Dark Matter, a sci-fi horror game from the makers of Nuclear Dawn, is currently Kickstarting and I’ve played the opening parts of an early version. InterWave are keen to show that their game is more than grimdark Metroid and a few hours in its claustrophobic corridors demonstrate that it does have a mind and maw of its own.
I shouldn’t be here. Crawling through a vent, heading toward a blinking dot marked on my map, worrying about the cancerous eruptions and crawling beasts that have the most simple and terrifying of life cycles – often I see eggs, throbbing in the darkness, and then they hatch, a creature emerges, a mess of claws and flesh. It scuttles toward me, already hungry, ALWAYS hungry, and meets my shotgun’s emissaries, a fragmenting wall of metal death.
Dark Matter’s developers are proud of their critters and their behaviour. They react to light, hunt, flee and fight with more intelligence than the usual deep space denizen – or at least that’s the idea. In the early stages of the preview code, the only opponents are crawlers and, as the name suggests, they have one basic function. They hatch, the crawl, the attack, they die. And then they drop some resources.
The resources, which we’ll come back to later, mark one of the game’s deviations from the Metroid template. First, a further dissection of the alien life that is at least partly responsible for the derelict and debris-strewn status of the environments. The early encounters are simple cases of backing off and aiming for the thing-most-resembling-a-face, but larger creatures with ranged attacks and semi-sentient exploding bags of acid soon add variety. None of them are particularly intelligent and nor do they need to be, but the articulate and mysterious logs which are littered throughout the ship’s interior hint at greater dangers to come.
There are two distinct threats lurking in the shadows and the scavengers, the first that the player encounters, are the most traditional. They’re the alien equivalent of an Englishman wearing a bowler hat, carrying a brolly and sipping tea while buttering a crumpet and cheering on Newington Boys Club in a game of county cricket. Fans of vent-dwelling and organ-chomping, they’d be welcome members of the Claw, Tooth and Acid Club, had it not gone out of business shortly after the Hacienda closed its doors.
It’s the second class of enemy that is the most intriguing – they’re parasites of the mind and soul rather than the body, at least that’s what I glean from the tales told of them in the logs I’ve discovered. Again, it’s worth mentioning the strength of the writing but, as is ever the case, quality text does highlight The Absurdity of the Log as Narrative Tool, which will be the name of my upcoming dissertation. Grammatically perfect and inventively constructed paragraphs of prose that are often written by crewmembers who lost a limb, moments before cracking their remaining knuckles and firing up the Word Processor to elucidate on the matter.
As far as the preview is concerned, it’s mostly bug-blasting, or at least the combat side of things is. Although InterWave’s creature designs are more inventive than many of the usual suspects, there is, at least in these early stages, not quite enough interesting use of the environments to elevate combat beyond pointing, running and shooting. That said, the keyboard and mouse controls deserve mention. I actually dove straight into the menu and configured my joypad, assuming it’d be the best way to play, but noticed that, against the fashion of these things, every tool tip in game informed me of a mouse or keyboard button to press.
I relented and was wise to. Fully configurable key commands and smooth mouse aiming were my reward, and as I stalked the corridors, my mind flashed back to Abuse. Admittedly, it’s the running and gunning of that game dropped into a blender with a large hunk of Dead Space and then poured into a Samus-shaped glass. The Metroid influence is strong, in the cutaway maps particularly, which elegantly highlight objectives and make it clear which areas are open for exploration, and which require repairs to be made elsewhere or equipment to be recovered. Progress often involves going from point to point to collect keycards or fix power nodes, with very little backtracking required, at least in these early stages.
The crafting system, simple as it is, could well be the biggest change to the formula. The weapon mods, in particular, allow for the creation of entirely new firearms. While crafting is a case of gathering basic resources that are transformed into everything from medikits to bullets rather than a complex ingredient-based system, it does require decision-making. Rather than finding missiles, for example, there may be a choice between crafting tools or weapons in order to circumnavigate an area. I hoarded medikits, making fresh ones at every opportunity, but the Bioshock-esque reforming machines that instantly throw the ensign back into the action made me wish I’d spent my scrap on shotgun shells instead.
Death is problematic, although not for the obvious reasons. One of Dark Matter’s goals is to combine survival horror with side-scrolling sci-fi exploration, but death and damage often feel like irritations rather than the terrible consequences of a failed plan or missed shot. The consequences of failure are slight and every obstacle, whether monstrous or mechanical, can be approached with the confidence of an immortal. This problem isn’t unique to Dark Matter but it does somewhat undermine the tension that the game otherwise works hard to engineer.
The lighting is effective – dark areas are actually dark and the flashlight beam cuts them open like a scalpel rather than eradicating them entirely. Scavengers are drawn to light and angered by it, so shooting sources of illumination is a viable tactic and often a necessary way to halt the tide when a spawning location is discovered.
While the early build is still slightly clumsy, particularly when jumping (which is only necessary when clambering over debris or crates), the environment is attractive and the interplay between the AI and the Ensign is enjoyable. Odd to think of it as ‘interplay’ because the Ensign doesn’t speak – her character is in her will to survive and role in the world. The AI does enough talking for the two of them though, alternately encouraging and patronising, occasionally reflecting on the histories of the dead.
I didn’t expect to enjoy Dark Matter as much as I have done, which is why I’ve quibbled about its flaws at such length. It does have the appearance of a dirtier, more horrific Metroid, but there is enough invention to make it more than a mash-up of other peoples’ ideas. The survival aspect is reliant on the crafting system and on well-placed save points to set the pace, and it’s easy to see how both of those features could be expanded upon and refined in the later stages, particularly when more enemy types are introduced. What does work, already, is the exploration. The map is clear but the way is not and while progression is rarely difficult, reaching new areas is rewarding.
Finding items, modifying weapons and then discovering a new way to die. That’s the essence of Dark Matter and if the enemies do become ever stranger and more dangerous, as promised, then it’ll be a shame if we never get to see them. With less than a tenth of the funding in place, the Kickstarter hasn’t attracted enough attention yet. And that’s a shame, because as well as being more than the sum of its inspirations, it’s a proper PC game that wants to be customised and to have a mouse pointed at it. The design is handsome too, with a sci-fi aesthetic that feels lived-in and functional rather than shiny and unreal.
Thirteen days to go, forty five grand to raise. Stranger things have happened.