What could be a gorgeous and atmospheric sandbox is let down by terrible interface and controls.
By James Pinnell on December 12, 2013 at 7:47 am
It’s mindboggling to think that only a few short years ago, Minecraft was a tiny speck of an idea buried within the mind of a quiet, fedora wearing Swede. Its launch and subsequent viral spread championed a brand new genre where creativity and ingenuity took precedence over firepower and brute force. Since then, games like Terraria and more recently, Starbound, have broadened the base of these titles to include more complicated blueprints for crafting creations, alongside introducing more traditional forms of dungeon clearing and loot collection.
But not every new branch from the tree has borne fruit — games like Ace Of Spades, which attempted to combine FPS with block creation, and Cube World, which put more stock into the RPG side of things, both encountered serious problems with their design and execution.
The latest title to take a leaf from the Terraria-side of the family almanac is DarkOut, a thoroughly ambitious indie darling that has been shuffled through an extraordinarily long 2.5 year development period. But there’s been a lot to show for it — the game has a gorgeous art style, randomly generated environments with tons of biomes, bunkers with AI survivors, vehicles and a host of other goodies shoved into every algorithm that spawns a brand new world. This world is also notoriously creepy too; if you’ve ever seen Pitch Black, well, so have the developers — this planet is dark, dank and teeming with creatures primed to make your skin crawl. As in the film, light is an extraordinarily important factor to your survival, so much so that you’re given flares and a flashlight in your rookie pack of gear.
But here’s the rub, and this rub is becoming all too symptomatic of projects with heavily invested supporters and too much groupthink — the game does an absolutely terrible job of explaining anything to you. From the 1995-esque “click next for more text” tutorial, to the lack of information or guidance to how enemies spawn, to how the light structure works, or why enemies are attacking you before you’ve even had a chance to learn why your pistol shoots blanks. It doesn’t help that clicking ‘Next’ in the tutorial isn’t linked to any context, or that sometimes you can’t do the first task without deleting and recreating a new world and character, but also that your mouse is linked to view and the box sits on the bottom of the screen. Once you’ve managed to churn through the first part of the tutorial, however, you’ve already realised that the art of crafting in DarkOut is painfully bad.
The rule of thumb with creating complex crafting and build mechanics in games is twofold — explaining the basics to players so they can learn the more advanced functions and easter eggs on their own, and providing an interface which encourages easy creation without forcing the player to put their fists through expensive monitors. Minecraft actually failed this litmus test in its early builds, but let’s face it, it didn’t take long to realise that punching a tree bore wood.
DarkOut flaunts its extensive set of crafting opportunities with a massive menu that feels clunky and overwhelming — you can’t easily select a specific number of items to craft, for example, and whether your craft has been successful is indicated by a sound effect and an item in your inventory. Again, this is not new practise, but this in collaboration with other messy and broken components — not being able to select active tools with the mouse, being forced to mine three blocks instead of one in an irregular pattern etc — makes doing anything an enormous chore.
I spent an hour dying from enemies I wasn’t properly able to defend myself from, trying to build a basic shelter where certain blocks refused to match up, and where doors stacked leaving me unable to “mine” them out, before I grew so infuriated that I simply restarted the world and began from scratch. In these situations, I would find myself almost constantly jumping onto the Steam overlay to go into the community hub, sifting through threads of other confused and irritated players to read passive aggressive responses from the developer. Yes, it’s an indie game. Yes, it’s only $15 — but so is Terraria, and so is Starbound — both titles with supremely more intuitive craft mechanics, aims and scenarios.
DarkOut doesn’t really even win points for resource gathering either — it’s a massive grind made even worse by the constant need to switch tools, but not in a quick, fun, Minecraft style situation, but in a slow, angry, clicking, frustration filled slog through a random procedurally generated mush of dirt, ore and plants.
It doesn’t really matter that there is a river of genius flowing within the bowels of DarkOut. I’ve seen users and developers alike carry on about the inclusion of electricity, or special transport networks, on top of a host of other really cool crafting and base producing options, and that’s great to see. But all of it is entirely meaningless if cycling through your inventory, faffing about with your action bar, and trying to add or remove broken blocks together takes ten times longer than it should, or does in other comparable titles. Some users may have the time, the ability and the masochistic want to continually push through bad UI and UX in order to build their dream replication of a Super Metroid tunnel system. Most won’t, and will find themselves being derided by the minority for not having the “dedication” or “understanding of the game mechanics” to carry on.
There’s definitely a great game hidden within DarkOut‘s murky depths, and I can see it attempting to bubble to the surface. I love that it takes a much more dramatic turn away from generic fantasy and into sci-fi, with better more varied weapons and vehicles. Zooming around on a jetpack is great fun once you push your way through all of the hardships to make it that far, and finding a hidden lab buried 100 feet under the ground is a lot of fun to explore. But the inherent, fundamental problems with how crafting and building is done completely spoils the magic of the art, ruins the ingenious use of light to create suspense and fear, and dis-encourages you from finding the cool stuff hidden about the map because you just can’t be bothered to get that far.
Maybe once the developers fill in the cracks, we will be onto a winner that I can easily recommend and encourage players to participate in — but in its current form, DarkOut isn’t even close to that point. This isn’t 2002, and the standard excuses do not apply when there are others who have done what you have not.
- Great art, lighting and sprite design
- Lots of hidden gems buried throughout the landscape
- Very poor crafting and building systems
- Pointlessly difficult inventory and control system
- Terrible tutorial that omits a large bulk of basic information
- Quite a few bugs around enemy AI, item placement and stability
DarkOut is available on Steam for $14.99.
This review copy, and screenshots, provided by the developer.