What is it about dog fighting that’s inspired such vicarious experiences as the classic Star Wars vector-graphics arcade game, or the much more recent Crimson Skies (on Xbox)? Is it the thrill of the chase? Might it be the duck and spin of an environment with 360 directional degrees, the freedom and challenge of the axial pursuit? Maybe we all have a penchant for making ourselves throw up?
Rampant Games has waded into the dog fighting pool, specifically the Olympic-sized spacefaring tank, with Void War, a sophomore game effort that digs into their diversity and willingness to experiment. Void War skirts the edge of being a regular dogfighter with spaceships, but makes a decided attempt to create some narrative around the levels that have the player zipping in widely bordered space-zones, shooting bad guys. Really, it’s pretty easy to see that Void War was made to be multiplayer, as any dogfighter this side of 1991 should be.
At its core, the gameplay revolves around level completion based on the number of kills. Sounds familiar, right? Void War keeps it palatable in just about every other corner of its features by sticking to traditional and minimalist patterns. This is a very good thing, especially for an indie dev house that presumably built this whole game from the ground up, engine and all. It’s a cohesive package, but there’s also a great deal of room for the looming specter of potential.
The collection of different play modes offers a good deal of freedom to test your skills. A campaign mode will trot through a lip-service storyline featuring a scruffy-haired mongrel teenager in dire need of a sandwich, looking around the Great Beyond for his miscreant girlfriend. Then there’s a “Free For All” mode that is basically a battle blitz of ships attacking each other, including you. And of course, the multiplayer allows for pretty easy set up on dedicated remote servers, or, if you hate other people, you can host the game yourself and only invite your closest, most antagonistic friends. Pick any of these modes, it doesn’t matter - your objectives will not change whether you’re trying to pin an ion disruptor on your high school buddy, or reading the elementary (yet quite sassy!) dialogue of the campaign script.
The maps could have left players without a great deal of scenery, being that you’re in outer space. In truth, it doesn’t change a whole lot between levels, but that’s really not the point. What would have been a great service to Void War would have been levels inundated with a utilitarian vision, something that would have created a need to use each and every nook and cranny in an explosion of strategic pragmatism. Many of the obstacles in Void War’ levels, while well meaning, are simply there to create a face-saving barrier in the midst of battle, like the ever-present asteroids or the odd, fairly removed space station. That’s functional, but it gets a little old. Still, the spaces are large enough to accommodate extensive bursts of engine thrust and convey distance and enemy proximity quite effectively.
One other area that feeds off selection but doesn’t change the taste of the meat is the variety of ships. These are unlocked periodically after meeting certain goals, but don’t really differ in how they operate or fly. That’s a very important point, as I’ll explain next. What is presented is an interesting variety of cosmic battlers with unconventional designs and spatial juxtapositions, like wings in space. Each ship has three critical attributes (shields, weapon power, and engines) that deplete and recharge as they’re used. There are also, in each level, various upgrade icons floating about, offering up engine boosters and a host of different missiles.
Flying is a bit of a trick. It’s something that could be acclimated to, but the simplicity of the controls belies the act of using them gracefully or effectively. Whether this was intentional or not, it makes tasks that should be natural in a spaceship feel like you’re whipping a 64 Impala across an icy lake at 70 mph, trying to thread it through a croquet hoop. Not that I’ve ever done that. The sensitivity of the controls can be tightened up a bit in an options screen, which helps, but I still found it to be more than I wanted to really think about whilst trying to lead my adversary’s ship with rapid but ineffective gunfire. In the far future, I’d want my kids to fight in ships that could correct and enhance the hunt, not regress to some puritanical school of overcorrection.
Much is left unexplained in the game, and while the pieces of ambiguity are rather small, they do detract from the overall experience. Many of the ship upgrades may seem apparent, but don’t really give you the feeling that they’re in effect. Missiles will generally tell you what they’re for, either in name or by watching them in action, but there are a couple that produce cryptic results. Three settings, presumably to prioritize the power and recharge settings of your ship (one for engine, offense, and defense), are available at the touch of a number key, but I found them more of a distraction than a tactical utility. These all made the already barren space-scapes and repetitive mission objectives just a bit more tiring.
Void War was truly built for the multiplayer experience; its importance is so worthy of note, that it’s point number one I’ll make in this conclusion. Get a bunch of your friends together to while away an hour or two, blasting each other in the ass. With your spaceship, I mean. But if you’re at all critical of games that aren’t flashy, or are operating at the peak of their design singularities, Void War could get very old awful fast. At its near-budget price, I’d recommend it to veteran dogfighters, but only if you feed off the rough experiences that indie development houses cultivate. For all that, it has great potential, it’s really a bit like a more colorful version of that Star Wars arcade dogfighter.