Darkstar One Review (PC)

Seen by some as the “successor” to Microsoft’s Freelancer space action adventure, Darkstar One delivers more depth in some areas but sorely lacks in other perhaps more crucial parts.

Pirate scum ahoy! Darkstar One with the Shield Boost ability

We start the game straight away with the Darkstar One as our ship which was left to Kayron from his late father. How exactly our characters dad managed to come across this deadly alien craft is never really explained but I wasn’t going to argue. It’s a cool looking ship and is beautifully detailed in a black and yellow colour scheme.

After the initial movie we can take up three different tutorial assignments which ease us into the gameplay. The first is more of simple flight and just getting to know your controls which aren’t hard to get the hang of but may just seem awkward. The next is some combat with the casual pirate scum and finally a little trade mission.

After the last tutorial we also get to secretly speak to our guide and he informs us that the Darkstar One is indeed very special. Hidden (to a degree) in asteroids are artefacts which can be absorbed by our ship for upgrades. There are 100 artefacts in total (almost a GTA hidden packages deal) with the location of each displayed on the navigation chart. Depending on which level you’re climbing to will determine how many of these green crystal artefacts you need. When you have enough you can improve the ship in three areas, hull, wings or engines.

The ship physically transforms with each improvement so it grows bigger and better as you go along. It makes for impressive viewing in the later stages, but you decide the exact “path” the Darkstar One takes. Do you want an agile fighter? Increase the wings every chance you get and you’ll see not only can the ship hold more front weapons but its agility increase. Engines will improve energy recharge rates for the weapons and shields and reduce cargo inertia. Hull upgrades will beef the ship out and let you place on automated turrets and get a substantial boost to the health of your ship.

This adds a great role playing element as you shape the Darkstar One into your preferred playing style. At certain levels additional rewards become active as well, like a 10% damage bonus to your turrets if you upgrade to hull rank 5. You can soon see an almost completely different ship which each improvement.

The downside is that this is the only ship available to you. Now Freelancer fans will know that a great staple was the choice of a new ship. This let us spice things up more with a completely new toy to throw around and arm up which added an extra sense of adventure as you went searching for that “ultimate” craft.

Cargo isn’t stored aboard the Darkstar One, instead little drones will fly out and attach to the cargo. It will then be drawn along by the ship externally and the amount of drones you can command depends on the class of your cargo equipment. As the ship upgrades it can start to take on higher classes of systems, weapons and equipment. So in the early days you’ll only be able to transport a single container. Inertia is also a factor as speeding or slowing down is affected greatly unless you decide to improve the engines.

A critical thing to remember is when a fight comes your way, drop the cargo as otherwise you’ll be at a great disadvantage as your agility is laughable. You can easily pick up your trade afterwards just be careful not to accidentally blast it into dust.

Graphically this game is great with lighting effects, shadows, textures etc. Lasers firing, explosions ripping around you can create a great thrilling atmosphere during battles especially against 6 or 7 foes at once. Sadly I think a patch or two will be needed as some systems are more draining than others. There are some technical glitches on occasion, one asteroid field had a greyish hue to it which kept switching on and off rapidly.

Trade stations look big and vary slightly in design except when you enter another races system then the change is huge. A little but great feature is requesting to dock and having a stream of lights guide you in as a runway. This of course can be bypassed altogether if you buy the landing computer upgrade, depending on which class you have determines how far away the computer will automatically land for you.

Station interiors are great, though you don’t change “rooms” inside the stations they have been cleverly designed to look busy and well populated. They carry announcements which could be hints on trading, warnings on certain cargo restrictions or informing all that a 6 ton cargo vessel is incoming. This is quite impressive and there are a variety of environments the game chooses from, each race has their own interiors and all look the part.

“Freelancer done right” has been one statement about Darkstar One. As a Freelancer fan myself I found this to be an incredibly bold gamble. The question is of course, is it actually an improvement on Freelancer with little to no drawbacks? The answer is a big no, overall this is most certainly not Freelancer done right. However it does deliver a better façade to repeating missions from stations.

