Reviews

Dark Raid Review – Should Have Stayed In The Dark

Dark_Raid_CODEX

Platforms: PC
Reviewed On: PC
Developer: Vector Games
Publisher: Vector Games
Singleplayer: Yes
Multiplayer: Yes 

This game was tested using an AMD Radeon HD 7790 graphics card kindly supplied by AMD. Click here for details on that, the Radeon HD 7790 and the test system used for all PC games.

Dark Raid is a game in which you’re invited to “load chekpoint” upon death, and enter a “quick mach” under the multiplayer menu. Regardless of your budget, developers, an inability to check spelling is just plain annoying and hardly inspires confidence in your product. These are hardly the only spelling errors within the game, though, and represent just a small portion of Dark Raid’s far larger problems.

Given the clearly limited budget that the developer’s had to work with it is at least a sensible decision to take inspiration from the likes of Quake, Doom, Wolfenstein and even Unreal Tournament, the kinds of titles that don’t require vast amounts of cash to pay homage to due to their relative simplicity. And that’s exactly what Dark Raid wants to do – It wants to replicate the glory days by bringing back fast-paced, strafing and shooting in big environments. It’s an admirable goal and one that Dark Raid all to briefly manages to capture before you realise that all this is is a poorly made FPS which struggles to nail the three core tenants of shooters: weapons, enemies and level design.

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So, here’s the setup. You play as a seemingly normal robot worker with a strangely gruff voice called Muddy, who must take up arms when a mysterious virus causes every other robot on the spaceship S.W.A.N. to go bonkers. Along the way you’re guided via radio by humans you’ll never meet, and must discover why you alone are immune to the deadly virus. The script is paper-thin and poorly written to boot, filled with terrible spelling errors, awkward sentences and equally poor voice acting. However, given the nature of the game’s desire to go old-school a lackluster plot is hardly something I can overly criticise. One can hardly look back at games like Return to Castle Wolfenstien, Duke Nukem 3D or Doom and – with a straight face, mind – declare them masterpieces of storytelling.

But unlike the classic shooters Dark Raid’s atrocious attempt at telling a story actually gets in the way of the gameplay, a sin that I find much harder to forgive. There’s far too many moments where you can’t advance until you’ve sat through a minute or more of text that’s written far too small for anyone with bad eyesight to see. Furthermore about half-way through the story the voice-acting dries up, the game citing a broken radio as the cause, switching over to the simple text communication. From a storytelling perspective this decision doesn’t add anything to the game, so I’m going to go out on a limb and assume this was done merely to avoid having to record more lines.

A game like this rides completely on the feel of the shooting, since that’s what you’re going to be doing for a large chunk of the playtime, although the reality of Dark Raid is that you’ll spend the majority of your time trundling through massive, boring rooms made of grey metal, looking for a couple of things to blast before moving on. The small budget and inexperience of the developers is at its most obvious in the bland visual design which places you firmly aboard a gigantic spaceship filled with vast rooms, which are in turn filled with…nothing. Seriously, very few of the rooms you ever visit appear to have a genuine function past being bloody massive or storing a couple of tiny crates that somehow manage to look embarrassed about being there. It’s not until fairly late into the six hour runtime that you’ll get a change of environment, the grey rooms swapped out for uninspiring science labs which all look practically the same. However, the weapon models do at least look decent.

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While movement feels quick and responsive, managing to successfully imitate the games of old in this regard, the guns themselves are terrible, lacking in both recoil and satisfying audio. The lack of kick on the weapons (not counting the stiff animation in which Muddy’s shoulder and arm moves slowly upwards) means you can simply point the crosshairs at the enemy and keep the trigger pulled, removing almost all vestiges skill from the game’s strafing combat. Shooting the robotic enemies provides absolutely no feedback as they soak up bullet after bullet with zero visible effect before finally crumpling into a heap, defeated. Guns must feel powerful through the use of audio, animation and impact upon the enemy in order for the player to find combat truly satisfying, but Dark Raids fails in all three areas. This mixture saps almost all enjoyment to the back and forth strafing action, which is otherwise simple and lifeless.

