Developer: Paradox Interactive
Publisher: Paradox Interactive
Genre: Space Shooter/Simulation
Release Date: September 23, 2008
Being the owner of a new, custom built PC, it’s nice to be able to actually play new PC games again. My old PC was a great model for it’s time, but it’s time was just after New Year’s of 2004, when I received it – a 2.2GHz PIII that I’ve since upgraded to the board max of 1GB of RAM, and a GeForce 6200 graphics card (the best PCI card you can get) – as a gift from my family for completing a military stint. It was passable for most of what I wanted to do with it, but for games, even lighter fare – such as Football Manager – was becoming problematic. So I made the decision to upgrade to a nice little system, with a dual-core 3.3GHz Wolfdale, 2GB of RAM, and a Radeon HD4870 that made my mother remark “you could land planes on that damn thing”.
Naturally, I was happy. So was everyone at DHGF! They were so happy, they went and immediately assigned me one of our beefier games to review. Congrats, Chris! Here’s some work!
Looking at Dark Horizon, I figured that it was good combo for me; after all, I like blowing things up as much as anyone, and is appeared to be a space shooter that lets you do just that, with some RPG elements thrown in. Doesn’t get much better than that, right?
It can, but mainly because of some deep-seeded flaws that seriously hurt what is otherwise a good package.
I’ll say this right off the bat: it’s patently obvious that this game is the spiritual successor of the old Wing Commander games, because it borrows liberally from them. It’s a story-based space action shooter, with a story involving an army coalition fighting against an ambiguous force called the “Mirk”, as explained in the opening movie. Anyone that played Paradox’s other title, Tarr Chronicles, should know that this is a prequel to that game, set 100 years beforehand. I did not play Tarr Chronicles, so I’m going into this game with a fresh experience. Regardless, the story for this game, while mostly well told, is nothing exciting – anyone expecting Mass Effect like depth, or even Wing Commander like quality, would be disappointed – and furthermore, there are times when a lot of talking is done, for practically no reason, and all you want them to do is shut the hell up so that you can commence the blowing up of crap. Also, while the translation is generally good (Paradox is a Swedish studio), there are a few moments where you’re going to hear something and go “huh?”; a little more time incubating would have done this game well from a localization standpoint, though most of the interactions with your co-pilots and wingmen are pretty well done, especially considering where the game was made.
Controlls, surprisingly, are with the WASD buttons, with straffing done by the bracket ([ and ]) buttons. The mouse controls the cursor, guns and missiles, which turns this game more into a first (or third, depending on your view) person shooter, the way it controls. Being a little more adjusted to flight simulators, I have to admit that this was disorienting to me; it completely threw off my control scheme, having to rely on W to put on afterburners, and A and D to yaw, and to be completely honest, I wish the controls were more “classic” in that sense. It made avoiding gun shots and missiles hard (though to avoid missiles, the “Z” button sets off chaffs, of which you get a limited amount), and because of the FPS nature of the controls, and just how many of them there are, it made using a control pad a limiting experience. That in itself was bad news because of the fact that a lot of important controls were mapped all over the keyboard by default. Having key controls all over a keyboard is OK if I’m only using the keyboard, but once you include the mouse into things, it gets in the way, and I think a lot of key control elements, by default, would have done better closer to the WASD buttons. It’s possible that this is my fault, being primarily a console gamer my whole life, and to be fair, if you’re sitting here calling me a prat for whigning about too many buttons, you’re probably right.
The main thing you can do with your ship is put it into three different modes depending on the situation. Your standard mode gives you full functionality, and lets you do whatever you need. The second mode is what’s called Shadow Mode, which you can put the ship into by cooling it (J button). It uses Mirk technology (which apparently can’t be THAT bad, if your people are using it for your benefit) to make your ship invisible, and nearly impossible to hit. However, it slows the ship down, and prevents you from firing your weapons with any kind of punch. Alternatively, there’s Corter Mode, which your ship goes into once the temperature goes up past a certain point (either by holding the “L” key, or alternatively blasting your guns a lot). In Corter Mode, your ship becomes much more of an offensive weapon, doing much more damage, making it key for one-on-one dogfights. However, it eats the shield energy, making your ship much more susceptible to damage. The game makes note that both modes take awhile to come out of, and it takes awhile to normalize, but you can either cool or heat up your ship depending on your needs at any time; in other words, if you need to get out of Corter mode, you can cool off the ship and get out faster. Alternatively, the modes aren’t as temporary as the game wants you to believe; you can continue cooling your ship with no negative effect whatsoever by continuing to hold down J. However, since you can’t do anything in Shadow Mode of any consequence, it’s somewhat dangerous to rely on it, and in my experience, your ship has a bad habit of coming out of Shadow mode at the wrong time. Imagine someone playing as a Spy in Team Fortress 2, but removing the disguise at the wrong time; that’s what coming out of Shadow Mode feels like sometimes, where you can do nothing but go OH CRAP FIRE IN THE HO– hey, I’m dead.