A lot of criticism to Freelancer circled around the mundane repetitive nature of the optional missions like bounties for example. Darkstar One manages to make each one feel slightly more unique even though they aren’t which is great. However Freelancer still reigns supreme on one key issue which ultimately makes the game what it is.

Exploration. Darkstar One has an absolutely minimal sense of exploration and certainly no hidden treasures to be plundered. Each system could almost feel cloned, as they each have a trade station, in more or less the same place. Even the star (sun) is in the same location each time. As soon as you’ve jumped in, everything you can immediately see around you is basically it in terms of “exploration”.

Freelancer had each system designed uniquely with trade routes, carrying you from shipyards, battleships, planets and jump gates. Most had nebulas with hidden secrets or treasures to be plunder in the hope of getting a kick ass new weapon. There is almost one way Darkstar One attempts to address this but fails to deliver, and that is pirate “gangs”.

When you enter a system and land on a trade station you can look through the terminal and view the “news”. Chances are they’ll be obvious clues where to find gangs in certain systems. When you approach one such gang which usually “hide out” by their pirate base or a shipwreck, you’ll be hit with an initial wave. These are generally easy which leads to a smaller second wave and then finally the boss. Now when you’ve valiantly vanquished the boss which is usually much tougher, they’ll drop a special cargo container.

These cargo containers hold a secret service weapon which is a significant improvement from what you can buy at stations. Sadly this removes any real challenge as once you’ve wasted a few gangs, and their bosses have conveniently dropped top rate guns or turrets in whatever current weapon class you’re in, you don’t need to use your wealth.

Now here is were Freelancer shines, in order to get top notch weaponry not available commercially, you’d have to explore systems especially their nebulas for hidden treasure ships in the hopes of finding classified weaponry. You’re too easily rewarded in Darkstar One which is a great shame; it removes the sense of accomplishment.

Mother of all motherships The Galaxy at the click of a button

Each ship you blow up won’t drop any cargo unless it’s a trader in which case they’ll drop their goods. So unless you plan on buying weapons or want to go hunt gang bosses you’ll get no swag! Yet again I go back to Freelancer, which let you scavenge through your fallen foes, be it weaponry, systems or general cargo.

Sounds are a picky subject, the music which plays (when it plays) is great and compliments your space faring adventures well. Explosions are fine, lasers blasting away etc – all great except there is one HUGE irritation. Voiceovers are at best, cringe worthy and incredibly cheesy. In fact the whole story looks like it pinches elements from various sources then slaps them together with absolutely awful dialogue.

I couldn’t find myself actually caring for the characters whatsoever and was only fuelled with my passion to upgrade the Darkstar One into the ultimate form I could. Even then my dreams were shattered to learn that you can only go up to level 20 and not reach an uber level 30.

6 different races make up the galaxy and you’ll be interacting with all of them in your quest to either save everyone or just so you can unlock all the cluster systems. If you want to freely navigate all known reaches of space in the game you must follow through with the story. Jumping to another system doesn’t require you to use a jump gate but a drive. These light year drives only let you hop a couple of systems at a time, with later models available through the storyline, letting you reach even further. Also each system requires a key which is how you’re limited to movement in the beginning.

This means in order to reach system F for example you don’t need to travel from A through E but could hop to D and then onto F. Once you complete the game you’ll be rewarded with a zero point drive which lets you jump to any system in any cluster you want. This is great for moving across the galaxy with ease but it makes it just too easy as you don’t feel “connected”, in an odd sense it almost feels like your cheating.

Each of the races has their own quirky personality traits, the Raptor are lizard like and really ssspeak with emphassssiss. The Arrac are completely obsessed with procedure and are hive mind inclined. So this offers a variety of speech from missions or just general battle taunts. Sadly as I said before the cheesy factor is huge and some voiceovers are nothing but damn annoying.

A sidetrack from the usual space missions are the odd occasion you’ll fly down to a planet. These special missions are usually quite long and require a lot of ducking and weaving through obstacles. If anyone has played games like Deadly Skies for the Dreamcast you’ll see the similarity here. Another thing, there aren’t many varieties of weapons, only a few models to choose from unless you wish to count the looks from the different race systems.

