Version tested: Xbox 360
During the World Cup, whilst the English have been distracted, the Scots have been busy - as have the Irish and the West Indians.
They've been busy going to space, apparently, and starting careers in pirate gangs across the galaxy. No matter which far-flung corner of the galaxy you fly to in DarkStar One: Broken Alliance, sooner or later you seem to come across a feisty buccaneer with a strong - some might even say overacted - accent, just waiting to laser open your hold and take away your space monies. And kill you.
It's one of the many little peccadilloes which are likely to divide DarkStar One's potential audience, like the dreadful script delivery or the sometimes stuttering and fuzzy cut-scenes. For some these will be terms of endearment, a charming lack of corporate polish which bears testament to the game's relatively humble origins; for others, they'll be annoyances.
I must admit, I'm one of the former. DarkStar One feels every inch the small-studio PC game, and that's because it once was. Back in 2006, the now sadly defunct Ascaron Entertainment released Darkstar One for the PC, where it was swallowed pretty unceremoniously in a swarm of similar space-sims, although Kieron was quite the fan.
Broadly speaking, DarkStar One is an Elite clone, one of the many pretenders to the galactic crown forged for what was probably the first ever open-world title. It's a space-shooter, the first person cockpit-view your only portal onto a colourful stellar landscape of nebulae, space hulks and asteroid belts. Like Elite, players have a choice in how to conduct themselves in a violent, futuristic section of the Milky Way, choosing to pursue a career as a bounty hunter, trader, smuggler, mercenary or straight up murderer.
Unlike Elite, it's all pretty straightforward, with arcade flight controls, a simple HUD and a relatively limited trade aspect. Combat is fast, responsive and carefree, with a concern for energy reserves and more advanced ship management only really becoming an issue once pilots have found their feet.
The plot, which actually develops in a more interesting way than it sounds like it might, begins with hero Kayron jetting off in a prototype spaceship in an attempt to avenge the untimely death of his father. Cue calumny, intrigue and betrayal - and a lot of explosions. There's some background jazz about collecting organic artefacts to up the DarkStar's capacities, too.
Because DarkStar One takes a decidedly less heavyweight approach to the genre than titles such as X3 or Elite itself, it's an excellent candidate for conversion to console. (Purely because of the simplicity of control, you understand.) So, four years after its release, Kalypso has done just that with this Xbox 360 version - and to the great pleasure of some and the endless frustration of others, that's all they've really done.
Yes, the graphics have been updated to a crisp 1080p, but essentially the game remains completely unchanged in any other way. The aforementioned voice acting and cinema remains, as does a slightly awkward control scheme which sees roll control and thrust stymied somewhat by poor mapping and over-simplification respectively. There's not been much of a spring clean here, and the conversion smacks a little of a publisher jumping on some suddenly ownerless IP.
Still, it's a win for the consumer. There's nothing else like this on console - the space sim is another of those huge, complex genres which have steadfastly refused to migrate into the living room. It's something console gamers have, in relatively polite and quiet tones, been crying out for, so kudos to Kalypso for spotting the gap.
DarkStar One's lightweight approach does have its pitfalls, though. Whilst the side missions ostensibly fall under various categories, including assassination, covert ops, patrol and cargo missions, they usually translate pretty quickly into 'fly here, shoot that'. Similarly, the job roles, although they offer various bonuses when practised for long enough, aren't really enough to encourage you into what you might ever call a career. Despite the trading having some subtleties to its supply and demand modelling, it's pretty boring. Nobody wants to inherit a pimped-out space ride and only use it to become an inter-planetary Ocado delivery man.
So bounty-hunting it is, at least for me - but in reality, you're not actually going to spend much time doing whatever it is you choose to do to pass the time between story missions. However, at first, you'll need to do quite a few odd jobs to earn the bucks to fit new weapons and kit to your evolving ship.
Forward-facing guns, missile launchers and turrets can all be fitted to the DarkStar, alongside capacitors, generators, shield units and all the sci-fi trimmings you'd reasonably expect with your space roast. Once you're a few missions in, however, and pirates start attacking you with regularity, the cash you'll earn from taking them out in addition to that received for the storyline and major side-quests will mean that the smaller jobs are almost completely unnecessary.
It does detract from the open-world, non-linear aspect of the game a little, but it actually helps to focus DarkStar One as an experience; here is a game which cheerfully accepts it limitations, happy to put the soap in space-opera. The shallow nature of the tertiary game, alongside the necessity to keep moving on in the search for the all-important artefacts - which basically level up the DarkStar and let you carry bigger guns and better equipment - means that it's easy to avoid the directionless nature of a lot of open-world games.
Often, when playing Red Dead: Redemption or Just Cause 2, I find I've been fannying around for a couple of hours without ever really having anything particular in mind to achieve. Perhaps it's my slightly butterflyish approach, but I find Darkstar One's pacing a boon to focus.
The flip-side of that is that things can get a little samey. Whilst there's usually a fair breadth of challenge available at any one time, each task rapidly becomes indistinguishable from the last. The narrative is interesting enough to keep you coming back for more, however, even when being turned into space-dust by a lowly group of space-hoodies becomes frustrating.
DarkStar One is undoubtedly a bit of a throwback. It's not the all-singing, all-dancing AAA space combat title which could still make a lot of console owners' days, but it does go an awfully long way to proving that a game of that calibre is eminently possible on consoles, as well as providing an entertaining diversion. Perhaps as a cut-price download title, Kalypso could have scraped an 8 with this, but age has weathered the full-price score by one since its debut.
7 / 10