Dying in this game is extremely negative for two reasons which combine to make it a painful experience. First off, there are no checkpoints. At all. No matter how long the stage is, if you die, back to the beginning you go. There’s something decidedly old-school about that, but Joe Pesci damnit, even Super Mario Bros. had a bloody checkpoint in almost all of it’s stages. That wouldn’t be TOO bad, if it wasn’t for the fact that it takes a LONG time to get from point to point. They’re very far apart, and it never feels like your ship is going fast enough, no matter what ship you’re using; even Wing Commander on the Super Nintendo had an option to skip ahead a quadrant or two to get to some action. Therefore, if you die in a stage – even the bloody tutorial – then you can expect to go through every part of the stage again, every unskippable conversation, every enemy you’ve fought, every single thing that you’ve done in the stage, probably plenty of times depending on your level of competence. You’re given wingmen that you can control to help you out, but their level of competence can be highly debated, as for me, they were barely a help at all. I’d go as far as to say that the enemies have better AI than my wingmen, and to their defence, the AI is actually quite good; I had a lot of times where I’d look up, be chasing someone, and find out that I was getting an entire arsenal shoved up my tailpipes because someone snuck behind me. Furthermore, they move around very well, zigging and zagging well enough to stay out of gun range most of the time; you’re going to want to be careful with your missile useage in this game to get anywhere.
One major positive in this game’s favour is the amount of customization contained within. There are a plethora of different ships, different engines, types of guns, etc. that you can use, and everything is balanced very well. Tinkerers, think very seriously about this game, because if you can get over the lack of checkpoints, you will definitely have some fun with this game, and you will get a lot of replayability out of it. The game also allows you to quickly customize your ship, depending on what you’re looking for, be it speed, power or defence.
Visually, the game looks good, especially if you like purple. It’s not Crysis level, but everything is sharp, and most of all, it makes the game extremely atmospheric; there’s an immersive quality to the look of the game, and anyone with an active imagination can get sucked in. It also looks really pretty when a ship or something else blows up, and it’s realistic in that, if you blow something up close to you, you’re going to have a problem seeing through the explosion for awhile, as it lingers; that’s a pain in a dogfight, but looks great. Audibly, the game is competent; there is almost no music to speak of, but there really doesn’t have to be, and more pronounced music would actually take me somewhat out of whack, considering how immersed I became at times, even as I fought with the controls. Voiceovers are decent and pronounced, and of better quality than I would have assumed. There is also a bit of humour depending on who’s talking.
In short, this game won’t have a very wide appeal to it in terms of mainstream appeal – it’s not exactly my personal mileau – but I was actually surprised at how positively I spoke about this game as I wrote this. If you can adapt to the controls, and get over the punishing lack of anything to do for long sections of stages, and don’t mind doing some customization, there’s a lot of fun to be had with this game, even if sometimes, you wish the people on your team would just shut the hell up so that you could go back to making things go boom. In addition to that, the game has a very nice price range, being only $30; that’s a good price range for what this game offers, and could be the difference between a sale or not for a lot of people. With that said, there’s one final little niggle that I noticed that I didn’t care for: the game has a propensity to crash. It’s crashed on me a couple times, usually when either switching between stages or if something happens that causes me to break out of the focus of the game. The former, I’ll write off to teething issues with my new graphics card, I think, but I KNOW the latter is a problem, as it was on my old PC, too; I had a pop-up message when Aileen came online once, and I had to force-crash the game to get back into it. Trying to switch in and out via Alt-Tab also proved to be problematic.
Graphics: Above Average
Control and Gameplay: Below Average
Balance: Above Average
Appeal Factor: Poor
Miscellaneous: Above Average
FINAL SCORE: MEDIOCRE GAME
Short Attention Span Summary
Dark Horizon is a decent space simulator that, while it doesn’t measure up to the Wing Commander series it obviously borrows heavily from, is still an affordable carryover for fans of the genre. The controls could have been done much better, and the lack of checkpoints is a bad thing for someone like me who has a life and things to do, but if you can get past those things, then give Dark Horizon a try.