Missions from the trade stations, which are the only stations you may land on unless a specific story mission says different, offer much you would expect from Freelancer but with some additions. You can have some that require a degree of stealth and needs you to sabotage some satellites while also offering the more accustomed bounties. You can also check the traders and see who is incoming or departing and offering your services as an escort. This makes each system feel more alive and bustling but it soon wears off when you leave the station. You cannot land on planets either, only trade stations which did shock me and makes the game feel half complete by nature. I really wanted to land on Earth which is in the Terran territories.

You can make a name for yourself through six different “careers”, trader, pirate, killer, smuggler, bounty hunter and mercenary. Each when maxed out kick in some consequence on your part, such as a mercenary will receive higher payments for jobs; a bounty hunter will be hounded by pirates more often especially in Rebel systems and killers will be followed by the Police all the time. Some have advantages while others nothing but drawbacks.

I’m not sure if this is an oversight or intended but if you accidentally shoot a police patrol once, you’ll instantly get your first criminal star much like in GTA games. Over time these will go down but if you want to increase your criminal rating then be prepared to face off a large cruiser soon enough.

For the traders out there, each system carries a government type and a galactic affiliation. These affect general reactions to you and what goods can be bought and sold safely. Dictatorships tend to ban luxury goods and video games while Federations or Anarchy ridden planets may allow everything to be exchanged. Systems may also be apart of the Galactic Union, Rebels or remain Neutral. Rebel systems tend to be swarmed with pirate activity, Galactic Unions have a universal criminal system so they all keep tabs on your criminal rating and neutrals are just …well neutral.

AI is not that great and most will try just rudimentary tactics to get behind you and gun you through. A few quick dodges and you’ve out manoeuvred them quite easily. The difficulty setting seems to just increase their lethality with better damage percentages etc than actually improve their flight skills. This can offer a challenge but only so far as you try simply not to get hit at all, which is usually the aim in the first place.

A quirky trap I fell into was being offered to race some guy. At first he says lets race to some ship wreck, making it sound like you start as soon as you accept …no. He actually wants you to fly to the starting waypoint and then you zoom away. With the afterburners on you’ll easily overtake him to reach the end. Only to be suddenly beset with a trap, quite a clever little deception except that once it’s done you won’t fall for it again, so when prompted some time later I simply declined. The “magic” moment had long passed and it became tedious to fly out all that way just to kill some pirates with little bounty reward.

To add a better RPG styled element to Darkstar One you are given a plasma weapon. You choose how this weapon upgrades and into what as you improve the ship. The first is a weapons boost which increases the weapon energy regeneration rate substantially for a short period. As you improve this skill it increases in duration and can add damage bonuses. Another was to the shield, again the regeneration rate and also damage reducing bonuses. Others include an EMP temporarily knocking out their ships engines and weapons, an Overload which removes their shields and an Impenetrable Shield which would let you ram the enemy with no damage to you.

Earlier I mentioned you can only go to level 20, even though the game infuriately seems to tease you by saying only 10 artefacts to level 21. This is designed to increase replay-ability I assume, but sadly after having gone through this to the end and upgraded my ship as far as I could, I no longer wanted to play it. I was only left angry that I couldn’t increase all the points of the Darkstar One though I’m sure the modding community will have something to say about that in due time. Also the lack of multiplayer which keeps Freelancer alive still today is an absolute killer here.

Overall I would say this. I was deceived. Playing in the beginning I felt like this was going to be a huge adventure full of juicy goodness. I carried this feeling about half way through the storyline and having visited a good portion of the galaxy. Then it began to fade as I grew weary of the exploration-less systems. In fact I don’t even consider the systems to be in space but more like I’m a trapped and yet cool looking fly in a room.

The old neighbourhood There are many fantastic visuals

I had been looking forward to this game for some time but was by the end quite disappointed with the results. “Freelancer done right” is but the statement of a dreamer as beyond the story and ship upgrades, Darkstar One is as cold and empty as space itself once the novelty of trading or being a “system rebel” wears off.

Top Game Moment:
Blowing up liquid explosive containers and watching the huge explosions rip through two heavy laden cruisers. Spectacular fireworks!