There's a little bit of my heart invested in DarkStar One. First time around, when it was released on PC in 2006, I'd just acquired a new computer, and DarkStar was one of the games I bought to test its mettle.
I wasn't disappointed. With all those swirly nebulae and pew-pew lasers, DarkStar filled a hitherto unidentified gap in my gaming life by introducing me, in a hugely belated fashion, to the space trading / exploration genre. I spent hours wandering around its clusters and galaxies, playing the Han Solo card by picking on lumbering freighters and dodging the intergalactic sweeney.
Kalypso has made a good decision in ending the genre's long absence from consoles, and producing a fairly light-weight take on what can be a bewilderingly complex style of game. The team has been very gentle with its conversion, too - limiting the overhaul to the introduction of crisp, 1080p graphics and a pad-friendly control system.
Piloting the DarkStar One is Kayron Jarvis, who's less of a turnip farmer and more of a racy space-buck than his name suggests. He inherited the ship from his assassinated father, and, incredibly, plans to use it to scour the galaxy for the killers and exert some justice.
To be honest, that doesn't really matter. In fact - given the execrable quality of the delivery of much of the voiceover, the narrative progression is sometimes best ignored. What's important is that there's soon to be a fully-fledged, open-ended and non-linear space exploration and combat game heading to 360, and that it seems to work very nicely.
When you first take control of the DarkStar One you'll be forgiven for doubting the incredible qualities which Kayron's beneficiary seems so keen to bestow upon it. It starts off as a pretty sluggish and unwieldy beast, with a weapon which amounts to little more than a strong torch and the hull-strength of a wet Wotsit. What makes it so special, however, is its ability to be upgraded, along a number different paths, by picking up alien artefacts - and the adaptability to various different roles this offers you.
For example, there's the option to turn bounty hunter - loading up on turrets and bow lasers before shooting off to search for pirate hide-outs and gangs of reprobates. Eliminating these will not only earn you credits and occasional goodies, it'll also shape your reputation among the stars, influencing how the galactic community responds to your actions and affecting the rewards they'll offer. If you're a proven bounty-hunter then you'll be offered tougher jobs and bigger rewards, but pirates and other ne'erdowells will seek you out more actively.
At the other extreme is the pacifistic freightering, picking up trade goods from systems which produce them and taking them to places which don't for a profit. Sound a bit dull? Why not spice it up by finding a freighter and scanning it to find out what it's carrying and where to. Obviously there's a demand for cargo where it's heading, so why not blow the freighter up yourself, stealing the goods and delivering them once the prices rocket in response to increased demand? Even better, sign up as a merchant escort for the freighter at a space-station to make sure your target is completely helpless when you turn the guns on them.
Of course, this sort of villainy will earn you a reputation too, bringing those pesky space-police knocking on the air-lock and attracting swarms of bounty hunters. There's very much a system of consequences in place, with the various roles offering bonuses to counter the extra hassle of attacks or cargo checks.
The upgrade process is two-fold. The rare alien artefacts change the structure of your ship to allow more weapon emplacements, a higher energy class or greater hull strength, whilst stations stock equippables like better generators, weaponry and shield capacitors. There's a nice balance of complexity and clarity to the system, giving depth and consequence to your choices without overly obfuscating things.
Mission-wise there's a fairly generous spread of activities, although inevitably a lot of them revolve around the concept of flying somewhere and blowing something up. There are cargo retrieval missions too, though, and plenty of side missions to space out the tougher main story activities. The tedium of flying back and forth is ameliorated by the availability of a time-compression function from the off, as well as a few incidental events which crop up along the way.
Because the universe is divided into more manageable sectors, progression through which is restricted by the upgrade status of your hyperdrive, you'll spend a fair bit of time getting to know each area. In truth, each star system is fairly similar to the last, albeit with slightly different window dressing - but there's still a bit of a thrill to be had when warping in for the first time and bringing up the sector scanner to see what's what. Once you've got your target list it's a matter of choosing what to investigate, with shipwrecks, gang hide-outs, large mining asteroids and debris fields to explore.
DarkStar One is a proven game, so what's going to be really key is how the controls have fared during the porting process. At the minute there's a bit of polishing to be done as full 3D dog-fighting proves to be a bit cumbersome, especially given the layout of the throttle controls and the rolling. Engaging with enemies is still fun, however, and probably no harder than it was on PC. In fact, the generous auto-target and leading reticule can sometimes over-simplify the combat, and the AI can rely a little too much on over-powering enemy weapons and shields rather than piloting skill.
Still, what made the PC original an enjoyable game was the fact that it could be played on so many different levels of engagement - from an arcade blaster to a more complex trading sim. I suspect that it'll find a larger audience in the context of the former offering, as perhaps it probably always did, but there's nothing wrong with that. The hours I spent with DarkStar One brought back many happy memories of the original, without shattering the old rose-tinteds too much - and that in itself is an achievement. If a console Freelancer-clone is likely to engage your warp drive, this is one to watch.
DarkStar One: Broken Alliance will be available exclusively on Xbox 360 this summer.