This week, Zero Punctuation reviews Dark Void.
After two years of this, I thought I was immune to being disappointed by games. Whoops, that's my entire opinion on Dark Void given away in one sentence, isn't it? But stick with me, there's more to this. It's not that I went into Dark Void thinking it would be good, because I don't go into any games thinking they'll be good. If I have to search through a dumpster searching for a lost wedding ring, I could try to convince myself that the dumpster will be full of cakes and freshly picked flowers, but I'd only be fooling myself. Dark Void is a dumpster that appeared to be full of rusty dog food tins, but once I got in I realized they were actually delicious novelty cakes make to look like rusty dog food tins. But then once I started eating them I discovered that the icing was made from wallpaper paste and cyanide, and that's why I feel it let me down. (I wonder if the Geneva Convention covers torturing metaphors?)
Dark Void sets out a bit Crimson Skies-y ["Inspiration" O-Meter: 1], set in an alternative World War II - you know, it'd be nice to see a game set, say, in an alternative Napoleonic war for once, where Waterloo was fought on the backs of pterodactyls - and the main character is a pilot called Will, who borrowed his voice from Nathan Drake  and his jacket from B. J. Blaskowitz  and all the other aspects from every protagonist of every game ever. [1,037] He crashes his plane through the Bermuda Triangle and winds up in another world [1,038] - a world that forms a bridge between the Earth and some other planet, presumably in some sort of stepping stone arrangement. There's an evil alien race that's about two parts Combine [1,039] to two parts Covenant [1,040] to one part Snatcher [1,041] (now there's an obscure reference; I'll probably bring up Flight of the Amazon Queen next [1,042]), and they want to invade the Earth because they always do. What the fuck's so great about Earth? Good school district, handy for the shops, what? Anyway, our hero joins a ragtag human resistance [1,768] and must save the world [97,214] by flying around in a jetpack. [no ding] Huh.
The first couple of hours kind of sell the game short. Half close your eyes, and suddenly you're playing Uncharted with worse writing, which is kind of like being Julia Roberts but with slightly bigger teeth. And the main character is a lemon in a flight jacket who reacts to all this otherworldly killer robots business with all the emotion and personality of a man trying to sweep the ants off his kitchen floor. Even when he gets the jetpack he seems no more thrilled then he would when borrowing his dad's Lexus. His only sign of emotion is an apparent hatred of buttons. I guess he was traumatized as a child by a TV remote, 'cause he can never press button to open door when he can pulverize the console with his rifle butt.
At first, the jetpack stuff seemed like fairly average flight combat--it's all manual aiming all the time. The turning point for me came when I had to land on an upright, floating vessel thing, elbow a few consoles to set the self-destruct, then jump down a shaft out the bottom of the ship and turn on my jetback before I imprint myself upon the ground. And I was like, "Shit up my nose! What right does this game have to suddenly kick ass?"
Dark Void's only new idea was the ability to seamlessly switch at any time between old-fashioned, ploddy tortoise cover-based shooting on the ground and rocket pack whoosh crikey fun. And you know what? That could be enough. You could fly up onto a ledge to shoot more accurately at a key target, take off in the middle of a ground assault to attempt a strafing run, and if you turn on the jetback indoors you'll smear yourself across the walls and ceiling in a way that ragdoll physics makes an absolute joy to behold. The levels are necessarily huge, with a great sense of freedom, within reason. It is hard to tell where the borders lie. Once I was flying around this big mesa and passed through the invisible level borders, so my character did an automatic u-turn and instantly brained himself against the rock. But again it was well comically timed, so I don't hold it against the game.
My throat wants to turn inside-out in rejection of this word, but it really is ci-[choking sound]-inematic, because it manages what feel like movie set-pieces while staying within gameplay, rather than cutscening me unconscious. But like a glass of milk with a spider in it, towards the end it all goes horribly wrong. Three or four hours in, there's a very Half-Life 2-esque level [97,215], where they take your jetpack away and make you watch the bad guy recording his video diary. But of course you break free and lead the daring escape, get your jetpack back so the fun can recommence. Then for some reason I never really grasped, you go a big tower where you find a three-headed robot dragon, then oop! End of game.
I was in shock. I reloaded my last save because I was convinced there'd been some bizarre glitch that made the credits come up three or four hours too early. Then the other clues came together. Plot points and characters coming and going like targets on a firing range, that surreal giant monster boss fight that was set up at length as some huge, epic encounter that you sprinkle with bullets for about 30 seconds and then it disappears off the face of the Earth (or whatever planet we're on). And then I knew what Dark Void was: a game that ran out of something. It was either money or time or will or employees, or maybe a giant monster frog demolished their studio while battling Godzilla. But the point is, the developers planned out a huge epic game, the various components of their studio started working on all the little bits of the huge epic game, and then they ran out of laundry powder or whatever it was and had to string together all the little unfinished bits into something vaguely sellable. They wrote a script for Lord of the Rings and ended up having to perform it with finger puppets. A game that fails due to overambition is still better than a game that fails because it's beep-boop committee-designed sludge coughed out by a corporation staffed by robots. At least ambition implies that you have some kind of soul, rather than a CPU with fistfuls of money stuffed into it.
Having said that, Dark Void is the most I'd ever been disappointed by a game. It's not the worst game I've ever reviewed; Too Human still takes that award. But Too Human was crispy-fried puke right down to the fucking bone marrow. Dark Void started off pretty rocky, but between the rocks I caught a glimpse of something beautiful, with a cleavage that could hold up a fucking Christmas tree, but once I'd caught up with it and we started making out, all it's teeth fell out into my mouth and it gave me scurvy. There's a bit in Dead Space where Phillip K. Asimov gets pulled down a hole by a tentacle, and he almost claws his way back out of the hole before getting yanked back down to oblivion, and that's Dark Void. It's down, then up, then down again, like an Alzheimer's patient on a stairlift.
That magnificent man on his flying machine: Ben "Yahtzee" Croshaw
This week's widescreen-o-vision is slightly wider than last week's widescreen-o-vision
I guess jetpacks for me are a pretty easy sell