Dark Horizon kicks off with a beautiful, atmospheric black and white intro, which introduces you to the world and the current critical situation: a giant dark cataclysm has ripped the known universe apart, threatening to devour everything in its path. Scared yet? Well, you shouldn’t be, because the universe has some yet-unsung heroes, and one of them is, of course, you!
Unfortunately for you, virtual heroes stand no chance against game crashes…and there are a lot of them. So many crashes, along with incoherent storytelling, ultimately leaves this reviewer with mixed feelings of a game that has some rich story and action features, but that doesn´t really deliver in the end.
About the game
Dark Horizon is a space fighter simulation, in the same category as the Wing Commander games and, to a lesser degree, Freelancer and the “X” series. Dark Horizon is a prequel to “The Chronicles of Tarr”, using the same story universe—the universe of Enosta—but the events in Dark Horizon are set a hundred years earlier. You take the role of a Guardian, someone who has been touched by the “Mirk”: an element that is part of a great cataclysm that threatens to destroy every living thing in Enosta. The Mirk will eventually consume you, as it does with everyone who has been infected, but the main objective for you as a fighter pilot is to carry out guarding, escort and attack missions to stop the Mirk from expanding as long as you can. The Mirk manifests itself in different ways, but you will mostly encounter it as a dark organic matter, which takes the shape of enemy fighters and battleships.
The missions differ a little bit from each other, but most contain elements of all three categories, and are quite fun if you like dogfights in space. The game lacks the free-flying and exploration elements of Freelancer, “X” and other space-trade simulators, and put much more focus on the missions, which propel the story. This will probably divide the game’s reception, depending on if you enjoy hours of cruising and trading in space, or just want some arcade style, interstellar dogfights. If you choose to take the game on its own premises—an action-oriented, mission-based space simulation—then it’s a fun space-fighter gaming experience. The blend of arcade and simulation is also apparent in the ways you can view your spacecraft: one that is more arcade style, where you see your ship from behind, and one that is more simulation style, where your view is from inside of the cockpit.
The customization features of the game are nice, as you can develop your own ship configuration, weapons and even helpful devices. There are some restrictions for each ship hull, as they cannot carry infinite mass, so you have to make some choices of how to approach the battles. This is quite fun and adds a strategic component; depending on your configuration, the game can be a lot easier, or a lot harder. However, it can also create some imbalance in the game, depending on how good you are at customizing your own ship. The first few missions were quite hard for me, but as soon as I built my own armour-enhancing and self-repairing device, it got very easy. I basically only died when the game crashed, which it did way too often. This is extremely annoying, as the game only auto saves once in a while, and you cannot save your progress independently during missions. There seems to be a problem with the graphics engine, when moving between mission and cut scenes, and the two patches currently released made the game more stable, but not stable enough. Basically it went from crashing every thirty minutes, to crashing every hour. This is simply not good enough.
The controls are really good though, and the targeting interface is more useful than in some other space fighter simulations out there. It is easy to switch between your targets, and you can adjust the speed of your spaceship quickly, which makes you feel very active during the dogfights, as the controls are so responsive. Ships and laser beams light up the space around you, and you need to respond quickly to new targets showing up during the missions.There are also a couple of new, exciting features for your ship in Dark Horizon: Shadow mode and the Corter mode. These are basically a cloaking mode and an all-out attack mode. I liked this idea in the game, as it gives you some tactical possibilities, and they’re quite useful. You can, for instance, retreat in Shadow mode if your ship is damaged, repair yourself, and then rejoin the battle. This is a good feature as some missions are long, and can be very hard to complete if you’re seriously damaged in the beginning of your mission.
The rich gaming universe of Enosta which Paradox has created is built on a lot of information, if one wants to read about it. This is a good thing, as it gives you the opportunity to get deeper into the gaming universe, and feel more a part of it. You can certainly sense that this is a gaming universe where the developers feel at home, so it is quite surprising that they manage to deliver the story so poorly. The storytelling during the missions is confusing and it is hard to understand what is really going on around you, even if you have read manuals and all the information in the game. There is no doubt a good and deep story surrounding you, but you do not feel attached to it because the information you receive is extremely fragmented. This might have been avoided if the producers had opted to use an avatar as your alter ego. It could have opened up for more coherent interaction between you and your wing; unfortunately, however, with the way the game is setup, it’s basically just incoherent information about your current mission. Not everything in Dark Horizon is bad however, and this brings us to one of the highlights of the game: the graphics.
Dark Horizon delivers some nice graphics: cut scenes are well executed, the space that surrounds you is beautiful, and colourful stars glister in the dark surrounding. The ship designs are nice and dark, and your modifications in the hangar are also visualized, which give you in-game personalization and customization. For example, if you change your generator or laser cannon, you can actually see that on your ship in the hangar. I really like the fact that the developers have opted to make the station and hangar ships so big. It is nice to be able to fly for several minutes alongside a big station, and, after all, if you have a station with thousands of personnel, it would not have made much sense for the vessel to only be about ten times the size of your one man craft. The only real graphical annoyances I encountered, except for the game crash issues mentioned earlier, were collision detection issues. I experienced instances where big ships would fly through each other, and this left me with a feeling that the game could have used some more time in development. These issues, however, are more cosmetic, and don’t affect actual gameplay. Unfortunately, one cannot say the same about the mixed execution of the audio and dialogs in Dark Horizon.
The audio in the game is quite vibrant, and your cockpit feels alive with radio chatter; there are usually a lot of voices speaking at the same time, which creates a sense of chaos and intensity. The FX effects are low by default in the game, but cranking them up to Full makes you really hear the lasers being fired around you. Sometimes the space-fight sounds seem to surround you, even though there is no fighting going on, and this is probably just another bug. The voice acting is articulate and convincing, even though the hangar alien, who keeps insulting you, is really annoying. In these instances, things are only worse because there are no dialog options, so there’s no talking back—well, maybe you don’t really want to talk to him; maybe you just want to hit him with a monkey wrench! Unfortunately, this is not the only downfall of dialog in the game. As mentioned earlier, the dialogs are incoherent, partly because they are sometimes cut off by cut scenes, and partly because the subtitles disappear too early, when the dialogs still continue. The biggest problem however is that the dialogs are very “colloquial”, in the sense that you are expected to have a very deep understanding of the gaming universe just to make sense of them. You are thrown into this complex social and political structure, which use elements that almost seem to come from a fantasy RPG, and it is all very confusing, at least the first several hours. This is typical of the whole gaming experience as you get a sense that this game could have been really good, but a poor execution of storytelling and too many game crashes leaves you frustrated and confused.
What the hell?!?
I am quite disappointed by the fact that the game felt so unpolished and crashed so much. The game really captured me sometimes, but I totally lost the continuity because of the crashes. By continually having to restart Dark Horizon, you have to replay big parts of a mission, which is boring and disrupts the story-telling aspect of the game. The game certainly has some good bits—like the dogfights, the rich story universe and some nice ship configuration options—but, in the end, these cannot make up for the sheer amount of game instability and incoherent storytelling. There is a big patch being released in the next few weeks though, and that might make the game a fun, but not fantastic, experience.