Dark Horizon Review
November 30, 2008 by Ewan Aiton
Back in the nineties, space-sims were big business. We had Wing Commander, X-Wing then TIE Fighter and Frontier: Elite 2 and things were great. The choice of whether to play the grandiose, yet ever-so compelling, Wing Commander series or get stuck into the Rebellion in TIE Fighter was a truly difficult one.
In 1994 though, DOOM came along and changed everything. People became less interested in learning how to pilot the TIE Advanced and traded it in for slaughtering the minions of hell. The first person shooter wove a spell on us all and, for a long time, space-sims were forgotten.
Now we are seeing a resurgence of the genre headed by the ground-breaking Elite-inspired MMO, EVE Online and now Paradox Interactive’s Dark Horizon. Dark Horizon allows you to dust off that old joystick and indulge in destroying opponents in zero gravity as you fight to save the human race from the mysterious and malevolent Mirk enveloping the galaxy.
Actually you don’t need a joystick to play Dark Horizon as the old mouse and keyboard combination has been adapted very well to the demands of deep space combat. In fact, casual players could even play the game almost entirely using the mouse. However, this probably isn’t the best idea.
You are given the option of playing through a tutorial or skipping straight to the action and this is a good choice for space-sim veterans as the controls are nicely balanced and carefully thought out. There may be the occasional moment of confusion as you are getting used to the key-mapping, but this will soon subside once you get absorbed into the game.
Flying and shooting are controlled by the mouse with movement changing your direction the buttons firing primary and secondary weapons and the wheel controlling the speed of the ship. Clicking the mouse wheel will select the closest target in your HUD. Secondary controls such as rolling and changing between weapons are mapped to the keyboard based on the standard WASD key configuration to avoid too much disorientation. The ship itself handles like a dream with little need to adjust the sensitivities. Although the inverted y-axis is not the default setting, which is a bit strange.
The storyline revolves around one fighter squadron posted in a dangerous part of the galaxy. For 200 years humanity has been fighting a losing battle against the mysterious and malevolent Mirk. Mirk is a darkness that is consuming the galaxy in order to fill that galaxy with anti-life. You are a single guardian in an outpost that is pivotal to humanity’s survival.
At the beginning you don’t actually get told all that much. You are entrusted with the protection of a weapon that has been developed to neutralise the Mirk threat called the Light Core. It is a space station similar to a Halo in some ways. It is in the final stages of its construction and you and your wingmen must defend it at all costs.
Despite the game featuring your wingmen quite heavily, there is no multiplayer mode at all. It would’ve been an ideal opportunity to create a co-op mode and it seems to be a chance gone begging. This is a bit of a disappointment but given the game’s reliance on narrative it doesn’t detract from the overall gameplay.
The missions are all fairly straight-forward, usually asking you to fight through several waves of fighters to reach your main target, be it a jump point, target to scan or enemy caption ship. They don’t wander too far from the same format as the game progresses. They are littered with snippets of plot progression so pay attention to the communications especially in the mid-mission cut-scenes of which there are usually two or three short sequences. The missions are actually quite long and are split up into several parts by these brief cut-scenes. These short interludes also recharge your shields and armour but not your missiles and ammunition. It does go some way to help relieve the frustrations of those of you who weren’t patient enough to build a module that allows your armour to regenerate.
Another interesting feature of the gameplay is the ability to alter the ship’s running temperature with varying effects. Cooling the ship down engages stealth mode. You are completely invisible but you cannot move very fast and your weapon reload rates slow to a snail’s pace. Overheating the ship increases the damage inflicted by the cannons and causes the shields to degenerate.
Dark Horizon is a beautiful game. The starfield in the background is enlivened by gas clouds and nearby stars creating a very dynamic-looking backdrop. The ships are all extremely detailed and some are so large they can be flown through.
The fighters of you and your comrades are distinguished by their purple exhaust traces as opposed to red for your enemies. Every fighter you fly is customisable and this reflects how it appears in the game. You can also switch comfortably between cockpit and behind-the-ship views in-game to choose whichever view suits the situation.
Sound is a strange thing for a space-sim to have as sound does not travel in a vacuum. There is the usual array of laser blasts and engine noises along with the radio chatter of your wing mates. The voice acting can be a bit “hammy” but it is soon forgotten when you are blasting through the wreckage of freshly dismembered enemy ships.
The music is quite relaxing in between encounters with enemies. When the dog-fighting begins the tempo ramps up and it actually helps to get the adrenaline pumping. It really adds to the atmosphere and adapts to suit the situation seamlessly.
The nicest feature of Dark Horizon is the ability to customize your ship before leaving on a mission. You can select from an array of hull types, armour, reactors, shields, missiles systems and cannons. There are also extra slots for the odd power-up device.
How you can outfit your ship is governed by how much mass the hull can carry and how much energy the reactor generates. Taking a more powerful generator might allow you to carry more destructive weapons but it will mean that you won’t be able to take on heavier armour. Take a really hefty gun and you won’t have enough energy for missiles. It becomes a delicate balancing act but it’s extremely enjoyable finding out what works and what doesn’t. You may find yourself reloading a mission because the ship you took just doesn’t cut it. The mission briefings will help you to decide just what sort of fighter you will need.
Another cool feature here is the ability to dismantle unwanted components and use the parts to build better weapons and power-up devices. This system is very simple to use and can allow you to tailor your ship much further than you can with the stock parts.
Dark Horizon is a beautiful and easily accessible game that does justice to a genre, which has been woefully under-represented in recent times. For those of you who took great joy in dispatching Kilrathi in their droves then you will almost certainly find a welcome home among Dark Horizon’s Mirk-infested stars. It even has the playability and the looks to draw in plenty of gamers who have never played a space-sim in their lives. This is a superb space-opera even if there are no big cats in sight.