PC Game Review: Dark Horizon Review
What might have been a great spiritual successor to Elite turns out to be a disappointment.
You are the last, best hope for us all
Dark Horizon by Akella (published by Paradox Interactive) is a lackluster space shooter that fails on too many fronts. I was originally intrigued by the description on Paradox’s web site and said to myself “Hey, a descendant of Elite. That could be pretty cool.” It isn’t.
Dark Horizon takes place in a future where Humans are integrated into a society of mixed beings thrust into a galactic war facing an enemy that basically could be summed up as Entropy. The intro movie gives away the happy ending while unfolding the the storyline. It is a retrospective of the hero during the successful campaign juxtaposed with massive damage inflicted by the enemy’s weapons to the Humans’ ships, stations, and planets. The contrast unfortunately simply defies comprehension and belief. I watched capital ships disintegrate and systems die…while the narration explains that I have a chance to change the result as a stunt fighter pilot. “Calling Skywalker to the hanger….”
Dark Horizon alternates between safe-haven sequences at your home base and multi-phase missions that are straight up space combat with a minimal tactical requirements.
The home base scenes evoke a sense of Space Hulk fatalism mixed in with the dream series of Neil Gaiman’s Sandman series of graphic novels. It’s truly a pity that the wonderfully written dream sequence narrations have nothing to do with the game. I hope someone takes the time to transcribe the text of the sequences and releases them whole. It’s the only way I will ever get a chance to read to the end as I could not bring myself to finish the game.
While at the station the player can study up on encyclopedic items belonging to allies and what is known of the enemy. This mainly appears to fill in the role of fluff since I never found anything of interest that helped me in the combat realm. The player can also read about his “dream” sequences as mentioned, and more to the point of the game the station is where the player can modify his fighter.
The hanger is the one segment of the whole game that could have shined. It’s here the the player works on modifications to his fighter. It is possible to change the hull, reactor, armor, shields, and of course weapons. Unfortunately the tone doesn’t fit within the dark theme of the game. The player is assisted by a sarcastic droid that does nothing to contribute to the game at all. After the second time I heardits voice I reached for the mute button. Think of Jar Jar Binks trying to fit in with The Empire Strikes Back - it just doesn’t work.
While in the hanger the player can create novel items for his ship’s hull that do special things like add armor, increase shield repair rate, etc. It’s a neat tool that allows players to really affect how the game plays. However, at this point I get the feeling I switched genres from SciFi to Apocalyptic Fantasy. For some strange reason a society that has Space Stations the size of Ringworlds can’t manufacture new gear or resources. No, instead the player must deconstruct scavenged gear post mission and use the resulting components to build new stuff. The Droid limits deconstructions to a maximum of three per successful mission for “Superstitious” reasons. Yes, you read that right: it is a completely arbitrary cap on research. In practical terms what it really means is that the player is required to complete several missions and carefully plan construction on weapons and equipment in order to improve the fighter’s original components. One of the most unforgivable flaws of the game is that when the player swaps out components of his fighter there is no indication as to what they actually do. For example, I have no idea what speed my fighter would fly with a particular mix of hull, reactor, and mass until I launched it to in a mission. Then I re-loaded the game and went back to the hanger to tweak the fighter until I found an optimal mix.
When I finally got into space I quickly discovered that there is no Newtonian physics. A ship massing 7000 units (whatever that is – the game provides no explanation) traveling at speed 600 (another high, yet unexplained unit) can turn on a dime. That would be ok in theory (inertial compensators maybe?), but for some strange reason missiles do appear to obey such rules and frequently get out-turned by a more maneuverable enemy.
Combat usually devolves into a furball where there are no tactics at all. Weapon ranges are so limited that the player cannot hit an opponent until they are nearly within touching distance. Unfortunately due to the simplistic physics model, close dog fighting results in frequent collisions. In the end combat results are mostly luck based. The one nice feature I noticed was that when I would select “Match speed to target” as long as I stayed with that one target my speed adjusted continually, making combat a bit easier.
Combat does have a neat concept that I wish was explored more, as well as implemented better. The fighter has some interesting capabilities depending on its temperature. If the player cools it down it gets an attribute that becomes the equivalent of a stealth mode. It is nearly invisible, moves slower, and shoots slower. Great for sneaking through a mine field for example. Go hot and the fighter will do more damage, yet the shields take a beating. The player’s actions affect the heat rating but the player also has the ability to artificially modify it with a key stroke. Once again this mechanic is unclear and unexplained: if I can manually affect the heat of my fighter, why not have a setting to “Stay Cold” or “Go Hot” or “Stay Neutral”? Naturally enough, a neutral heat signature isn’t part of the game.
During missions you get more of the dark dialog that is the hallmark of the game. “I sense the dark within.” It is interesting for the first few times but eventually I just wanted to get through it so I could shoot something and move on. Compounding the pain of flying with the restrictive physics model is that there are always massive objects in the background that completely throw off visual cues. I think the designers were trying to impress on the player the vastness of objects. The player’s home space station is so massive that it looks more like a background image than an object with visual frame of reference. The same is true with planets. The end result is that during combat I couldn’t see the enemy since it blended into the background. This essentially creates the random nature of combat – I found the best tactic was to simply turn to face the threat indicator and hope to hit it before it hit me. I also got the feeling that all the action takes place in low orbit…hardly the usual combat milieu one would expect from a galaxy-wide conflict. This more than anything else turned me off to the game.
The strikingly dark images of this game’s cut scenes do it justice; I just wish that it was released as a graphic novel instead of a poorly implemented space shooter. Sorry Ian, your legacy wasn’t improved by this release.