Review

DarkStar One: Broken Alliance Review (Xbox360)

You remember Elite, right? How about Frontier, X3, Freespace, Homeworld, Starlancer or I-War? If the answer's no, then the odds are good that this console port of Darkstar One will be a considerable breath of fresh air, and something definitely worth checking out if you're bored of Shooter McShooterston 3 or whatever else is the big ticket Xbox release for this month. If, however, the answer was yes or you own a decent gaming PC, then you might want to look into the picking up the original on Steam (it's cheap as hell), or perhaps shop around for something with a little more quality. Darkstar is a lot of fun, but it never quite fully delivers on its initial promise.

In many ways, this is the sort of experiment that occurs when a development studio decides to pair back the scope of any given genre to its absolute basics, then attempt to buff and polish the remaining elements to a high shine. Space combat, exploration and trading all come under the microscope here, and each one is relatively successful within its own field, without breaking any new ground or standing out as particularly memorable. I>t's a relatively well-balanced game threaded together with a wafer-thin plot, and dated visuals (1080p TrueHD screams the box art, repeatedly) that struggle to suitably convey the dramatic space opera bubbling beneath.

It's no EVE, but still occasionally pretty

On that note, you play rookie pilot Kayron Jarvis, handed the keys to an ultra-secret 'Darkstar One' spacecraft that's packed with future-tech the rest of the galaxy is yet to dream of. It was a project that your recently deceased dad worked on, and - stop me if you may have heard this before - it's up to you to figure out exactly what happened to him. This is an organic, evolving ship (the cutscenes indicate a heavy Battlestar Galactica influence), with a tiered tech-tree of augmentations that roughly translates into a levelling mechanic as you bound from system to system. Different pockets of space are more densely populated and dangerous than others, so breaking off from the main storyline and taking on side quests for upgrade cash, trading with various outposts, or simply exploring abandoned mining rigs for ancient artifacts that physically evolve your ship, is a necessity. 

Since so much of Darkstar One is devoted to simply tooling around the galaxy in a manner that fits your own style of play, the quickfire and relatively sedate approach to trading, the economy and a general scarcity of mission types soon begins to lull you into a hypnotic rhythm. There is something to be said for the pacing here, since picking up a job, flying to your ojective and then on to the safety of a destination station (or other point in space) is roughly similar for most tasks at early to mid-levels. Their relative brevity means that wedges of cash or achievements are always within reach, and it's a design that works well across both short and long play sessions - if you can look past the relatively shallow mechanics that underpin everything that is. Moulding your ship into a specialised beast is also somewhat addictive, and the hundreds of upgrades spread across lasers, missiles, shields, engines, scanners and assorted other paraphenalia should be enough to cater for all but the most extreme diehard space cadets.

Combat is simplistic but engaging

Predictably however, most of your encounters will devolve into combat against pirate gangs, police or other parties (there are six social paths to delve into that affect the way various factions treat you), and again Darkstar leaves an impression of competence but little else. Thrust and strafing is mapped to your right analogue stick, weapons and shields to the right trigger and a couple of face buttons, and directional control to the left analogue. Dogfighting is a comfortable experience with little complexity, and even in the early-game when your ship is at its most sluggish, the controls never feel like a hindrance and a good sensation of responsivity and speed carries throughout. Opponent AI is relatively engaging, but remains fairly straightforward as you progress.

The cracks soon begin to show though, and whilst there isn't a lot to complain about, combat lacks a sense of visual panache and excitement that goes hand-in-hand with the best the genre has to offer. The often-overlooked Project Sylpheed is a better example on the same console, and whilst it doesn't contain anywhere near the peripheral depth that Darkstar pokes at, it remains a far more engaging prospect in the heat of battle. Too often Darkstar simply devolves into chasing a target and whittling down their health before moving onto the next one, and things like shield management or evasive manouvres only come into play later in the game. Even then, the adrenaline is resolutely at a standstill.

Explore! Fight! Fight! Fight! Explore!

The main storyline too, is far too under-produced to be of any draw. Voice acting is particularly awful, and cutscenes veer wildly from acceptable to plain awful. There is a token effort to expand the universe and provide news and other information that breathes a little life into the galaxy, but it's all too-often dismissed in the background and never really feels like a part of the proceedings in the manner in which something like Mass Effect excelled.

So it's easy to end up yearning for more. None of the single pieces of Darkstar are particularly shoddy (voicework aside), but mixed together they form an experience that's largely devoid of anything memorable, but also one that remains hypnotically sedate until eventual boredom sets in. There is a subset of people reading this that will absolutely fall in love with the low-budget production and simplistic exploration here, but for everybody else, it will likely remain a curiosity rather than a necessity, even after extended play. Regardless however, it sits alone as king of the console space exploration genre for now.

Top game moment: Warping into a system filled with pirate ships and running the hell away

Videos

Comments

By bosnian_dragon (SI Core) on Jul 19, 2010
bosnian_dragon
I played Darkstar One on PC, but this Xbox version keeps me out of league for this one. PC rules ;)
By BoneArc (SI Elite) on Aug 06, 2010
BoneArc
PC Rules indeed , but i wouldnt play the console version if there was allready a PC version out and kicking ..
By Wowerine (SI Elite) on Aug 06, 2010
Wowerine
It's the controls I guess. This game is so simplified compared to the competitive releases and older titles. You can't really compare it to the PC version. Although the gameplay was very interesting :)
By BoneArc (SI Elite) on Aug 06, 2010
BoneArc
You cant compare ANYTHING to the PC versions of the Game ... its just not the same.
By Wowerine (SI Elite) on Aug 06, 2010
Wowerine
Maybe I can. Told ya already how GoW sucked on the PC platform, while being the most played X360 game in almost 2 years...