The industry has been a bit devoid recently of space simulations and space games in general, now there are a flood of them heading our way over the next few months on a variety of platforms, the game that got my attention because I have a fondness for any kind of space sim good or bad, is CDV's Darkstar One.
Ascaron entertainment, the talented developers that brought us Sacred and Sacred Underworld have taken a leap into outer space with a slightly different take on the space sim genre.
Claudia Kern (German science fiction author) has created a decent story, it could be considered a bit clichéd in places but that happens to everyone. I am certainly not going to deduct any kind of points for it, because out there someone will find the story compelling and as long as the game and story mesh well together then that's all that matters.
You are a young pilot, Kayron Jarvis and your father left you a rather unique vessel, the Darkstar One. This ship is definitely not the run of the mill junk freighter that most space games will have you start from scratch in. The Darkstar One is integral to the plot and I won't say anymore about the actual story to the game, but it is certainly full of a few twists and a good old evil alien badguy race.
Right from the start this isn't a deep tactical game nor is it the next big thing compared to the other, comparing Darkstar One to any game that's come before it is like comparing apples to oranges and tanks to bananas. It is a space game that's obviously inspired by those games that have come before it and the grandfather of all space games: Elite and it adds a few little twists to make it a refreshing change from just another space shooter.
Using mouse, keyboard or joystick you can navigate the Darkstar One around the various colourful star systems (clusters) and either follow the story, with the help of a comprehensive map and in-game log system, or go your own way and do your own thing until you're fed up of exploration.
There are several tutorial missions to get you started, both in terms of navigation and also in terms of hard monetary income, you won't get by here without cash and you're going to need lots of it to make sure the Darkstar One stays one step ahead of the competition (be they pirates or other) and always has the best weapons and equipment.
Without going into a long winded diatribe about the game's space flight simulation, it's very simple to fly and harkens back to the days of the early space games, you won't find a Newtonian Physics flight model or complex controls, everything is easy to understand and flying the Darkstar One is a breeze.
You can trade cargo if you like thanks to the game's trading component which is set up very much like Elite was, complete with the various denominations of government such as Anarchy and so forth.
There is a wealth of missions on offer, these range from shooting up pirates to taking photographs of various space based objects, some of these will have a sting in the tail so get ready for some action. One of them caught my ship taking photographs of the last object, this turned out to be a highly classified military base and the patrol wasn't happy.
You can also do escort missions and side-missions for the cluster that you're in, some of the side missions are ways to gain access to keys (you need these to jump through hyperspace to other clusters and places) that lead to hidden systems, usually infested with pirates and scum that must be wiped out, the reward is often an artefact (we shall talk about those in a short while).
That's the core gameplay mechanic of Darkstar One in a nutshell, it's something that has been done before but it's done fairly well here and it's a lot of fun. Following the story is just as fun but you really need to explore the systems and clusters to get the artefacts that are hidden all over the place.
Space combat plays an integral part in the game and it's fairly fast, furious and can be particularly deadly, you might need to restart several times before you get the hang of using the Darkstar One to battle multiple opponents. Combat is also fun and that is what matters the most in a game like this, the rewards for nixing pirates are a boost to your rep (the game tracks how you react to others in the universe) and a supply of credits.
So if the combat is fun and the game is fun, where's the catch, well I found that I didn't like the cargo system at all. You tow the container behind your ship and that makes the ship sluggish and so on. You also need to drop your container to fight effectively since most pirates can catch up to you without any problems; again, this wasn't at all fun for me.
I would have thought that fitting a cargo hold into the Darkstar One was a good idea, but if you like towing containers and so forth then you'll probably think I'm smoking Regellian Pipeweed for this part of the review. I must also warn fellow players that until the pirates are recognised as hostiles - you shouldn't drop your cargo if you intend to keep it; otherwise the game will think you surrendered it and take the cargo from you.
You can also target a friendly vessel and choose to assist them via the Y key, this will allow you to target the ship they're currently targeting - which is very useful if you're protecting a cargo or cruiser ship on a mission or you just decide to lend a helping hand to a fellow space traveller.
The game has numerous alien races and at least 200 weapons and pieces of equipment to mount on and in the Darkstar One, there are special missions that take place inside planets and on the surface as well as a few other surprises that I won't mention, it's a big game and you're going to spend a lot of time exploring the vast map in search of all the artefacts you can muster.
The Darkstar One
Such a cool ship requires a section of review all to itself, so here it is; this is what makes the vessel so unique compared to the rest of the ships in other games. The Darkstar One is composed of part human and part alien artefact technology, this has given the ship the ability to morph and change as you collect the green alien crystals that are scattered around the various clusters (the map helpfully shows you where) on a galactic power-up treasure hunt.
When you have collected enough of these crystals then the ship will be able to change, you can modify three sections of the vessel and thanks to Ascaron's helpful game save I was able to see how the modification system works, and I like it (a lot).
