Wednesday, October 01, 2008

Dark Horizon Review

Dark Horizon, developed by Quazar Studio and published by Paradox Interactive on Gamer’s Gate.
The Good: Custom ship and component design, nice graphics
The Not So Good: Nothing notably innovative or different, bland combat, linear mission design and selection, AI squad members continually forget orders, lacks multiplayer, poor audio, no mid-mission manual saves
What say you? A very unexciting and unoriginal space action-adventure game: 4/8

Who said the space adventure genre was dying? It wasn’t me, because it seems every couple of months a new title crops up to fill our hard drive space and send us to the far reaches of the universe. From the developer of Tarr Chronicles, a year-old game I apparently missed out on, comes Dark Horizon, a (surprise!) space action-adventure game set in, uh, let me see, ah yes: space. This title falls on the action side of the equation, more along the lines of Galactic Command rather than a more RPG/trading space title like SpaceForce. Where does this title fall in the pantheon of the space adventure genre?

One of the two good parts of Dark Horizon is the graphics. Almost everything in this department is high-quality: the ships are detailed with nice engine trail effects, stations and large vessels looks nice, the backgrounds are impressive without being unrealistically overblown, and the explosions (though repetitive) are nice to look at. Overall, it is a very solid package in terms of graphics. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for the sound design. Dark Horizon is littered with annoying and repetitive music, terrible voice acting (especially by non-human speakers), and disappointingly weak weaponry. The game does come with a ton of nonsensical radio chatter that you can use to drown out the other shortcomings. In a time where screenshots sell games but audio clips do not hold the same amount of persuasion, it’s no surprise that the graphics received a lot more attention during development. The result: a game that looks great but sounds awful, so Dark Horizon is a lot like Paris Hilton.

Once you get past the initial loading screen and four (!) introductory movies, you will find that Dark Horizon is a space action-adventure where you go on adventures in space (presumably with action involved). The game comes with “22 missions,” but really there are six episodes split into three or four very short (5-10 minutes) missions each and I doubt that many people will stick around for the repetitive combat. In reality, you’ll probably spend between six and ten hours with the game in its entirety. There isn’t any replay value in Dark Horizon since all of the missions play out the same each time, and the exclusively combat-oriented linear missions become quite monotonous after a short while. Most, if not all, of the games in this genre feature some sort of free-roaming component, letting you undertake quests or stay in the main campaign. However, Dark Horizon features a rather bland storyline and missions that will appear in the same order without choice: quite archaic. The game auto-saves your progress, but you cannot save the game mid-mission in your cockpit; thankfully, the very short mission length means you won’t lose too much progress if you have to stop for a while. A tutorial is provided to teach the very basics of the game’s controls. Dark Horizon does not have any multiplayer features whatsoever, so once you are done with the single player campaign, you are done with the game as a whole.

Dark Horizon lets you control your craft using a joystick or (my preferred method) the mouse. Apart from the usual selection of hotkeys you’ll need to memorize, the controls are fairly intuitive and the learning curve is short, as the physics don’t offer any challenge to overcome. The heads-up display has both good and bad features. The 3-D map does a nice job displaying whether objects are in front of or behind you by shading them appropriately. Checkpoints are clearly shown on the HUD at all times as well. However, objects that are not the currently selected target (enemy aircraft especially) aren’t shown on the HUD at all, which makes finding opponents shooting at you quite difficult. Instead of using a bolder selection box for active targets, Dark Horizon chose to not highlight other enemy ships at all; finding dark ships against a dark background is surprisingly difficult. The targeting keyboard shortcuts do an inefficient job as well. Although there are some highlights of the user interface, it still hides too much information from the player.

The other focal point of Dark Horizon (the graphics being the first) is ship customization. You are able to alter your hull, armor, reactor (engines) as long as you stay within a maximum mass limit. In addition, weapons can be outfitted in both “gun” and “missile” forms, along with shields and upgrade devices that can be loaded onto the ship. There are a number of pre-set options to choose from or you can design your own from a base blueprint. Modifications can be added that can increase attributes for a cost in resources (such as more armor or damage); the five resources can be gained by melting down existing cargo. Dark Horizon also has some suggestions for certain roles like “assault.” While letting the player make their own ships is fun, there are some arbitrary limits in the ship customization, such as the number of missiles (there are never enough for a mission). Also, since the missions are quite linear, there isn’t a real strategic advantage to go for a non-combat focus. Always picking the most powerful everything is the only real viable strategy here.

Combat in Dark Horizon is a fairly standard affair with a small wrinkle: temperature controls. You can cool down your ship with the touch of a button to enter a “shadow” stealth mode where enemies can’t detect you. This begs the question: why not spend the entire game in stealth mode and never get shot at? Of course, the game makes up enemy sensors that can magically see you. The tradeoff to going cold is that your ship moves painfully slow; it’s almost better to get shot at than to wait an extraordinary amount of time getting to the next checkpoint. On the flip side, you can also heat up your craft to increase the power of your weapons at the cost of shield strength in “corter” (whatever that means) mode. Since it is usually much more important to have shields than slightly better weapons, going “hot” is not a very good choice. Your ship seems to naturally get hotter during combat anyway, so you’ll have to hold down the “cool” button periodically to get those shields back online. The battles in Dark Horizon are repetitive since your custom ship designs don’t really radically alter the game, since all of the missions are combat related for the most part. The enemy AI is pretty dumb and likes to run head-on (apply directly to the forehead) into you. The battles are quick, eschewing the epic drawn-out (and usually boring) battles that seem to permeate the genre lately. Your friendly pilots can hold their own and defeat the enemy without constant assistance on your part. Commands can be issued to allies (like “attack my target”), but they forget them approximately every thirty seconds (the game actually states this is going to happen), so you will need to re-issue the orders on a consistent basis. This micromanagement of your forces is completely unnecessary and adds nothing to the game other than pure tedium.

Dark Horizon has nice graphics and ship customization, but everything else is at or below the average of the space action-adventure genre. Even the ship customization is limited in how different it makes the experience, as the changes you can make really only impact the gameplay in very subtle ways. The campaign is short (and you can’t manually save your progress) and that’s all there is to do, since Dark Horizon is single-player only. The cold “shadow” and hot “corter” modes are poorly balanced, are too easily activated, and don’t alter the gameplay enough to be meaningful. The friendly AI is competent but forgetful and the enemy AI is easily beaten. Since I didn’t play Tarr Chronicles, I’m curious how similar Dark Horizon is to last year’s predecessor. Based off of screenshots alone, it looks pretty darn similar. In the end, Dark Horizon’s two good features aren’t enough to overshadow the plentiful shortcomings the game exhibits.