The galaxy is your playground as you take the role of Kayron Jarvis, exploring space and looking for clues to unlock the secrets of your father's death. Darkstar One is designed to include freedom of choice and is intended to create many options on how the story is played out. You can take many different approaches to earning cash and upgrades including trading, mercenary work, smuggling, pirating, or any combination that suits your playing style.
Over 200 weapons such as rockets, torpedoes, mines, equipment, and shield upgrades may be purchased, taken, or traded. Your ship, for example, can be upgraded and altered to create a battle cruiser, or fast attack boat. When gaining experience, your special "spell weapon" will become more powerful and versatile as you traverse more than 400 solar systems populated by six species of alien. Special missions feature exploring canyons and other surfaces of strange planets.
DarkStar One is a space-sim shooter in the vein of X3: Reunion and Freelancer. In the game, a young hotshot human pilot (who else?) named Kayron traverses the galaxy to search for his slain father's murderer. On his journey, Kayron crosses into hundreds of systems, encounters thousands of other ships, and meets beings of half a dozen different species.
The star of the game is not Kayron, however, it is his ship, the mysterious and powerful DarkStar One. Inherited from his father, the DarkStar One is able to adapt any type of ship technology as its own. Additionally, the ship can be upgraded via pulsing green crystals harvested from deep within space asteroids. The upgrading scheme can be addictive, and I often found myself pursuing upgrade crystals at the expense of missions and stories.
The main storyline is complex, and revolves around tracking down a mercenary responsible for the death of Kayron's father. While tracking him down, Kayron will be forced to choose his path through the galaxy. Because the ship can be upgraded to suit a number of roles and the open-ended universe allows for many different choices to be made, Kayron's possibilities are abundant. Calmer, more tactical players may choose to turn the DarkStar One into a heavy trading vessel, while more aggressive types can choose between fighting for or against justice, as a bounty hunter or pirate. Players in the middle ground can become mercenaries, fulfilling missions in each trade station (typically search and rescue-type missions, but with a good deal of sabotage thrown in). For the budding revolutionaries playing DarkStar One, the game's political system allows you to become an operative in the employ of one of the galaxy's political factions, destroying enemies, intimidating merchants, and assassinating rival officials.
There are hundreds of planets to explore-though you only get to fly over the surface of a few. The rest of the planets are explored via their trade and research stations. While the lack of planetary exploration may be disappointing for some, it is important to note that the game is all about space. Ascaron has done a fantastic job of putting a vast, realistic galaxy into perspective. Satellites, moons, binary planet systems, and stars all make beautiful appearances alongside each race's unique architecture and ship design.
The DarkStar One can be controlled via mouse or joystick. While the joystick does suffice for 80% of the movements you'll make, I often found myself switching to the mouse for more precision. There are also a number of controls that can be toggled with the keyboard, activated via the on-screen interface, or assigned to a joystick button. Unless you're a real die-hard for realism, a mouse will get the job done fine.
Simply playing through the story-which you must do to unlock the full map-will ensure you get a hearty dose of this game's bread and butter: space combat. If you've played much of the X-Wing or TIE Fighter series from LucasArts, you'll be familiar with the basic premise of space battle. Because of the qualities of your ship, at less difficult settings you can literally fly circles around your adversaries early on. However, as you encounter more advanced races their ability to out-maneuver you will become apparent. Battling five ships with weapons as advanced as your own will seem unbalanced, and may be deadly, if you don't utilize the most powerful feature of the DarkStar One: the plasma cannon.
As an addition to the turrets, missile launchers, and various heavy weapons able to be equipped to the DarkStar One, the plasma cannon is a formidable threat to your enemies. The plasma cannon has unlimited uses (though it must recharge for about a minute between uses) and will provide an added feature to your offenses or defenses. A shield boost and cocoon-like energy shield will allow you to take significantly more damage and ram other ships, respectively, and an EMP cannon can disable the weapons of your adversaries as they charge at you, throttles punched to 100%.
Battle is consistently fast and intense-by hour three of your gameplay, you may notice your heart rate quickening with the game's alternating tracks of fight music. Since you may be battling hundreds (or thousands, even) of enemies if you've elected to be a bounty hunter, the fights can become repetitive, especially considering that the radio chatter in battles, while unique to each race, is limited to about 15 different statements. Additionally, your co-pilot-a very curvy redhead with a spotty history-will consistently chime in at the least opportune moments. As red lights are flashing and the ship's computer is alerting you that you're about to become space dust, she'll contribute valuable insights like "We've got to get this Hunter off our tail!" Where's a strong-but-silent Wookiee when you need one?
DarkStar One clocks in between 20 and 40 hours, depending on how thoroughly you plan on playing it. It is the game's required length for the storyline that will turn away many who would otherwise be enthused to play. The addition of more side quests that would force the players to take stands in the galaxy's ongoing political conflicts, or more in-depth involvement in the career system (how about tracking down a pirate, rather than being fed his current position via omnipresent informants?) would make this a much more engaging title. There's a string of dialogue between Kayron and a companion destined for a space funeral about how each step in Kayron's journey involves several similar side quests, and you're forced to laugh, because at that point you'll have many hours of repetitive gameplay behind you.
It is DarkStar One's repetitiveness that decimates its chances with anyone other than space-sim buffs. While the game excellently provides a sense of depth and vastness to space, and both looks and sounds wonderful, you'll have experienced every bit of innovation available halfway through the game. While it's addicting, the gameplay just isn't varied enough to fulfill the game's potential greatness, nor keep you engaged for the game's lengthy storyline.
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