For a few fleeting minutes, Dark Void makes a fantastic impression. It throws you right into an airborne skirmish between pre-jet engine airplanes, classically round UFO saucers, and a dude in a jetpack. Guiding a nimble fellow between competing aircraft/UFOs, while peppering foes with machine gun fire and pulling off aerobatics like the Immelman Turn, feels positively exhilarating. But all that shouldn’t come as much of a surprise, considering Dark Void’s development team is pretty much the same one that created Crimson Skies: High Road to Revenge a few years back.

Then this prologue ends, and like the unfortunate fellow in the prologue, the overall game takes a significant plunge downward that it barely manages to recover from. It morphs from a refreshingly original (albeit with a bit of the obvious The Rocketeer influence) flier into a bland, cover-based third-person shooter. The story setup follows the, “give the player the full experience, then change circumstances and make the player re-earn the cool stuff from the beginning” formula; after playing the anonymous jetpack jockey, the game then puts you in Will Grey’s perspective. Will is a snarky, fast-talking pilot (voiced by Nolan “Can’t Say No” North) who flies through the Bermuda Triangle in 1938 and arrives at the alien/jetpack/butte-filled parallel world called, well, “the Void.” Will’s eight-hour journey through the Void starts with a mostly generic/occasionally painful sequence where he jetpacklessly jaunts around the mysterious jungle, all while shooting aliens and cracking wise.

Click the image above to check out all Dark Void screens.

Even when Will eventually gets past this humdrum sequence of rudimentary platforming and shooting-at-dumb-A.I.-from-behind-rocks, and finally gets a jetpack, the core gunplay remains problematic and hinders the overall experience. I don’t mind how the interface mostly apes Gears of War — what I do mind is how aiming feels borderline terrible at times. Early on, I thought that Dark Void’s framerate was just horrible at staying consistent, as the combat was repeatedly punctuated by distinct moments of choppiness.

But when I started to pay closer attention, I realized that the choppy framerate is a bizarre artifact of a couple of things. First, when aiming via the Left trigger, the movement speed of your reticule slows down (usually to provide a measure of precision). Yet, when your reticule hovers near a bad alien, the auto-aim kicks in and quickly “snaps” your aim to the foe in question. This results in a weird “somewhat floaty while aiming, then suddenly fast and snappy before going back to being floaty again” feeling to the combat — the actual culprit behind the “wow, this framerate is pretty terrible” feeling. I noticed that the weird framerate only occurred when aiming at specific foes; if I simply blindfired without aiming, the framerate stayed consistent (though, if the screen is full of action such as multiple explosions and foes firing away, the framerate still naturally dips).

All of that’s a damn shame because the generic-at-best-choppy-and-annoying-at-worst combat stands out most from the game. Even when Dark Void adds twists and tweaks to the formula, such as upgradeable weapons (sadly, most of the upgrades are the boring, “you deal more damage and carry more rounds while the weapon feels exactly the same” type), vertical cover, and open-air firefights, they are just reminders of what Dark Void should be more of, but isn’t. The vertical cover is a simple but effective mechanic: at times, Will has to either ascend or descend a tall structure, and he can jump/jet from protrusion-to-protrusion with ease. Sure, it boils down to just hitting a button when prompted, and the aiming issue still presents itself, but the sense of scale for these sequences does induce vertigo and panic.

Additionally, while the combat feels generic and choppy when it has you running down bland corridors, it also puts you in the open outdoors for some firefights. Again, the aiming is aggravating, and there’s also the learning curve of transitioning between ground and air. The default control scheme has your ground-aiming as not-inverted (up is up), while during flight, your aim is inverted (down, or “pull back,” to go up). Individually, I agree with those, as it feels natural for me to “look up” when I’m on the ground, and to “pull up” when in a vehicle. But together, that scheme takes getting used to, as you could easily be in the middle of looking upward on the ground, then choose to activate your jetpack and find yourself crashing downward now that your view is flipped. You can, of course, toggle the inversion for either ground or air, but that still takes getting used to. But when you do get used to the shifting perspective, then these open-air firefights almost compensate for the aim issue and the learning curve by letting you jump up, rocket over to a vantage point, shoot down some baddies, and then hover overhead while raining bullets downward.

Sure, the flight stuff still has some minor issues (aircraft variety, both friend and foe, is a bit lacking), yet even as such, it feels wholly original and interesting. Heck, I hate escort missions as much as anyone else, but flying around while spraying machinegun and rocket fire provides enough thrills to overcome the banal nature of an escort mission. It’s just a shame that there’s about a 70/30 split between ground and aerial combat (in ground’s favor); if my math is factually wrong, well, that’s how Dark Void feels. Sequences like a fantastic setpiece where you fly around while defending the Ark (an important flying fortress) against a massive offensive, or take down multiple Archons (an alien bipedal robo-tank), or an honestly amazing boss fight between you and an alien battlecruiser, are few and far between. I like the flight stuff so much that Dark Void feels like a great flight game handicapped by mediocre ground.

Click the image above to check out all Dark Void screens.

If anything, the very beginning and the end are good illustrations of what is great and terrible about Dark Void. It begins with a fantastic introduction to flight, and ends with an all-out aerial dogfight followed by a suitably epic boss battle. But what do I actually remember more? The boring on-ground combat immediately following the prologue, and the terrible “you’ve been captured and have to fight out of a corridor-filled base without a jetpack” sequence right before the flight-filled endgame. It’s just a damn shame that the nigh-amazing “The Rocketeer versus UFOs” premise crashes hard into “tepid Gears of Uncharted knock-off” ground.

By Thierry Nguyen