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.You play as Kayron, your typical Luke Skywalker-esque aspiring pilot, living in a typical galactic United Nations future, with typical avenge-your-father quest. Luckily for Kayron, his dad willed him an advanced prototype starfighter called the DarkStar One, which has special abilities that Kayron will unlock during his travels. The story begins as cliché as they come, with Kayron setting out to discover the man who betrayed his father, and picking up a snarky female sidekick in short order.
The DarkStar is your primary window to the universe—all the gameplay takes place from its cockpit or in menus. Like most space sims the game has a massive star map which you use to plot your trajectory and explore the cosmos. The map is divided into clusters, similar to Mass Effect, and each has several individual star systems at varying distances from each other. Several stars are too far away to reach with your current equipment, so as you progress through the game you’ll have to continually replace your hyperdrive with newer, longer-range models. It’s a smart way to parse out the gameplay progression and does a good job of focusing your objectives early in the game.
Each system has its own trade station were you can land, repair, restock and take side missions. The side quests don’t give you anything but money, but there’s a decent variety of them and you can gauge the difficulty depending on the award posted, so they work sort of like an extended tutorial. Most clusters have their own dedicated side quest that deals with the local politics and factions, also accessible from the trade station.
The star map also helpfully highlights which systems have hidden artifacts within their asteroid fields. These literal glowing green rocks are the only way to upgrade the DarkStar One, and are usually secreted in large asteroids or are awarded for liberating a besieged system. Your ship is divided into three sections and upgrading each one grants you new levels and slots for equipment and weapons. You can also unlock and power up the ship’s plasma injector, which, after numerous upgrades, can drastically augment weapons, shields and other vital systems—a real life saver in a desperate battle.
Hunting for artifacts is kind of a pain at first and for the most part it’s necessary; you won’t get too far in with your puny starting equipment, and you can’t buy upgrades without the necessary levels. I kind of wish the game had a standard XP system, but then again finding the artifacts is easier than doing a dozen repetitive side quests, so it ultimately cuts down on grinding. You’ll also find yourself plotting the quickest course to systems containing artifacts, so you’ll end up visiting more systems in the end instead of glossing over huge swathes of the game.
There’s a healthy variety of things to do but some are more exciting than others. If you’re so inclined you can outfit your ship with cargo drones and turn it into a goods hauler, and do the buy low/sell high trading game that’s a staple of space sims. A mining module turns your weapons into rock cutters, so you can blast away at asteroids and debris and sell the valuable minerals inside. You can make a lot of money this way but it’s more fun to hunt pirates, which there is definitely no shortage of. More illicit jobs include sabotage, raids, surveillance photography, eavesdropping and the vindictive destruction of kindhearted traders who were too charitable with their cargo, but these jobs can skew your reputation to the negative side and even get you some unwanted attention from the space fuzz.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.