You don’t see many spaceflight sims anymore. The golden days of Tie Fighter, Wing Commander and Elite are long passed, and in the intervening years the genre has fallen by the wayside. Space sims were set to make a comeback early in the new millennium with the highly ambitious Freelancer, but ever since then the only enduring presence has been the X series. It’s a real shame, with so many legendary games in the genre and a heritage dating back to Atari’s venerable Star Raiders, but I think the space sim’s faded significance has something to do with the industry’s shift to console gaming.
For one, space sims are usually complex and are not the easiest games to get into. This nature typically demands an extensive control scheme, allowing the precise coordination of ship systems, commands and maneuvers. It’s easy to map this kind of control to a keyboard, mouse and maybe a well-designed flight stick, but cramming this complexity into a home console controller usually yields disastrously cumbersome results. Look no further than 2006’s muddled, sluggish Star Trek Legacy for what can go wrong.
Bad controls can ruin a decent space sim like ST Legacy, but curiously enough another game in the genre came out in the same year. DarkStar One hit most of the right notes on the PC, and is considered a solid, if not exceptional entry in the spaceflight field. In a gutsy move, Kalypso Media and Gaming Minds have ported the game to the Xbox 360 as the revamped, refreshed DarkStar One: Broken Alliance. The game has seen numerous touch-ups and the addition of new content, but most striking of all is just how well it takes to the 360.
Whatever you say about DarkStar on the 360, you have to admit it has damn good controls for a console space sim. Throttle is mapped to the right analog stick, and while you don’t have the precise control you’d get from a flight stick, you can still select reverse, neutral, full and goose the afterburners for a speed boost. You fire missiles, activate your special weapons and control basic targeting with the face buttons, while the D-pad handles weapon cycling and communications.
Most of the advanced features are on two radial menus, opened by holding the left and right bumpers. This makes it quick and simple to access your target list, open your logbook, or activate any special technology you’ve installed. This consolidates most extraneous complex commands and puts them within easy reach; it’s not as extensive or versatile as Tie Fighter, but it gets the job done remarkably well on the 360.
For a console gamer, DarkStar’s controls are a superb first impression for a game that admittedly wasn’t all that original even four years ago when it arrived on the PC. The game borrows heavily from the giants of its genre so if you’re a fan of space sims like me, there isn’t a whole lot here to surprise you. This doesn’t mean the game is bad or boring; it’s more like sitting down to one of your favorite comfort food dishes which has been prepared a little differently, rather than trying a new dish from your favorite chef.
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