CAPTIVATE 08: Airtight’s Dark Void delivers darkest void in gaming

Look, I can’t fly a plane, and I’d definitely be a lousy co-pilot. And maybe a lousy stewardess. But I’ve seen enough episodes of Unsolved Mysteries to know that under no circumstances should you fly and/or swim through the Bermuda Triangle. In fact, don’t even look at it, or you just may find your name on the tongue of one Mr. Robert Stack. I’m getting nervous just talking about it …

Clearly, Dark Void’s protagonist Will didn’t watch much late-night television in the late-80s, because that’s exactly what he does. When our hero crashes his plane in the Bermuda Triangle, he finds himself trapped in an inter-dimensional portal called the Void, where he bumps into an ancient alien race known as The Watchers. As it turns out, Will’s not the only one caught in the Void, and he soon finds himself aligned with other trapped humans, known as The Survivors.

Depending on which side of the sci-fi spectrum you tastes lie, the slightly shaky premise of Dark Void may have already lost your attention. But beneath what on the surface appears to be a run-of-the-mill third-person action shooter that melds on-foot and air-combat lies a game mechanic that may forever change how we play cover-based games.

Hit the jump for more information on why you should care about just how dark this void is.

First of all, fans of Microsoft Game Studios’ Crimson Skies: High Road to Revenge take note — the team responsible for that title is creating Dark Void. If that’s not enough to get your attention, don’t worry, there’s more here than simply slapping Crimson Skies flight mechanics on a flying saucer and calling it a day.

A quick glance at Dark Void may give you the impression of a generic looking third-person shooter, and I wouldn’t blame you, as I had the same reservations at first. The press demo we were shown began with Will on foot, as he battled slender, armored aliens; everything you’d expect from a typical third-person shooter was present  — the running, the gunning, the Gears of War-style cover. The game definitely looks great running off of the Unreal Engine 3, to be sure. From the details on Will’s jetpack, including spinning motors tha — oh wait, what’s that? Right, Will’s wearing a jetpack.

Within seconds, I’m intrigued, as the game’s lead designer Jose Perez fires up the pack and launches Will into the air. Will’s legs limply dangle behind him as he takes off with the jetpack, before he steadies himself, gaining higher ground on the slim Watchers who were previously safe behind cover. From the air, Perez takes them out, and this is the first hint that in some ways, Dark Void completely changes the rules of the game. Then comes what Airtight are calling “Vertical Cover,” and that’s when I really start to become impressed.

Games like Gears of War (and much earlier, Kill.Switch) have popularized a cover mechanic that works on a horizontal plane. Dark Void adopts that system, and then knocks it on its ass … literally. Perez makes a short trip over to a nearby rocky spire, shimmying across a pipe as the camera pans out to reveal the scope. As Perez moves Will into position, the camera angle shifts underneath him, and the idea of “Vertical Cover” really starts to make sense. Hopping from ledge to ledge as he makes his way up, Perez takes cover as enemies above him try to pick him off and stop his advances.

Blind firing he nails a Watcher, who dips its head back before poking out to fire again. Perez pokes out quickly, Gears of War-style — but vertically — and nails the Watcher hard with a blast. The body tumbles downwards, droppings its gun which falls just pass Will’s head, followed by its limp corpse which bangs and bounces along the wall on its way down. Perez moves the camera, where we not only see the corpse fall into the abyss, but we also get hit with a nasty case of vertigo, and the extent of the game’s verticality becomes clear.

Falling from such a height, as you can imagine, would likely be fatal; this is where we first see the game’s first use of Airtight’s “Grip System,” which is used to give Will battle awareness and reactions to what’s going on in the game world. In this case, the “Grip System” is taken quite literally; between enemy fire and falling debris, Will loses his grasp, and dangles single-handedly as the game prompts you to tap “X” quickly to fill a meter. Successful, Perez continues to scale the rocky tower, eventually making his way to the top where he’ll have a chance to show us the next piece of the game’s puzzle.

As explained to us, the Survivors have adopted The Watcher’s technology, and as such you’ll be able to upgrade weapons and armor over the course of the game. In this particular, instance, Will grabs an upgrade for the jetpack, and we’re soon given our first taste of the game’s aerial combat. Taking a leap of faith into a canyon, Will swan dives into the abyss before firing up his upgraded jetpack and shooting off into the open air. Like the Rocketeer (or Iron Man, for the kiddies who might have missed the popularity of the classic pulp superhero), Will himself have full movement in the air, and becomes a deadly air-vehicle in his own right.

Watcher saucers zip about the open, canyon-like spaces; Perez moves Will deftly between their blasts, firing back with some success, but clearly outnumbered. Zooming towards the UFO, we see Will hop onto the vehicle for a bit of skyjacking. The camera zooms in tight, giving you a better view of the action, which involves Will moving around the saucer; he attempts to pull open panels that will allow him to open up the cockpit, and take control of the aircraft. Although it looks like one, we’re told that this is not a quick time event that takes place “outside of the game,” but rather is happening in real-time. As such, it’s possible that the saucer pilot can become disoriented and can actually crash, taking down Will with it. Events like these, Airtight says, will make the experience different for players, who they hope will want to swap stories of these random moments with their friends.

Once inside the saucer, Airtight’s Crimson Skies experience clearly shines. The air combat looks tight and responsive; Perez shows off some of the special moves, like UFO versions of barrel rolls and other evasive maneuvers. This is a sci-fi version of a dog fight, fast-paced, and looks to be a great compliment to the game’s on-foot gameplay and unique vertical cover mechanics.

The demo ends on something of a cliff hanger — we see imposing scorpion-like bosses, called Arkon, crawling about an escape ship. Dark Void, we’re told, will have massive boss battles which will also make unique use of the game’s “Grip System.” With that in mind, someone asks the obvious question — would Airtight liken these encounters to something like that seen in Team Ico’s Shadow of the Colossus?

“There’s a similarity in that you’re climbing on these giant bosses, and you’re fighting,” admits Perez. “[But] there’s definitely a lot of differences in our gameplay [versus Shadow of the Colossus], though we love that game, for sure.”

Clearly it’s different — Dark Void has a sure emphasis on action, and combat. But I don’t think the idea of mixing Gears of War with Shadow of the Colossus will have anyone complaining, any more than you’d hear me whining about peanut butter and jelly. Or Red Bull and vodka.

With a year or more left in production, the polish we’re already seeing in Dark Void is mighty impressive. Without a doubt, the game is looking great, and I think Airtight has introduced some pretty ambitious core game mechanics that could see every third-person shooter adopting a jetpack. Still, without getting my hands on the controller, it’s hard to tell whether or not everything works. There’s plenty of room for things to go wrong with the “Vertical Cover,” including losing orientation of up and down, which confuse and frustrate.

While they wouldn’t let us go hands-on with Dark Void at CAPTIVATE, everyone at Airtight readily admits that what they were showing was extremely playable. With a few small tweaks, let’s hope that Capcom lets us grab the controller to see if Dark Void feels as good as it looks.

Nick Chester