Darkstar One: Broken Alliance Reader Review
I can count on one hand the number of space sims that I’ve played in the last 5 years. Harking back to my own personal ‘golden age’ of gaming I remember fondly the excitement of being left in witchspace with Thargoids in Elite or battling Maniac for Kilrathi kills in Wing Commander, if only to stop him from saying “Chalk another one up for the Maniac!” for the 18th time.
Space sims on the consoles are slim pickings, the reasoning is understandable as even since as early as Wing Commander there has always been a complicated keyboard layout. If anyone remembers i-War 2 (no, no - not an overpriced, Apple branded re-invention of war) then you may also recall the insane cardboard overlay for your standard PC keyboard? No? Well it was something special, I think there were only about 15 keys that did nothing, the thing was even colour coded! But I digress.
One of the main issues that anyone looking to get a good space sim onto a console has to face is how to translate that complex array of targetting, thrust, weapon selection, shield control, etc all onto a gamepad. The first one that I came across was a very flimsy attempt from Square Enix and sadly Project Slypheed was not fun to play in any measure. When I heard that Darkstar One was heading to the Xbox360, almost out of nowhere just a couple of months before release, I was instantly intrigued.
You play Kayron Jarvis, a young and exceptional pilot whose father was killed in suspicious circumstances. As you begin your hunt for the truth, your father’s best friend Robert gives you a prototype ship - the Darkstar One. You are then sent out into the expanse of space to search for answers.
As with most games of this genre, the main story is just a loose plot and cut-scenes to pull you through the universe and tie you into story missions that advance the game. The key, as with many of these games, is to explore and enjoy the universe doing what you want with keeping the main story as an aside to be done as and when you feel like it. There are no time constraints on story missions so you can literally plod around a system forever and amass a space-fortune, if you wished.
Whilst nothing mind-blowing, the storyline is a fairly unoffensive affair and it will keep you amused enough to want to push on through to the next arc of the storyline when you are done taking in that particular area.
Darkstar One has a very clever control system that has borrowed heavily from Mass Effect (and also the aforementioned i-War 2 which was the first game I recall using it) and its bumper selection circles. One bumper controls the ‘global’ selections such as hyperjump, timelapse, status, etc and the other controls ship functions such as shield boost, docking computer, etc.
Directional control and strafe is dealt with via the analogue sticks and then holding down left trigger activates the alternative version that allows you to roll instead of bank and control thrust speed (although I could only ever get 0% or 100%).
After a few battles and you get into the flow, the controls are actually pretty intuitive but there are a few issues that linger. For instance strafing (right and left on R stick) whilst trying to use the afterburner (forward on R stick) usually ends in a mess and just one or neither actually happening, well for me anyway, but overall you cannot deny that a great job has been done with getting the controls to make sense.
Aside from the main storyline there are three basic components to the game: trading, combat, exploration. Trading is as you’d expect, buy cheap and sell high. There is a smuggling component built into the game that offers higher rewards but requires some outlay in scrambling equipment and manual flight-path adjustments to avoid the sniffing policemen guarding the area. Likewise the combat takes an honest route which you will naturally be pushed into by the game (i.e. taking down pirates) but you can with a few ‘misplaced’ shots become an enemy of the state. If you want to complete the storyline I’d recommend either staying on the right side of the law or being so rich you can pay off the bounty to clear your name. Exploration, sadly, is more restricted. As you complete story missions larger scope jump drives become available to allow access to the next sector of space, naturally you can always hop backwards to earlier sectors but you don’t truly have full reign of the galaxy until a lot later on into the game. Elite just turned in it’s grave!!
Naturally the story progression isn’t just it. The Darkstar One is equipped with a unique ability to utilise alien artifacts that are scattered around the galaxy. Collect these and you can upgrade your ship. You get a choice of Hull, Wings or Engines and each can be levelled up to stage 10. You only have 20 possible upgrades in the game so you can’t max out all three. Wings add agility and bow weapons, hull increases hit points and adds turrets and the engine upgrades increase recharge times and reduce encumbering effects from towing cargo.
The combat is pretty fast-paced and you will often be outnumbered (regularly as much as 8-1) which can get very irritating if on a high difficulty and get an enemy or three stuck behind you. That said on normal and easy the combat is usually only taxing if you are a terrible pilot or come up against cruisers. Whilst the ability for roll is there I struggled to use it effectively due to the control setup and usually spent my time spinning in reverse and letting my turrets do the damage to the more agile ships! Despite this, the AI is pretty easy to take and when going head on for a group just letting the cannons rip and strafing is usually enough to kill two of them before you’ve taken a hit. Whilst a few of the more simulator hardcore or those that prefer Newtonian physics will hate this, the games arcade-like dog-fighting doesn’t make your combat efficiency the be-all and end-all of the game which is good.
Overall the Darkstar One universe is an incredibly pretty one. It’s one of the few console games in full 1080p and it is also very noticeable. The galaxies have some stunning backdrops in the forms of nebulas and when you encounter asteroid or ice fields they seem to stretch on for as far as the eye can see. The ships and structures are very colourful and have distinct styles for each of the races, something X-BTF fans will immediately identify with. The background music is melodic and enjoyable with the urgency and more techno-ish sounds with a beat kicking in when entering combat. In fact the only poor aspect of the presentation are the cut-scenes and the voice acting - clearly a plain port from the PC version released 4 years ago, the cut-scene graphics look very dated indeed. The voice acting is disjointed and the speech impediments of a couple of the alien races gets particularly annoying. There is a huge lack of differing radio chatter and you will hear the same phrases hundreds of times. It’s such a shame that the effort gone into adapting the control system couldn’t have also been applied to the sound and cut-scenes as their poor quality does dispel the illusion of adventure at times, at others it just grates.
One of my favourite genres finally comes to the consoles in a decent manner. So Darkstar One won’t blow the socks off anyone familiar with the space combat trading sims. It lacks the story depth of Wing Commander, the exploration of Elite, and the complexity of X-BTF. It’s also not full retail price, has a good 40 hour play through and the best offering to date for console owners. It doesn’t redefine the genre, but sometimes that’s okay, I’d rather have old faithful than nothing at all.
What it lacks in vocal talent, difficulty and story telling it makes up for with a stunning universe, a choice of ways to spend your time and reminding me how much I miss a good space simulator. There are no multi-player components which I almost expected at least a stab at, but I’m glad they steered clear from that road and concentrated on a solid solo experience instead.
- If flying in space and you get an achievement. Hitting the button to view the achievement details and then returning to game tended to break the cockpit. Bumper buttons no longer did anything and half the hud was missing. Landing, saving and loading fixed it. - Extended periods without docking (autosave) or perhaps just a long length of play caused multiple freezes requiring a console restart. If going for a grind, break often to save.