Dark Horizon Review

Dark Horizon is an improvement on its Tarr Chronicles predecessor, but that isn't saying much.

Has somebody airlifted a battalion of English teachers to Russia? It sure seems as though somebody at Moscow's Quazar Studios has been taking English lessons, because Dark Horizon is considerably less laughable than its 2007 predecessor, Tarr Chronicles. The first game in this series of spaceship shoot-'em-ups was chock-full of absurd metaphors, such as describing escaping enemies as fleeing "like puppies from a boiling cauldron." However, it's hard to give the game credit for cleaning up its grammar when the gameplay in this Wing Commander-style shooter with delusions of role-playing grandeur makes very few other improvements over last year's model. Mind-numbing dogfights, pitch-black visuals, and a general lack of direction in both storytelling and mission objectives make every hour spent with this game feel like a hundred.

The story is also still a big problem, even though the bizarre phrases and insane metaphors have been pruned back. The setting is still the far future, and the galaxy is still under assault by a matter-corrupting black cloud of something or other called the Mirk. Things aren't looking good for the survival of humanity, so you must help hold off this galactic scourge by signing on as a fighter pilot for the Mirk-influenced race of Guardians protecting the Vattar Ama'Dan space fortress. This tortured tale plays out in 20-plus solo missions (there are no multiplayer or skirmish modes of play). You fly a spaceship from either a cockpit view or a trailing-camera angle and use mouse and keyboard controls to blow up every Mirk-infected alien stupid enough to cross your path.

Dark visuals make it nearly impossible to tell where enemies are during frenzied battles, making collisions tough to avoid.
Dark visuals make it nearly impossible to tell where enemies are during frenzied battles, making collisions tough to avoid.

After spilling the above details in the opening cinematic, all attempts at coherent storytelling are pretty much abandoned. Both the in-game dialogue and the in-game encyclopedia available in your cabin between missions are peppered with unexplained concepts, such as the "psychomatrix," the "anti-being," and Mirk "spawn," which are just about impossible to follow. Your character never speaks, making the game even more distant and enigmatic. During dogfights, the story is developed solely through inscrutable conversations between your wingmen. The only thing that keeps your head from spinning is the fine work of the voice actors, who somehow manage to spout this gobbledygook without cracking up.

At least you can ignore this prattle and concentrate on what Dark Horizon is really all about: blasting stuff. The best part of the crazy storyline is that it has nothing to do with the gameplay a good 99 percent of the time. All of the generic space shoot-'em-up gameplay has been built around the good old Wing Commander formula, so you can tune out everything that your buddies are saying and simply lock on and attack enemies. Unfortunately, that's all you ever get to do. Every mission is loaded up with nonstop dogfights, so you whirl, twirl, and shoot through incessant waves of enemy assaults. It's all guaranteed to numb your brain in short order, as well as turn your mouse wrist into a throbbing mass of gristle because of the constant spinning and turning needed to stay on the tail of bad guys.

Even if you find some appeal in this simplistic approach, much of the action is spoiled by some major flaws. For starters, mission objectives are often mysterious to the point of being unfathomable. While sorties always give you some kind of basic purpose at the outset, like checking out a scanner signal, wiping out a flight of enemy fighters, or targeting shield generators on a capital ship, they tend to become drawn-out, multipart affairs, and you'll eventually need to rely on those impossible-to-understand wingmen to tell you what's next. You can get three or four objectives deep into a mission and then suddenly realize you don't have a clue what to do because your buddies are either making no sense whatsoever or have clammed up completely. Expect to restart a few times every time this happens, until you finally clue in to what you need to do. The automated save system exacerbates this whole problem too, because it stores your progress only every half-dozen or so dogfights, which leaves you frequently stuck replaying lengthy swaths of the game.

Combat itself is more than a bit screwy. There are some interesting concepts here at least, in that you can configure your ship with different armor and weapon loadouts before missions, as well as switch between three different battle modes during dogfights. Being able to change from the neutral, jack of all trades default ship setting to the offense-first Corter mode to the defensive Shadow cloak isn't all that useful when all you're ever doing is engaging in arcadey battles. About the only benefit you see here is from the odd use of Shadow mode to duck out of intense battles and hide until your shields recharge.

Dogfighting can be so chaotic and unrelenting that you can find your brain and mouse wrist going numb after an hour or so.
Dogfighting can be so chaotic and unrelenting that you can find your brain and mouse wrist going numb after an hour or so.

These battle frills are just about ruined by visuals that are very dark even for deep space. Unlike most other spaceship shooters, Dark Horizon does not try to light up the final frontier with loads of cool glowing nebulas. It doesn't even give you the option to mess with the gamma in the options menu. Everything seems to be backlit, which obscures fairly well detailed ships and sufficiently bombastic explosions behind walls of shadows. So unless you want to tweak the gamma settings in Windows (which seems to do little but wash everything out anyway), you're stuck with a gloomy game that makes it almost impossible to see where enemy ships are. Collisions are tough to avoid during dogfights, because it's all too easy to spin around and plow into an enemy you're shadowing. These fender-benders do a lot of damage on the default difficulty setting, too, so you have to avoid them at all costs. This forces you to choose between wading into the demolition-derby dogfighting at full speed and sitting back to lob missiles from long range. If you pick the former, chances are good that you'll get blown up real good, real fast. If you pick the latter, you'll increase the odds of survival but risk falling asleep from sheer boredom.

Perhaps the best choice is not to play the game at all. Dark Horizon is an undeniably subpar effort, although so few space dogfighting games are made for the PC today that it might still appear passable to anyone seeking to relive the Wing Commander/X-Wing/TIE Fighter era. But don't be fooled. Even with so few choices available in this genre today, this isn't a good game.

The Good

  • Generic space shooter formula still works

The Bad

  • Monotonous missions are filled with nonstop dogfighting
  • Objectives are often impossible to understand
  • Plot is overwrought nonsense
  • Visuals are too dark and devoid of detail

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