In space, everyone can hear you scream. And judging by the amount of radio chatter, you can hear everyone else too in this space combat simulation.
Dark Horizon is a bit like the old Wing Commander series in that you are a new pilot on the deck of a spaceship aircraft carrier, tasked with going out on seemingly impossible missions to defend the galaxy from an unbeatable enemy known simply as "The Mirk."
But in fact, Dark Horizon is a bit more than that. I was expecting a tiny bit of a plot that would be superseded by a heavy emphasis on action. That is pretty much the pattern for similar games like Privateer, the aforementioned Wing Commander, Freelancer, Freespace and Darkstar One. But in fact, here the plot is pretty central to the game, to the point that you are given volumes of background material to read in your bunk before the game even gets started. The plot is further revealed in copious cut scenes (shown in black and white for moody emphasis) throughout the game and even on missions as your chatty wingmen wax poetic about the fate of their doomed universe. It all gets a little bit heavy at times, but I have never been one to turn away a detailed plot, and Dark Horizon is certainly one of the more filled in worlds I’ve visited in recent memory.
Not to simplify the game world too much, but basically the entire universe is being eaten by a dark force known as The Mirk. It swallows entire planets and infects people too. Scientists have found a way to combat it, but need time to get their super weapon online. Your job is to protect the eggheads at their space station long enough to enable people to start fighting back. Those of you who played the Tarr Chronicles will recognize the plot almost right away, as Dark Horizon takes place 100 years before that game, before people learned how to combat The Mirk effectively.
Unlike Privateer-type games, you are not given much non-linear freedom here. Missions are assigned to you and it’s your job to complete them. You won’t be able to stop by Desmos 5 to check out the local spas or to grab a load of high quality ore for sale at an industrial planet. You are too busy fighting a war. However, you are given an amazing amount of freedom in customizing your ship, which is a little odd given that most militaries frown on doing things like adding extra guns to your fighter.
Customization is actually one of the most fun parts of the game. There is an officer who will help you out if you need it, but it’s much more fun to try things yourself. As you go on missions you will acquire new guns and weapons, which can either be mounted to your ship or broken down into their component elements – the officer will dissemble a few weapons per day for you – and built back up into something more useful.
As with anything, there are advantages and flaws to any new weapon scheme. More powerful guns might generate more heat for example, though if you are patient and collect the correct components, you can sometimes upgrade to a more powerful weapon that actually is more efficient. If you don’t feel like doing all that under the hood stuff, you can simply slap on the biggest weapons you can find and probably be okay, though I bet my customized ship would perform better.
Once you launch on your first mission, you are going to be amazed by the graphics. Space is filled with colorful nebulas, bright stars and fantastic-looking planets. And the ships are highly detailed as well. I think this may be the best looking space environment I have seen in a long time, with a much more detailed slant as opposed to the somewhat cartoon-like graphics found elsewhere.
The AI is not horrible, but not too smart either. The enemies seem to ram into your ship a fair amount, which you would think would be something that is best avoided. I know I was trying not to ram them, but ended up having quite a few collisions on most missions.
Your wingmen seem like good people, and their constant talking actually never gets repetitive since they are always saying different things for the most part. They are even tasked with advancing the plot from time to time. But they are a little stupid when it comes to combat. They seem to know how to fight, but not how to follow orders. If you tell them to defend you, they will for a while, but then go off chasing bad guys to rack up their own kills. So you have to constantly give them new orders, even if it’s just the same orders as before, to keep them refreshed. I don’t think telling your flight leader that the reason you left their cheese in the wind was because "you forgot" that you were supposed to protect them would wash in most air forces, but apparently in Dark Horizon it’s perfectly okay.
To compensate for being alone a lot when your wingmen rush off to do their own things, your ships have two abilities that are universal. By manipulating the temperature of your ship, you can activate two special abilities. If you cool your ship down a great deal, you go into shadow mode, which makes you almost invisible to enemy sensors. You don’t actually go invisible and occasionally enemies will still pick you up visually, but turrets and other automated defenses will let you pass every time. Also, when you are in this mode your weapons fire much, much slower, so you can’t really dogfight when you are being stealthy. If you go the other direction you move into Corter mode, which I think was named after a famous pilot who used it once. In Corter mode your weapons fire like machineguns, even the really heavy cannons on your ship, so you can use this to tear up tough opponents. The downside is that your shields quickly bleed off to nothing, so you can dish it out, but can’t take it for long. Moving between modes is also not instantaneous; it takes a little time for the temperature to change, so you can’t just switch in and out of those special modes on the fly.
There are also two views in which you can play the game, and its best to switch out between them from time to time depending on the situation. The chase cam is probably what you will use most of the time since it gives you a good field of view. But you can also move into the cockpit for a first person effect. Each mode has some really nice graphics associated with it. The cockpit view is probably more fun, but the chase cam view is probably more functional.
What makes Dark Horizon work is that the little flaws in the combat engine are balanced out perfectly by the highly detailed world and strong plot, which is revealed to you in a variety of ways including background text, cut scenes, and even in-cockpit voice dialogue. It’s one of those games that will hook you in and have you playing just one more mission to see what happens next. And of course that one more mission becomes one more and one more, until it’s suddenly morning and you forgot to go to bed. Especially if you like space simulations, Dark Horizon is that good. I much prefer the "full freedom of exploration" type titles to the linear plot type ones, and even I found a good home in Dark Horizon’s brooding, deep world.