The selection of weapons presents further problems. The shotgun is a beast and quickly proves itself to be a more effective weapon that most of the rest of the armory, able to decimate foes from a considerable distance, making it the go-to gun for any situation. The assault rifle, meanwhile, feels rather weedy thanks once again to the lack of recoil and satisfying audio, while also taking quite a while to put down a single enemy. The grenade launcher feels useless because spaces are so large and empty, meaning you have to hit enemies directly with the grenades in order for it be marginally effective, assuming the wonky physics choose to play ball with you. As for the pistol, it provides infinite ammo, which is handy because it’s also frustratingly inaccurate, making strafing fights feel more like pot luck than skill.  And then there’s the sniper rifle, a living embodiment of strange game design. This one-hit wonder features a handy zoom function in which you hold down the right mouse button until it reaches its maximum optical reach or until you want to stop. Sounds fine, right? Except, if you stop zooming, and then decide you’d like to zoom in a little further and press the right mouse button again Muddy helpfully stops looking down the sight, returning the gun to hip-fire position. Who designs a sniper rifle like that? Nobody! Because it’s stupid!

With the central pillar of combat the game is already fundamentally weak, so what about those other two things that shooters need to nail, namely level design and enemies? The environments you do battle in are about as basic as they come, with a mixture of huge spaces that often have two levels and tighter, more confined areas. This is a purely linear game with nothing to discover past pointless trophies, eschewing older shooters love of having sprawling levels to navigate, mazes filled with enemies, secrets and keycard doors. As for the enemies they are primarily made up of robots which come in just a few flavors, each only differing in how much damage they can take and slightly altered behavior patterns from the extremely basic AI that offers minimal challenge. To make up for lack of difficulty a couple of irritating tricks are used. Suicide drones that can insta-kill you with a single blast present the single greatest danger, especially as they have a habit of hiding in awkward places and can be a bitch to shoot down with anything other than a shotgun or minigun. Defensive turrets and standard robot enemies tend to be placed so they can get the first couple of shots in as soon as you step through a door. This can be especially frustrating when facing off against robots armed with shotguns or the powerful sniper rifle. At one point in the game I came across a section where I got stuck for a while as an enemy wielding the sniper rifle was able to kill me in a single shot due to my low health and also due to being neatly placed to get the first shot every time with a supreme level of accuracy seemingly granted by God himself. The incredibly thin roster of enemies is disappointing given how far older games managed to deliver a more exciting line-up of varied foes to battle against, often in just the first level, while also featuring better AI and avoiding resorting to cheap enemy placements to create a sense of challenge.

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The game occasionally attempts to mix in some platforming sections, forgetting that unless handled with utmost skill first-person platforming is usually more frustrating than anything else. Thankfully there’s not too many of these areas, but when you do encounter one expect anger to be the primary emotion coursing through your soul as the controls just aren’t precise enough nor are the sections well enough designed.

And then there’s some things that aren’t major problems, but still baffle. Things like sprint, double jump and armor mode are unlocked completely at random throughout the game, with no explanation or reason behind them. You’re just playing and suddenly a text message says you can now sprint. Considering there are several points during the game where Muddy experiences flashbacks that explain his combat abilities it would have made far more sense to tie these upgrades into those moments. Hacking doors and other things is briefly introduced within the first hour as a basic mini-game and then promptly forgotten about until near the end of the game, giving the impression that the developer quite literally forgot about hacking’s existence.

The Steam page promises “Old-School Boss Fights,” a claim that genuinely excites in an age where bass battles tend to be lackluster efforts, at least until you discover that what it really means is a single boss fight that’s wrapped up in a few short minutes. That’s right, there’s just one boss fight, and it’s not even used to finish off the game.

Ah yes, the ending. Though the plot is already as thin as they come you need not worry as nothing will be spoiled here, but regardless it’s worth talking about Dark Raid’s finale. Not only does it fail to achieve a satisfying crescendo from a gameplay perspective, tasking you with simply battling the same enemies as before in a scenario no more challenging than usual, it also can’t bring the story to a climax, either, answering absolutely nothing while still managing to set itself up for a sequel.

