The free-roaming space simulation genre has never really taken off on modern consoles. There was the Wing Commander series… but that’s about it. So immediately, Darkstar One has something going for it, and is the first of its kind on 360. You are the lamentably-named Kayron Jarvis, space pilot and owner of the Darkstar One, a high-tech ship built with alien technology. Your father died in mysterious circumstances during a mission, and you’ve left your training at flight school to hunt down the saboteurs who caused his death.
But you don’t have to focus entirely on progressing the story. This is an open-world game (or, er, open galaxy), and you can play at your own pace. The next story mission is always clearly marked, but there is a wealth of optional jobs to distract you. You could help the local police clear out pirates, or transport a cargo container through a dangerous sector. Maybe you want to do some mining to earn credits for a new missile launcher? Or hunt down a dangerous bounty? There’s a lot to do.
The universe in Darkstar One feels alive. In each system you’ll see dozens of other craft – both friendly and non-friendly – moving through space, all of whom can be hailed and communicated with. Sometimes they’ll hail you and you’ll find yourself in the midst of a side-mission without even knowing it. There’s a real sense of place, and it all looks surprisingly good, with a slick framerate and gorgeous celestial vistas. Getting between systems is as easy as mapping the route on your star map and making a hyperspace jump, although you need a faster jump drive to access the darkest corners of space.
The problem is, play for two hours and you’ll have seen everything the game has to offer in terms of gameplay. Every mission, no matter what the back story, is a variation on a theme: whether it’s cargo running, escorting an NPC or a straight-up space battle. And there are a lot of space battles in this game, and you’ll spend most of the game chasing TIE fighter-shaped pirate ships and listening to the ceaseless ‘pew-pew’ of your plasma cannon.
It’s a good thing the combat is decent, otherwise the whole thing would have fallen apart from the outset. This is a port of a cult PC game, but you’d never know it: controlling your ship with the sticks feels wonderfully responsive and natural. You can speed and slow down with the right stick, and use the left stick while holding LT to pitch, strafe and roll. To make aiming easier, a lock-on system has also been implemented, which judges how much you have to ‘lead’ each enemy, based on their direction and velocity.
As you progress through the game, your enemies will get bigger, and you’ll be going up against cruisers and battleships as well as single fighters. Luckily, credits earned from bounties and escorts can be spent on missile bays and system upgrades, which make you faster and stronger. There’s a real sense of progression, and you really do feel the Darkstar evolving as you play.
But the vastness of the play area and the abundance of upgrades feel wasted on such simplistic gameplay and mission structure. Upgrading should be your primary motivation, but there’s always the niggling thought that all your toil will amount to nothing more than an easier battle ahead, and a bigger credit reward.
There’s fun to be had in creating your own ‘class’ of ship: giving it fast engines and powerful rear shields for fast-paced cargo container thievery, which makes escaping the space-cops easier, or eschewing weapons for a bulky hull and all-over shields for cargo transport. But you’ll soon grow weary of the distinct routine the game falls into. The plot is decent, but not enough of a motivation. This is a big game with big ideas – but from a small developer. You can’t help but wonder what these guys would do with a Call of Duty-sized budget.
As it is, Darkstar One ultimately feels disappointingly limited, when it should be an epic voyage of discovery and adventure. But developers should take note: space sims do work on consoles… so let’s have some more.
Jul 15, 2010