Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Dark Matter Review

Dark Matter, developed and published by Big Toe Software.
The Good: Automatic upgrades, top notch graphics for the genre, simple but effective enemy ship behavior, inertial physics
The Not So Good: Repetitive levels, weapon upgrades reset each level
What say you? A straightforward but challenging Asteroids clone: 6/8

One of the most classic arcade games is Asteroids. Armed with only your triangular ship, you blast your way through wave after wave of space rocks in the hope of blasting more space rocks instead of dying. As you might expect, any successful game will spawn numerous clones in the hope of making some money off the popularity of the original. The dream remains alive 27 years later in the form of Dark Matter, a top-down space shooter where you engage asteroids and enemy ships and shoot them in space.

In true Asteroids tradition, Dark Matter is a top down arcade space shooter, and the game looks really nice. The backgrounds are beautiful caricatures of space vistas, complete with distant stars and multi-colored nebulae. The asteroids in the game are very detailed, complete with shadowing effects among their many craters. The ships in the game also come across with a believable flair, although the larger ships lack the detail of the smaller craft in the game. The weapon effects and explosions are neat as well: colored smoke trails missiles and ships explode convincingly. Best of all, the game’s graphics never confuse the player. It’s all too common in games of this nature to just throw a bunch of effects at you in the hope of overloading your senses, but the graphics in Dark Matter come across as detailed yet clean at the same time: well done. Even the hexagonal menus are easy to understand and look a lot better than the bare menus seen in other arcade shooters. For all of the good things about the graphics, the sound is lacking. There is no music, just sounds when weapons fire, ships explode, and new ships spawn on the screen. The game lacks a balance between the excellent graphics and the sound that really could have provided a wonderful gaming experience. As it stands, Dark Matter is pretty to look at but pretty average to listen to.

Dark Matter features a 30 level semi-linear campaign. You can choose some of the path you take during the game as the level selection is arranged like a honeycomb. Dying during one of the missions does not reset the entire campaign, thankfully. There is also a challenge mode where you try to survive long enough to earn a high score. Both of these modes play out the same: the level begins with asteroids, then ships are added, and finally a powerful boss may come into the picture. Because of this pattern, none of the game’s levels have any unique identity and they play too similarly. About the only changes are in the background images, but once you’ve played one level, you’ve pretty much played them all.

Playing Dark Matter is easy enough. You can use either the mouse or a gamepad (and apparently an Xbox 360 pad as well, although I don’t own one to test it out). You can left click to fire. Double clicking will save up your energy for a more powerful shot; it’s an interesting idea, but double clicking during the game is clumsy in practice. Right clicking will move your ship around the map. The maps are just like Asteroids: if you disappear off one end, you’ll reappear on the other. Dark Matter uses an inertial physics engine: the only way to stop moving is by firing your engines in the opposite direction. This makes moving your ship a tricky proposition, but you can pull off some cool, daring moves during the game. The middle mouse button fires a bomb, which eliminates all enemies in a close radius, useful for intense times during a match or those pesky bosses, although you’re limited to only three. Enemies will drop “dots” (that’s what I’m calling them) that will automatically float towards you; these are used to automatically upgrade your weapons, providing a more powerful arsenal or faster firing rates. The weapon upgrades start over at the beginning of each level in the campaign.

The enemies of Dark Matter consist of asteroids that just float around and a number of enemy ship types. Each type exhibits a different behavior and subsequent difficulty level. Some will just go straight for you, while others will run away when you aim at them, so you can trick them into coming too close. Although the AI of Dark Matter is simple, it is very effective are creating a challenging set of opponents. Dark Matter is difficult because of the number of enemies, but the game is not unfairly difficult. Dark Matter never throws too many enemies at you that you couldn’t possibly eliminate; the player just needs to prioritize their targets. The inclusion of bombs gets you out of sticky situations when you become closed in. The gameplay of Dark Matter compares favorably to other arcade shooters in terms of difficulty and overall fun.

Dark Matter has some pretty challenging but simple gameplay that anyone can pick up. The game can become repetitive after a while, but the upgrading weapons offset some of the recurrences. The graphics are outstanding for an arcade shooter, and although the sound lags behind in terms of quality, the overall presentation of the game is exceptional. The game’s difficulty results from having a lot of enemies, but not too many enemies, and striking that balance is the key to why Dark Matter ends up being better than your average arcade shooter. Plus, the game is super cheap: at only $10, why not check it out, especially if you enjoy clear-cut arcade action? I think I had at least $10 worth of fun in this game, and fans of the genre won’t be disappointed with Dark Matter.