Rather than opt to go with the manual saving system that the majority of this game’s inspirations utilised back in the day there’s a checkpoint system in place instead, but rather than the game automatically handling this players must go up to specific boxes on the wall and activate them in order to save their progress. Checkpoints are sporadic and almost seemingly random in their placement. Sometimes they’re close together, other times you can go for quite a while before seeing one, making death due to environment or cheap tactics all the more frustrating. Easy sections might have relatively generous checkpoints, while harder areas with lengthy text discussions between Moody and the humans won’t see checkpoints for 15-30 minutes, forcing you to trudge through dull combat scenarios or sit through duller story upon restarting.

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Before we wrap up this review the multiplayer segment of the game must be tackled, because here we find a rather serious problem. Despite this being a full release, priced at a relatively expensive £14.99, and advertising a multiplayer component on the Steam storefront, a trip to the multiplayer menu reveals a large “Beta” banner. If you want to sell yourself as a complete package, then there should be no beta component, unless it’s clearly advertised in the game’s description, which in this instance it is not. That’s utter bullshit, Vector Games. Get it sorted.

I’d like to tell you more, but unfortunately I was unable to get a single match as nobody is playing, and I was unable to rope some friends into proceedings. However, one can set up a custom game and include bots, but of course this relies on the basic AI that powers the singleplayer campaign. Currently modes are limited to Death Match, Team Deathmatch and Capture the Flag across a total of three maps. I feel bad about reviewing a game without adequately exploring its multiplayer suite, and thus offer my sincere apologies, dear readers, but playing against bots would not provide an adequate test.

For all of its many flaws, there are some rare moments when Dark Raid is fun, and manages to evoke feelings of playing Quake or such  for the first time. There’s glorious moments where that mysterious sense of flow is achieved as you sprint from room to room, gunning down enemies without them getting a single shot in against you, but as quickly as it comes it vanishes again, leaving you to lament its loss.

Perhaps the biggest compliment I can pay Dark Raid is that at least it’s relatively bug free. The game ran smoothly enough and aside from numerous spelling mistakes I didn’t encounter a single major glitch that hampered my experience over much, although there were a few times when I had to ctrl+alt+del out of the game when it seemed to get stuck during loading. Jumping back to desktop and then back to the game seemed to get it back on track. I also encountered a few enemies that had been placed facing the wrong direction, and therefore wouldn’t react to my presence until I stood directly in front of them. Being mostly problem free means the game deserves to stay away from the lowest score, but ultimately not by much because Dark Raid is simply a very boring game. It’s completely bland, uninspired dross that neither captures the spirit of classic shooters or finesse of newer offerings.

As a final note this is why I often feel apprehensive about tackling indie games, because when I write a review this negative I end up feeling like a complete jerk, and worry that in the case of a small, brand new company like Vector Games my harshness could ultimately contribute to them choosing to throw in the towel and never develop another game. I sincerely hope that’s not the case, and that Vector keep going. Perhaps down the line they’ll be the next big thing.

But ultimately when writing any review my loyalty lies first and foremost with the consumer, the person who is spending money on a product. Whenever any developer, be they Ubisoft or Vector Games, puts a title on the market  it comes with a set of expectations, a level of quality that the consumer demands, and must therefore be critiqued as such. Dark Raid serves to show that Vector Games need to hone their craft further before attempting to sell their work.

For a few bob Dark Raid would be worth your time merely for a laugh, and the multiplayer could potentially be enjoyable once finished, though it’s unlikely to find much of an audience now. But as a game there’s really very little to recommend about it.

The Good:
+ Responsive.
+ Occasional flashes of enjoyment.

The Bad:
– Poor combat.
– Beta multiplayer.
– Meh.

The Verdict: 1.5/5 – Bad, bordering on being okay.
Completely uninspiring shooter that fails to replicate the glory days.

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