DarkStar One has serviceable combat gameplay—which is good considering you do a LOT of it—but it never reaches the heights of other space sim giants. Enemies are on the whole pretty dumb, and upping the difficulty only increases weapon damage, not AI. Surviving a firefight with multiple pirates largely depends on how advanced your ship is in relation to your enemies, rather than your dogfighting prowess.
In addition to front-firing cannons most ships (including your own when you reach the right level) have auto-targeting, auto-firing turrets. Even when your crosshairs aren’t on a pirate, your turrets will often be laying down constant weaker fire and conversely you’ll be absorbing the same from enemies, so precise aiming and accuracy aren’t crucial to winning. It’s more about having shields and power generators strong enough to survive the barrage, so you’ll find yourself upgrading to the latest tech every couple of clusters so that you can stay in the fight. Other space sims, like the masterful Star Trek Bridge Commander, worked wonders with this idea by focusing on capital ship combat, but Bridge Commander still put a heavy emphasis on strategy. DarkStar One has much more of an arcade feel.
It’s a little disappointing considering that back in the mid 90s I was sweating it out against deviously maneuverable aces and weathering punishing cruiser assaults in Tie Fighter. That said, DarkStar One’s simpler combat works well in a console game, and in some ways is more realistic—oftentimes stronger guns and defenses are the only way to beat long odds, just like the 10+ against 1 skirmishes you routinely find in DarkStar.
I wish I could say DarkStar builds as compelling and nuanced a universe as Mass Effect, but that isn’t entirely the case. While the galaxy has plenty of colorful politics and the story quickly twists and turns its way out of the simple clichés it starts with, the overall flavor is a bit campy. The voice acting sounds like it came from an 80s GI Joe cartoon—it isn’t bad, per se, but the delivery is very over-acted and the timing for some lines is almost laughably bad. It gives the game a sort of low-budget space opera charm, but makes it very hard to take the human leads seriously, much less the goofy aliens. Sadly, you don’t find the dignity and serious drama that Commander Shepard is immersed in. It’s also interesting to note that this game must have been originally developed in the UK; the humans and even the aliens all speak in a variety of English, Irish, Scottish or Welsh accents. It’s pretty funny to have a lumpy-headed alien cursing at you in a Scottish brogue as you blast his ship to smoldering slag.
DarkStar’s graphics are noticeably dated but they hold up pretty well and construct an attractive, immersive galaxy. Each star system is functionally pretty similar to the rest—trade and research stations, a nearby debris or asteroid field, maybe a pirate stronghold or sensor anomaly. It’s the visuals that set these places apart, though; breathtaking planetary backdrops, radiation-spewing singularities, crackling electrical storms, stellar dust clouds and dense belts of rock, crystal and metal, maybe left over from a shattered moon or some catastrophic space battle. There is a lot of repetition in Darkstar, both in locations, missions and plain old gameplay, and it’s fair to say there’s more style than actual variety, but it’s an enjoyable galaxy to explore nonetheless.
In fact that’s a good way to sum up DarkStar One. It’s dated, has more camp than dignity, its gameplay is fairly repetitive and isn’t as involved as its genre-defining predecessors. For some reason, though, I was still hooked on it for a good two weeks and could barely pull myself away to write this review. It takes the bare elements of what made the genre great—combat, trading, an engaging story—and distills it down into a simpler form that is still a lot of fun and no less addictive. As a console space sim it successfully translates that formula into a natural, intuitive experience—no small achievement for the genre, and as far as I know, a unique one for the 360. You really aren’t going to find anything quite like it elsewhere in the 360 library, at least no games that do it as well.
If you’re an old fan of the genre like me, DarkStar One will fit you like a well-worn flightsuit. Conversely, if you’re looking to get into space sims this game’s somewhat streamlined gameplay is a good starting place. It’s an artifact of an older age in more ways than one, but I’m hoping it sparks new interest in space sims, serving as a blueprint and inspiration for a new, more ambitious generation of games.
* The product in this article was sent to us by the developer/company for review.
DarkStar One: Broken Alliance is a bit repetitive, but it has enough variety and the gameplay is easy enough to get into that the experience is very addictive. More than the sum of its parts, DarkStar One is a successful translation of the complicated space sim genre onto a console, a real rarity on the Xbox 360. Definitely worth a look for seasoned space jockeys and newcomers alike.
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