Strategy Informer takes a look at the finished version of Paradox Interactive's third person arcade style space shooter, Dark Horizon
Dark Horizon is a third person arcade style space shooter set deep into the future. The galaxy is threatened to be overwhelmed by a dark force known as the Mirk. You take the role of a novice Guardian – an elite fighter pilot who, although infected with Mirk yourself, strives to give humanity and the other sentient races in the galaxy a chance to win against the enemy onslaught. The story picks up with the good guys having just discovered a way to defeat the Mirk by using a special weapon, The Light Core, but it’s not ready yet so you and your squadron mates must defend the Light Core outpost while the work on the project is completed.
Does that sound like a lot of story? You haven’t seen anything yet. Before each episode (which is further divided into missions) you start in your cabin on the carrier space ship. From here you have access to all sorts of dream analysis, records on Mirk, Guardian history, weapons, tactics, and other details. In fact the pre-game, new game, and in-game cut scenes also are heavy on the background and depth of the story. The story takes itself so seriously that I expected to find a very serious space combat simulator and was sadly disappointed when I discovered that the space combat game play has a simplistic arcade feel.
Cut scenes are dramatic and foreboding.
For an arcade style game there is LOTS of reading to do.
Once you have finished reading the novels in your cabin and reviewing the mission briefings you move to the hanger deck. This brings you to one of the strongest points of the game, ship customization. You can not only change your hull type, shields and weapons, but also use special device and, even better, design your own weapon systems. The ‘hanger chief’ will help you create weapons to the specifications you designate or you can take actual weapon components and string them together yourself to create custom devices. This is a tinkerers dream and you can spend substantial time in this screen changing your ship balance and creating new weapons.
The weapon creation is limited by what actual resources you have on hand. Fortunately, as the missions progress you receive additional components, and the hanger chief will disassemble three devices per day into their components for you.
Once your ship is customized to your liking you take off on the episode. Each episode is divided into missions. Once each mission in an episode is completed successfully you return to your carrier to start the next episode. Episodes are characterized by extensive in-flight chatter from your bizarrely named squadron mates. These dialogs will lay out specific mission objectives as well as pontificate on the good versus evil battle that you are taking part in. The flight controls are extremely difficult to master. The game is clearly designed to be played with a keyboard and mouse and most of the time you will have one hand on the WASD keys and the other on the mouse.
I attempted to play the game with a Microsoft Sidewinder Precision 2 joystick and found nothing but frustration using it. I could not configure the controls to take advantage of the extra buttons on my joystick nor could I use the twist feature on the joystick to roll my ship. The only joystick buttons that were useable were buttons 1 through 4 and the throttle. The actual control with the joystick was erratic and with all these problems I quickly went back to using a mouse and keyboard to play the game.
Speaking of frustrations, I suffered numerous crash bugs and lock ups on my primary machine, an Intel Core2 Duo system with 2 GB ram and an ATI X1800 video card. Often the screen would freeze and I could hear the mission continuing to take place, in fact, once I even succeeded on a mission while the screen was frozen when my wing mates managed to kill the last enemy fighter. Usually, though, a frozen screen was quickly followed by the sounds of an explosion and then silence as the game went to an invisible “You have died” screen. The only way out for me was to end the process using the Windows task manager.
Make your own weapons while the hanger chief natters.
Fly through space, meet aliens, and kill them.
On my secondary system I was able to play the game although, there were still occasional crash bugs but the game was playable and I did notice, that it was impossible to alt-tab out of the game. Any attempt to do so caused the game to lock up when attempting to tab back into it.
Dark Horizon is a very atmospheric game. The cut scenes are generally in black and white and the voice acting is serious and sometimes even ponderous. The game takes the story very seriously and delivers it without a hint of levity or excitement. The space flight graphics are gorgeous with nebula, stars, and space debris all about. The ship designs are wild and asymmetrical but still very pretty. Combat is fast and furious and explosions and missile trails all look terrific.
The space combat is hampered by the control system. Most fights are one pass and then you are in a classic turning fight. Having to constantly pickup and move the mouse back to scroll some more makes turning fights hard on your arm and slower to pull off. The enemy AI appears to focus on you as the player character ship to the exclusion of your wing mates. Even hanging back and allowing three other allied fighters to engage the enemy first does not prevent you from receiving the bulk of the incoming enemy fire. The best strategy is to try and knock out as many as possible using missiles during the first pass before getting into the turning fight.
Speaking of AI, I am sad to report that it’s fairly basic. The enemy comes straight for you and your squadron mates do…. well something. You can give your allies mental commands using the game UI to do things like attack a target, defend you or reform the flight, but they are not very effective at any of these tasks. If they could really read my mind they would cry themselves to sleep each night because I hate them so much. Plan on fulfilling most of the mission objectives yourself since your help is not adequate to the task. The missions themselves are a fairly standard mix of destroy these objectives and protect those objectives.
Dark Horizon has a tremendous amount of voice acting as much of the story arc is delivered through in-flight chatter and in the mission briefings. For the most part the acting is well done although it is very dramatic. It’s never “kill them” when it could be “separate their bodies from their souls” kind of dialog. The music is inoffensive and atmospheric. Some of the non-human characters like the hanger chief can get annoying but that is the exception to the rule. The game manual is also well done with additional back story and information on the galaxy and your place in it. However, the keyboard controls listed in the manual differed in some instances from those actually used in the game. The controls taught in the tutorial mode are the correct ones to use.
Explosions are rewarding and pretty, like a flower.
In-flight chatter tells the story while you play.
I was glad to see the Dark Horizon does include a tutorial mode where you can learn the basics of flight and combat. Although, it appears to be an afterthought since the in-flight briefing for the tutorial were often incomplete. For example I found out I was in combat only after wondering why my shields and armor were being depleted. The actual mission briefings are generally much clearer.
While the game is not inspiring it is definitely enjoyable, especially in short bursts. The game will automatically save itself for you between each mission in a given episode which allows you to leave the game and come back without having to replay the entire episode but just jump right into the combat. The biggest drawbacks were the control scheme and the bugs. Anyone looking for a straight forward space arcade game will enjoy this as long as you aren’t set on using your joystick. The game shows that it can be really fun but I can’t recommend it without reservation as it was released. Save your money until a patch addresses some of the stability issues that I experienced. If you do get it now the excellent auto save feature least you don’t have to replay large segments of the game.
Top gaming moment:
TOP GAME MOMENT
Creating my first custom photon cannon with extra damage and lower heat output.