Formats: Xbox 360
Once upon a time, there was a little genre called Space Simulations. Games like Elite, Freelancer, X and I-War crowded store shelves and allowed us to explore masterfully-crafted universes at our own pace; trading and battling our way to bigger ships and a brighter tomorrow. These days, however, the once-great genre has all but disappeared; forcing its dwindling fanbase to replay past glories or invest in the outrageously complex EVE Online. Console owners have had the rawest deal, with publishers simply unwilling to take the risk on a dying genre.
But finally, we can return to the wild black yonder courtesy of Kalypso's remastered Xbox 360 port of DarkStar One. Stepping into the airtight boots of Kayron Jarvis, you'll take ownership of the titular DarkStar One Fighter and embark on an epic journey of revenge, betrayal and exploration.
DarkStar One offers you the same sandbox gameplay formula as its illustrious forebears: make money, explore the galaxy, pimp out your whip and (if you can be bothered) advance the storyline. As with most space sims, you'll primarily earn money by accepting randomly-generated subquests, killing pirates, accepting bounties, escorting cargo vessels and trading on the stock market. Intuitive menus and at-a-glance icons take the traditional hassle out of working out exchange rates, stock market prices and target selection; allowing you to cut through the red tape and get right down to business.
Compared to the X series, EVE and the original Elite, DarkStar One is exceptionally accessible and user-friendly. Just select a mission, choose your destination and you'll be stuck into the action in no time. A handy time-dilation feature removes the tedium from travelling long distances. Most of the missions eventually descend into manic dogfights, but since it's aimed at the console crowd, this can only be a good thing. As with any Space Sim or RPG, however, these missions soon become extremely repetitive and grindy... but that's the nature of the beast. If you enjoy RPGs and sandbox games, you'll probably relish what Darkstar One has to offer.
In terms of presentation, DarkStar One is a mixed bag. The textures and skybox (or spacebox, I suppose) have been sumptuously revamped and look absolutely beautiful, but pitched battles occasionally trigger some sputtering and markedly reduced framerate. Most shockingly, however, the abysmal voice acting hasn't been completely overhauled. Every character's voice work teeters between being unintentionally hilarious or teeth-grindingly horrible- and they just don't shut up. Enemies and copilots alike will fling cheesy, badly-inflected epithets at anyone who'll listen. You know the Alien tagline "In space, no one can hear you scream?" God, I wish that were true.
Manipulating the ship in full 3D space soon feels natural on a controller, but the layout is very different from what most players will be used to. Whilst steering and staying on target is an absolute breeze (thanks, in part, to an intuitive reverse thrust manoeuvre that lets the Darkstar One turn on a dime), the throttle controls are extremely offputting. You've basically got two options: jam the throttle on full blast or switch your engines off completely. Applying the limited afterburner or the unbelievably useful speed match function grants you a little more control, but as a flight sim fanatic, the lack of scalable throttle control feels a little off. Don't be deterred, though: it's still a valiant and successful effort at mapping complex joystick controls to a gamepad.
As all veterans (or, dare I say, Elites) will know, the main meat of any Space Sim is the ship customisation. Whilst you're stuck with the same vessel for the game's duration, the Darkstar One is actually a character in its own right. Collecting alien artifacts allows you to evolve the fighter in a number of different ways; essentially levelling it up much like an RPG class. For example: putting upgrade points into the hull bulks out the Darkstar's hitpoints and makes room for voracious AI turrets, whereas sticking them into the wings allows you to mount more direct weaponry. The ship visually changes depending on your choices, granting you a genuine sense of reward and satisfaction after acquiring some hard-earned artifacts.
However, this reliance on artifacts is a double-edged sword. Your ship's level governs the caliber of weapons and equipment you can buy... so whilst you'll always get a kick out of evolving the Darkstar One, you'll frequently find yourself with a huge amount of money and literally nothing to spend it on. What's more, there aren't enough artifacts to fully round out the Darkstar One and only a surprisingly limited selection of incremental upgrades to play with (which tend to stay along the lines of Laser Level 1, Laser Level 2, Laser Lev...you get the idea). Whilst the upgrade system is undeniably accessible, it also lacks the depth you might expect from a traditional sim.
But at the end of the day, who cares? The once-impregnable genre has been distilled down to its meaty core and has been made intuitive enough for console owners to enjoy without expensive flight controllers and a manual the size of The Old Testament. Darkstar One delivers dozens of hours of pirate killing, cargo transporting, shrewd trading and tense dogfighting- and is everything you could wish for from a Space Sim.
- Accessible controls, combat, trading and customisation open up the genre
- An enormous, attractive galaxy to explore and conquer
- It's a Space Sim! On a console! FINALLY!
- Horrible voice acting, even outside cutscenes
- Newcomers to the genre may find it extremely repetitive
- Ship customisation isn't as deep as it first appears
The Short Version: Finally, a fantastic fully-featured Space Sim has made it to a next gen console. If you're a fan of the wild black yonder and pine for the days of freeform space exploration then you should consider this a killer app. However, only time will tell whether DarkStar One is or the first of many new space shooters... or the last of a dying breed. Frankly, without a huge shift in publishing priorities, I fear it will be the latter.