I'll happily admit that I'm a space-shooter whore. I've played (and generally loved) most of them since Wing Commander and X-Wing. One of my favorites to come along in the past few years was Freelancer; it certainly had its flaws, but overall, the experience was a good one. You'd easily find my name on a petition to Microsoft to make Freelancer 2.
Anyway, this isn't about other titles, but about Darkstar One, a new game from Ascaron Entertainment. Darkstar One is the story of a man whose father is killed through nefarious means, and consequently inherits a revolutionary new type of space fighter that is not only able to become more capable as it gets upgraded, but also physically change shape while it doing so. When I first loaded Darkstar One, I was hoping that it would satisfy my craving for a good space-shooter in the ways that all of the classics have: good storyline, intense action and nearly endless re-playability. For the most part, this game accomplishes that. There some minor flaws, as we will see, but I wouldn't label any of them as "deal-breakers."
As I mentioned above, Darkstar One offers the player the ability to upgrade the ship in three areas: hull, wings and engines. Improving any of these points (via ancient artifacts that you collect from various places in the galaxy) not only gives you added bonuses (boosts to hull integrity, energy recharge and weapon hard-points), but also physically changes the shape of the ship. It's a unique idea that no other space-shooter has ever had, in my experience. Your first couple of upgrades are relatively easy to acquire, calling for only a single artifact each. However, these requirements quickly increase as you "level up" your ship. There is a second upgrade option you get as well, while romping through the cosmos collecting lost alien technology. Your ship is equipped with a wondrous Plasma Cannon that increases in versatility as you progress through the game. This weapon allows you to perform such actions as freezing your enemies in a "time bubble" (rendering them immobile for easy-pickins'), or providing your ship with a powerful shield to save your butt if you bite off more than you can chew. Don't ask me how superheated slag can freeze time. So hot it's cold? You tell me.
The interface is fairly logical and provides enough information to know what's going on without searching through a million sub-menus. You do have the option of using a mouse or joystick for the flight controls; however, I personally found the keyboard/mouse input more efficient. It's quite convenient to switch from "flight mode" to "interface mode" simply by holding down the spacebar, then clicking on the appropriate button. You can roll, strafe and reverse thrust as would be expected in any space-shooter, but Ascaron failed to add the ability to cut your engines to take advantage of the fact that there's no gravity in space! The ability to cut power and drift while using thrusters to dance around my target is one of the things I usually enjoy most in space shooters, so I couldn't help but notice its exclusion in this release.
A lot of space-shooters are classified as action-adventure with a little bit of RPG, but not much. Focus is generally more on the lasers, and less on the tale. Darkstar One attempts to address this by way of the Logbook. This multifaceted screen allows you to read storyline-related emails, check on your overall reputation (pirate, bounty hunter, smuggler, etc.), configure your ship, and keep track of your missions. Everything is in one spot, so it's hard to get lost. It's nigh impossible to read through it without Captain Picard's voice running through your head.
On the subject of graphics and sound, Darkstar One does a fair-but-not-stellar (har har) job. The ship models are quite good, and there are several alien races within the game, each with a unique style to their craft design (extra points for avoiding generic templates). Explosions and weapon effects bring an evil grin to my face whenever I dispatch some pirate scum, and so I tip my hat to the developers for not under-mixing the audio effects. The background NPC radio chatter a la Freelancer was a nice touch too, but the music does get a bit repetitive at times.
Now, I've been praising this game so far, but you'll note that I mentioned flaws way back at the beginning of this write-up, and they need attention too, sadly. For starters, there is no multiplayer support. The galaxy of Darkstar One is certainly big enough to at least accommodate LAN play, but Ascaron opted out of including it. In this age of massively multiplayer fever, it seems egregious that this title is lacking any online functionality whatsoever. Secondly, the models used in the cut scenes are quite sub-standard. With current graphics technology, it's disappointing to see these kinds of corners cut on what I consider to be a very important element to a storyline-based game.
Next up is the voice acting, which is nothing short of cheesy. I suspect that it may be due to poor translation from German to English, but that doesn't make it any easier on the ears. Finally, it was disappointing to see such a lack of variety to the weapons and equipment. (Not to mention the sheer laziness in the naming of them; instead of a "Laser Mk 1", you can get a "Laser Mk 2" … or how about a shiny "Laser Mk 3"! Sheer excitement!)
Overall, Darkstar One is a pretty good game. While it does have some minor deficiencies that affect its replay value, it should satisfy any cravings you have for blowing away intergalactic pirate scum. The story is engaging, and despite the bad voice-acting, the game kept me coming back to see what happens next. Sadly, the lack of equipment, multiplayer support, and quality cut scene graphics is to blame for this release not receiving a higher overall score. That said, Darkstar One is the best we've seen from this genre in quite some time. That statement loses some steam when you consider the string of exceptionally bad space-shooter/RPGs we've seen since Freelancer, but at least this title offers enough polish and style to make it worth playing even past its flaws.
More articles about Darkstar One