The cockpit, wings and engines can all be upgraded to 10 levels; this affects the visual look of the ship as well as various statistics about it. To give you an example, if you pump in 7 levels worth of upgrades to just the nose of the ship where the cockpit is, you'll find that the hull strength increases, you can mount up to 3 turrets and the visual look of the Darkstar One changes dramatically, it looks sleeker and deadlier somewhat.
Do the same to the wings and you'll get increased agility, extra front weapon slots and the visual look becomes something like a Kilrathi vessel from the old Wing Commander games.
As you upgrade the Darkstar One though you'll want to mix and match all 3 sections to provide the best all round vessel you can, or you might want to create an agile beast bristling with wing mounted cannons and so on. If you want a really fast ship then you're going to have to upgrade the engines. In the end it's up to you how you use your artefacts.
But that's not all, the Darkstar One comes equipped with what Ascaron term a Plasma Cannon, but it's not really a cannon. It could be likened to a special effects module that's installed on the ship and as you upgrade the Darkstar One you can upgrade this module as well. It has a variety of special abilities that you can mix and match as you upgrade; my personal favourite is a beam of energy that cuts down opponents shields and a special effect that freezes them in time for a short while.
The upgradeable vessel is a nice touch and it makes for a unique feature to the game, rather than just a bit of an add-on, you really notice the difference the upgrades make and eventually you'll be flying around the clusters in a tweaked out to 'personal performance' ship you can truly call your own.
The visual look to Darkstar One is colourful; it's a bright and stylish game with good quality textures and some very nice particle effects. I particularly like the explosions and some of the energy effects for the special weapon are truly nice, the shield booster and weapon overload cover the ship in a glowing crackling energy field.
The game has good quality lighting and sports the usual special effects, glows and bump mapping we've come to expect from the new generation of games. That said they are not gob-smacking-awe-inspiring but they do their job and they do it well.
The ship models are varied and of good quality, the Darkstar One steals the show of course as the upgrades transform it from a plain looking fighter to something truly worthy of the space flight/fight genre of ships. There is a good variety in the other models and the actual models of people in the game that stand around and chat in space stations are also well done.
It doesn't quite feel as alive as it should, there are numerous space ships that move around and do their own thing, but there is something that's lacking - the voice banter from the various NPC vessels can be amusing to listen to and the stations borrow a lot from the X series of games when it comes down to internal comms. The actual physical design of the various clusters is nice, with planets and so on looking good and well modelled, asteroids are excellently done and they roll through space in a menacing manner as they tumble towards your ship.
Every race seems to have its own AI for battles and tactics, these are varied and they actually try to work together as a team. The police are also likewise effective and will often blast you into space dust if you step over the wrong side of the law, being a pirate or criminal in the game is fairly hard and I think some people might find it too hard.
There are some AI problems and now and then you'll find a trader that smacks into you as you're trying to land, on your landing pattern, these guys must not have learned how to fly properly or they're drunk at the joystick.
It's a mixed bag of sound for the game, nothing really stands out here and there are some really awful effects for weapon fire as well as shield damage/ship damage. I have to mark this down for the worst shield-hit effect in a game ever, let's hope the developers actually change that sound because it's jarring and very annoying.
The nice swoosh of engines is fairly good along with the thunder of the afterburners, but again nothing really stands out above the rest.
I rather like the soundtrack to the game some of the pieces of music have a very 'Trek' feel to them, it's quite restful in places and upbeat in combat - the musical cues in the game do however lead you to recognise when danger's lurking nearby or pirates are on the hunt. Kayron must have a psychic orchestra in the back of the ship, that's all I can say.
The voice actors in the game are a mixed bag; there are some good ones and some terrible ones. The dialogue suffers from the same problem as a number of games have in recent times, there are some really jarring lines that totally break up the flow of the game and have you laughing hysterically for a while.
I was particularly amused by the conversation in the first cut-scene between the pirates, there's something about firing boosters and knocking socks off that just tickles me pink. It doesn't help that being an author; I pick up on things like this myself. But still the dialogue isn't mind-jarringly bad.
I don't quite like some of the voice talent that CDV/Ascaron have used here, their delivery at times is awfully flat and it's like they are just reading out the lines to get paid for them, lets see some emotion here people!
These are extremely well done and animated; they are a definite showcase for Ascaron's animation and design talents (even if some of the dialogue is a little ropey) and the voice acting a bit flat, they are a big banner waving right at the scenes in X3:Reunion however and the developers of that game need to take note on how it's done.
Ascaron's stance on the game is that they are in full support of the modding community and that's a good line to take, it wins them kudos from me and ups the score a little since the game will be supported with fresh content from the dedicated fan base long after the original story and missions have been completed.
So there you have it, DarkStar One isn't the next best thing since sliced bread, it's not the next big space sim - it is but one space sim in a long line of other space sims that is fun to play and with 50 minutes of cut-scene footage that explains the story it becomes quite compelling to get to the next piece. The upgradeable ship and special weapon is a breath of fresh air in the genre and that wins big points and prizes with me. All in all, Darkstar One is a game that the space sim fans should enjoy, while not as complex and mind-challenging as some of the others, X series and Battlecruiser it provides a reasonable diversion while waiting for the ultimate space game to come along.