The Double-A Team is a newish feature series honouring the unpretentious, mid-budget, gimmicky commercial action games that no-one seems to make any more.
Last week, Ed reminded us that Psi-Ops: The Mindgate Conspiracy is basically the best game ever. Today we’re taking to the skies with Dark Void.
(Oh, and we have an archive of the existing Double-A Team pieces now. Enjoy!)
A good Double-A game is often a bit of a time capsule. Beneath the gimmick, there is generally a basis to the design that has been borrowed from one of the dominant games of the era. Sometimes it can really take you back. About fifteen minutes into Dark Void I realised that, despite the voice of Nolan North coming from the plucky, sassy protagonist, despite the matinee setting, this game wasn’t channeling Uncharted: it was channeling Gears of War.
What cued me into this? There was the outbreak of cover, of course, a jungle floor suddenly sprouting neat church pews of rock or tree which I could use to hunker down behind. But Uncharted have cover, if I recall. Really it was the guns. Gears of War lead to a drastic upgrading of the size of guns in a game. They’re comically, somewhat pitiably large in Gears. They always remind me of those overstuffed sandwiches that glutton characters eat in 1930s cartoons, ridiculous things that would be hard to lift yet alone move around much. Unlike Gears, Dark Void’s characters tend to be recognisably human in shape: the guns they hold in cutscenes are hilarious. And yet I’d forgotten them entirely.
I’d forgotten them, I suspect, because Dark Void is one of those games that lives in the mind like a bright pulp cover blazing from a newsstand, all action and clarity and oomph. Dark Void was the game where you had a jetpack. It was The Rocketeer, basically, shorn of the license and some of the nicer art deco stylings, and handed an over-sized Gears gun and a fondness for ducking behind things.
And the rocket stuff is still a thrill. It’s amazing to remember, partway through a shoot-out with the game’s spindly alien foes, that you don’t need to run around all the time. You can jump to the sky and hover, or actually zip off into the wild blue. There are corridors and arenas, sure, but the best Dark Void levels have empty space for you to zip around in, doing tricks and dogfighting with UFOs, maybe landing briefly to blow up some crucial plot point and then darting off again, arms out, jetpack glinting in the sun.
Built around this core freedom is the 1930s adventure stuff which is surprisingly lovely. Dark Void has its fair share of forgettable locations and slog, but it also has moments where you walk through an ancient ruin and emerge behind a waterfall – the kind of trick the early Tomb Raiders might have pulled off. It has a moment where you work your way up a huge ship that has ended up hanging off a cliff, and the ship starts to fall apart as you go. This is the kind of trick the later Tomb Raiders might have pulled off.
And it has vertical cover. Vertical cover! It’s an odd idea and a bit of a gimmick, but the idea is that sometimes the cover you’re moving between is strung up the side of a wall, so you’re either hopping up or down as you move from one bit of safety to the next. It sounds sort of dumb when I write it down, but the hood ornament aliens you face in the game look genuinely otherworldly as they spring back and forth around you and showboat on the edge of a platform. It’s also nice to see that a man with an enormous gun can backflip so balletically when moving. And then there’s the fact that it’s a decent bit of payback when your bullet-sponge enemies don’t just die but actually drop into the distant murk when you’re done with them.
Jetpacks make everything better don’t they? But so often in games they’re hobbled and put on stingy timers and cooldowns. Dark Void lets you have them for moments of real freedom. It’s not a pure dream of a game all the way, but it gets close in certain stretches. And that’s the Double-A spirit isn’t it?