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DarkStar One Preview

DarkStar One pack shot
Genre:Space Action Adventure
Official Site:http://www.darkstar-one.com/
Release Date:August 11, 2006 (UK)
Writer:James Barlow (Malis)
Order now at Amazon.co.uk

It's been some while since I played a space game. Brought up on the X-Wing series I eventually found myself playing X2: The Threat, a game which was almost perfect, but for some frustrating flaws. Tired of seeing countless space combat clones and suspecting nothing could topple the X2 or X3 for depth, I've shied away from the genre, waiting for it to progress and offer something new. Ascaron Etertainment's Darkstar One may just be the game to rekindle faith in space games.

Darkstar One is a space opera that puts you in the role of Kayron - a young man who inherits the titular Darkstar One - and experimental ship with fabulous properties. As the game progresses we get to learn how and why Kayron's father dies as his quest for the truth leads him across galaxies. The story is well-told through the use of cut-scenes. Special mention must be made on these, as they're simply outstanding. Not since Blizzard's traditionally exceptional cut-scenes have I watched anything so well animated and acted. The preview build was German with English subtitles, but remained compelling to watch. On top of this, the game is filled with such scenes - in fact most major story developments are accompanied by either an in-game cut-scene or a pre-rendered movie, which really drags you into the atmosphere of the story.

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But how does it play? Surprisingly the game plays in a similar vein to the classic Baldur's Gate series. Now, before you elf and goblin haters stop reading; let me be clear - this is not an RPG. But the basic structure of both games is very much comparable. Like Baldur's Gate, Darkstar One gives you an epic story to follow, one that will lead you across the galaxy. But at the same time, there is very much a controlled freedom given to the player. Something Baldur's Gate famously achieved was the illusion of grand freedom, by putting in masses of side quests and missions for the player to attempt. Darkstar One uses a similar system. Upon arriving at a new destination, the player is given a variety of choices. Do I dock at the space station and look for an informant to progress the main story? Shall I check the mission terminal and see if there's any work to be done in this sector? Can I buy some cheap goods here and make a profit selling them on in the next system? From escort duty to simple trading, there is a wealth of ways to earn money before continuing the main story. Many of the missions are tricky and epic in scope. One memorable early side-quest involved me helping some mercenaries clear a system of pirates. Not sure what I was getting myself in for I soon found myself weaving amongst a throng of fighters, trying to pick off smaller ships whilst staying clear of a steady stream of death coming from a pirate freighter's turrets. Later missions can snowball from simple freight running into a fierce battle for your life, so it pays to be on your toes.

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But why earn money? Simply put, the Darkstar One is far from a complete ship. Starting out with the bare minimum, there's a wealth of upgrade options. From generators to lasers, missiles to power diverters, (nothing like putting all power to the rear shields and punching it out of a dangerous situation!) cargo drones, to frequency jammers (to block police detecting smuggled goods if you choose to play that way), you'll constantly be tinkering with your ship. As mentioned earlier, the Darkstar One is an experimental ship, and does in fact gain 'level ups' through an interesting adaptation of classic RPG elements. These level ups are initiated by finding artefacts hidden inside asteroids. Once a certain amount are collected, the Darkstar One levels, and the player can choose to upgrade the ship in one of three areas; hull, wings and engines. These are in fact a cleverly disguised nod towards the RPG conventions of hit points, extra attacks, speed and so forth. Increase your hull and you'll find the Darkstar One becomes more stable, and can sustain more damage. Upgrade your wings and you'll notice increased agility or extra weapon slots.

Continuing the RPG vein, the Darkstar One has a unique weapon called the plasma cannon. Very much like a classic RPG talent tree, every level you get a point to put in the plasma cannon tree. Different paths give you different effects, from boosting weapons to sending out shockwaves. A good way to imagine it is to think of magic in space - in tough situations it can give you an edge, but it never feels overpowered. Those worried about the idea of magic whilst flying a deadly space fighter shouldn't worry. All of these RPG elements are seamlessly integrated into the game

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Graphically the game looks great, with some nice deep space mist effects, and satisfying explosions. There always seems to be something going on in a system - although there is perhaps I little over-reliance on asteroid fields to fill up a zone. Control wise, I really enjoyed Darkstar One. The ship comes with reverse and side thrusters, making it possible to effectively slide around space. Whilst this takes a bit of getting used to, it allows for some incredible combat moves. Nothing feels as satisfying as strafing an enemy, then power-sliding behind him and finishing off the job. Make no mistake, despite its RPG elements, Darkstar One is a tactile, skilled game - there's no rolling of dice here, just pure skill and reactions. There's plenty of opportunity for fighting too - often a cruiser will hail you asking for help in fighting off an enemy. Touches like this keep you on your toes and provide a sense that you're part of a bigger universe - and they give an excuse for some hugely entertaining space battles. You'll soon learn which ships you can comfortably handle, and which ones to avoid in a scrap.

So what do we have here? Darkstar One is, so far, a hugely enjoyable and entertaining action adventure. Battles are satisfying and indeed skilful; you'll be dieing to tell stories of outlandish maneuvers you managed to pull off for sure. The illusion of total freedom is extremely well presented, and there is a wealth of things to do. Total freedom, as seen in games like Oblivion and X3, is a great thing. But for those of us who don't have until the early hours every night, structured freedom can be just as good. Darkstar One allows you to progress in short bursts, really letting the player feel as though they're progressing. The RPG elements are incredibly well implemented and are a very natural, organic way to customise your ship to your play-style. Fans of space simulations, fans of action, or indeed just fans of gaming entertainment - this is definitely a game to watch.

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