Originally release back in 2006 as a PC exclusive by the now defunct, Ascuron Entertainment, DarkStar One’s user-friendly take on the well-worn Elite template failed to find a market. Later ported onto the Xbox 360 in 2010 by Kalypso Media, DarkStar One once again failed to find a market. Will its recent release on the 360’s Games on Demand platform prove third time lucky for this plucky little shooter, or is this game truly destined for obscurity? I guess the more important question, however, is whether or not it is actually worthy of finding an audience? Is DarkStar One deserving of the muted response it has received thus far, or is this a title worthy of greater recognition than it has been afforded?
Given the PC’s relative depth in the genre, DarkStar One’s failure at retail back in 2006 maybe isn’t all that shocking, but on 360, where only the equally poorly received, and in my opinion, hugely underrated, Poject Sylpheed stands as competition, you’d think that its release might have stirred up a little more interest.
In fairness though, DarkStar One doesn’t do itself any favours. Despite being an enjoyable and pleasingly accessible space-based shooter, DarkStar One suffers from some of the blandest character design and, subsequently, some of the worst box art I have seen this generation. I know, I know, it’s the game underneath that counts, right? Well, I agree, but when you’re trying to turn a mid-budget, new IP into a recognisable brand, these are the things that matter. The cover art, plastered with the deplorably bland leads, positively screams budget release. I remember seeing the box art upon its initial release and literally being put off even before knowing what the game was about. It’s that bad.
In-game too, despite the majority of play being from a first person cockpit view, you still have to deal with these dreadfully boring looking characters in the game’s less than impressive collection of cut-scenes. Although directed with a degree of competency, these fuzzy, sub-HD snippets of story are rife with shoddy dialogue and some fantastically hilarious delivery. With an array of dodgy accents and the kind of OTT acting not seen since Eric Roberts’ 80’s heyday, the poorly told story will at least raise a few unintentional giggles along the way.
If you can get over the terrible box art, poorly told story and last gen cut-scenes though (which obviously the majority of gamers couldn’t), DarkStar One does delivers an enjoyable slice of spaced-based shoot-em-up action. The side missions are a bit repetitive and the core gameplay is obviously limited by the game’s inherent design, but for fans of the genre, there’s enough quality hidden under the bonnet to make DarkStar One an intriguing proposition.
Despite its streamlined design and controls, DarStar One still delivers a fair degree of depth thanks to its open world, trade options and varied job titles. While the story (which does get better when you learn to live with the voice acting) tends to point you in the direction of a career as a bounty hunter, there is the option to play as a trader, smuggler or a mercenary. The bonuses associated with each choice aren’t really strong enough to have any major impact on gameplay, but there are subtle differences and unique bonuses for those willing to commit to the game’s vast universe. Honestly though, while there is the option to go off the beaten track, you’re more likely to follow the game’s main story and build up your cash and resources by taking on the random skirmishes with space pirates.
There are a selection of side missions available which sound relatively varied and interesting on paper, but in reality, these add up to little more than glorified fetch quests and assassination missions. They serve as an entertaining distraction and do open up the universe a bit, but due to the rewards lavished upon you from taking part in random battles and story quests, completion of these is subsequently made all but unnecessary.
Your primary interests, especially early in the game, will be on upgrading your ship’s capabilities and finding mysterious organic artefacts that level up your ship, allowing you to equip larger weapons and defensive capabilities. Although the potential for limited trading options do become available later in the game, with ship management and energy resources also becoming an issue as you progress, for the most part, it’s all about pimping out your ship and blasting away the many, many enemies standing between you and your ultimate goal.
In terms of the actual gameplay, DarkStar One is all about accessibility. The controls are simplistic and the action throughout is fast paced, responsive and ultimately rewarding. The arcade controls are a perfect fit for consoles and give the game a sense of speed and fluidity often lacking in games of this ilk. While it’s disappointing that nothing new has been added from the PC release, there is still a great deal of content here with the constant promise of upgrades and the 100 collectible artefacts to be found proving a major incentive to push through the game’s lengthy adventure.
In fact, the only thing that has been improved since the PC original back in 2006 is the introduction of crisp 1080p visuals. While the cutscenes remain standard def and decidedly rough around the edges, the game world itself, complimented by the clean, unobtrusive HUD, is a real treat for the eyes. The docking stations could do with a little more details but the universe itself is actually very attractive, with the developers pulling out all the stops to make space look as varied and interesting as possible.
DarkStar One is a bit of a throwback, but its place on the 360 is a welcome one. The God awful character design and shoddy story will prove a hurdle but the underlying game is fast, responsive and hugely entertaining. It’s accessible, rewarding and has just enough depth and incentive to keep most gamers playing through to the final credits. It’s not ground breaking in any way, but for a console so painfully starved of space based shooters, DarkStar One does an admirable job of filling the gap in the market.
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