience. The demo last year consisted of typical third-person shooting segments intercut with jetpack flying sequences, but the two didn't seem to complement each other well. To create a more integrated experience, the programmers have rethought the flight portion of the game considerably. The biggest addition is the gun mounted onto the jetpack, a change that transforms the flying into a sort of aerial combat game, which has much more obvious purpose in the confines of an action title. This comes at the expense of the feeling of vulnerability so ably displayed in the earlier versions, but from a game design perspective, it just makes sense.
Dark Void's structure seems to have opened up with a bit more of a mission-based approach as well. This was a little confusing at first, as it was a major change from the earlier linear demo. But after learning some maneuvers in a less-than-subtle tutorial, I was ready to take out a few gun installations.Crimson Skies heritage shows through in these parts and there were some nice looking quick-turn and dodging maneuvers to make flying around and shooting more fun.
After this I landed on a base and began a short infiltration mission. The transition between these two felt organic, and players will have the freedom to leave and take off again whenever. The on-foot part of the game is still a Gears-inspired cover shooter, but it's been polished up since the last time we played it. Transitions between cover in particular feel a lot smoother. The jetpack also serves as a double-jump/hover, which lends a bit of an aerial component to the normal combat. I fought through a few waves of androids to reach the control panel inside, and then we had to leave and fly around to the bottom side of the base to infiltrate from below. The vertical cover system boasted as a key feature is still present, but still feels somewhat artificial. These bits involve boosting upward between platforms shooting at enemies above, but this time we were more able to go in and out of this gameplay mode at will.
Capcom is very invested in seeing this series work, and it's refreshing to see that programmers have addressed not only the technical flaws (as we'd expect), but really taken a step back to evaluate what is and isn't working. While I definitely miss the terrifying feeling of hurtling helplessly through the air, everything else about their revisions screams of improvement. Dark Void is now fun to control and showing enough original gameplay ideas to separate itself from the pack of third-person shooters. I don't know if it will be the hit Capcom is hoping, but I'm certainly feeling more optimistic about its release this fall.