DarkStar One Review
|Genre:||Space Action Adventure|
|Release Date:||August 11, 2006 (UK)|
|Reviewer:||James Barlow (Malis)|
|Buy now at Amazon.co.uk|
When I last encountered Darkstar One I was impressed with what appeared to be a hugely entertaining game that promised to be the first really fulfilling action-orientated space game since Freelancer. Now, with the game finished, has the Darkstar One lived up to expectations? In many ways, yes it has, though it falls just short of the high standards it sets itself early on.
As you've no doubt noticed, Darkstar One looks gorgeous - this isn't a cold, dark space, but one saturated in colour and drenched in atmosphere. Explosions ripple out waves of heat before igniting, giving you clues before cruisers burst apart like supernovas. Ships arc gracefully across your field of vision, leaving behind multi-coloured jet trails. Asteroid fields hang densely providing an impressive backdrop for light from stars to filter through. I could go on, but you get the idea. Couple this stellar beauty with some cool-looking ship models, and graphically Darkstar One ticks all the right boxes.
You might remember from my preview the quality of Darkstar One's cut-scenes. These are incredibly well animated. What's more, there's plenty of them, every story point or dramatic event is accompanied by either an in-game cut-scene or CGI movie. The story itself concerns your character, Kayron, who inherits the titular Darkstar One, an experimental ship with organic, evolving properties. As you progress through the game, you'll quest for the man who killed your father, and maybe stop an interstellar war along the way.
The preview build I played featured German voice-acting. With the review code comes full English voice-over work. Sadly many of these voices do not live up to their German counterparts. It's often hard to say what's wrong, but they often just don't feel right. Still, it's an admirable effort, and the game is packed to the brim with speech - everything from story scenes and banter between ships, to your co-pilot enthusiastically crying with delight as you blast another pirate out of the sky. Other sound-effects remain convincing and robust. A solid story (though one that doesn't throw too many surprises) helps raise the level of immersion further.
Game-play wise Ascaron Entertainment have recognised absolutely what gamers want. Darkstar One is first and foremost an action game. Those hoping to trade their way through the game in the style of the X series, I'm sorry, this game isn't for you. At some point you'll have to get your hands dirty and dish out some pain. Yet while it remains a simple action game at core, Darkstar One does away with level-based missions and instead opts for a much more open-ended approach. I mentioned in the preview that this open-ended structure was an illusion of freedom, and that still holds true. Like many RPGs, Darkstar One has a linear route through the game, yet boasts an impressive array of side quests and missions for you to attempt. Just dock into a trade station and there's a wealth of missions to choose from, ranging from escort duty, pirate hunting or even just simple trade runs. Missions that start out simple can soon turn into epic adventures in their own right, culminating with massive battles and huge cruisers (many a time I merely intended to make a bit of cash, and found myself amid huge pitched battles between cruisers). There's just the right amount of freedom to go about and do what you want between story missions. Progress to later systems is hampered by 'keys' to warp gates which require you to complete story events, however you can travel back to every system in the game at any time should you so wish.
As you'd expect, doing side-quests gives rewards, and in this case it's money. Money makes the world go around and in particular, lets you upgrade your ship. The Darkstar One starts out with the barest of essentials, and it's up to you to turn it into an instrument of power. From the more obvious upgrades of weapons and missiles, to generators, power diverters, cargo drones and frequency jammers, there's always something to tweak on your ship. In addition to simple hardware upgrades, as the game progresses and you explore more, you'll stumble across alien artifacts. These items are hidden away inside giant asteroids, and your computer will tell you if there's one in the system. Once a certain amount are collected, the Darkstar One 'level ups', and the player can choose to upgrade the ship in one of three areas; hull, wings and engines. Increase your hull and reap the rewards of increased durability and stability, or increase wings for extra agility or weapon slots. It's a simple system and allows the player some extent of creativity when it comes to a ship to suit their play-style.
On top of evolving and leveling up, the Darkstar One also has a special weapon called the plasma cannon. By allocating points in the plasma cannon skill tree, players can access several powerful abilities - magic for a spaceship if you must label it. One early power simply boosts your weapons, allowing you to shoot for longer and more damage. Level up a bit though and you'll eventually have access to some seriously cool abilities like Timeshock, a blast which immobilizes enemy ships in time, leaving them stationary and easy targets. Knowing when to use your powers becomes a skill in itself, and I really enjoyed toying around with the plasma cannon.
If the game is sounding a bit too much like an RPG, don't panic. Darkstar One is all about action, and there's plenty of it. Whilst it's fun to make the occasional trade run, or smuggle drugs into a new system, the real pleasure in this game is space combat. Once you're weaving in and out of laser fire engaging the enemy, and desperately trying to re-route power to your dwindling shields, everything suddenly clicks. The action is fast and furious, and often just when you think you've held off against the odds, the game throws more enemies at you. Control is never an issue in the heat of the moment, in fact it's a blessing. Being an experimental ship, the Darkstar One is equipped with side and reverse thrusters, allowing you to slide with ease around space. Although this might sound strange on paper, in practice it makes for incredibly satisfying game-play as you pull-off some expert maneuvers to get one-up on your enemy. You're rarely alone out there either, with the game often throwing you headfirst into pitched battles between pirates and military. Sometimes there's so many ships on screen that it becomes a mission to simply avoid collision as you weave in and out of laser fire, asteroids and other fighters.
The first hours of Darkstar One are filled with gems of gaming moments, and you'll enjoy just blasting things apart in the beautiful environments. Sadly the pace of the game cannot be maintained until the end. Halfway through the game you'll start to notice that while very pretty, every system looks the same. They all have identical trade stations (differing only by racial type), a few research stations, and a smattering of asteroids. It becomes frustrating to fly through the same stock systems time and time again. Similarly, there is little evidence of life beyond the odd police patrol and attack pirates you see. Make no mistake, the action never lets up, but by the end of the game you'll be feeling a little tired. To their credit, Ascaron tries to incorporate something new - tunnel missions. These often find you flying down to the surface of a planet and flying out of a factory complex at high speed, Death Star trench style. While these can be entertaining, they remain poorly executed. You never actually see yourself flying down to the planet surface, instead you fly to a point in space and are dumped in the tunnel. If you're badly damaged before getting thrown onto the surface, there's no way to get back and repair yourself before attempting the difficult tunnel sections. There's little else to fault with Darkstar One, what it does, it mostly does well. Perhaps my only other complaint would be the slightly simplistic trading system, but as I mentioned earlier, this isn't really a trading game.
Darkstar One is a good game. Successfully merging explosive and exciting action with RPG elements, the game excels at giving the player epic battles and skillful fighter combat. Despite some repetitiveness in design (sadly a trap of any space game - space will always seem empty), and no real reason to warrant repeat playings, the game remains enjoyable and fun while it lasts. If you've not touched a space game in a while, or simply have an urge to deftly pilot a fighter against the backdrop of epic space battles, you could do much worse than give this game a look.
- Looks beautiful
- Exciting and action-packed combat
- Great balance between linear progression and freedom
- Seamless RPG elements
Not so good stuff
- Repetitive system structures
- Little replay value
- Areas such as trading could be made slightly more detailed