Darkstar One is a game I really wanted to love. Even up until the final battle, when it was clear that this was going to be an infuriatingly 'just OK' gaming experience, I wanted it to turn it up a notch and dazzle me. Unfortunately this just never happened.
Let's start with the negatives. The main plot is pretty forgetable. It isn't that bad, it's just the typical 'boy's father is murdered, boy sets out to find the truth only to find a larger, far-reaching conspiracy' story that has driven countless mediocre movies over the years. Add to that a couple of potentially interesting sub-plots that were left severly under-developed (escalating Oct'o/Arrack border dispute, Thul race being descended from Terran splinter group with penchant for genetic modification) and it all adds up to a very disappointing story.
Don't be fooled by the promise of 'Full HD', this a direct port from a game released in 2006 - and it really shows graphically. While the views of planets and stars from your ship are fairly picturesque, up close things can get pretty messy. The cutscenes are, simply put, ugly. In a year that has seen the release of the likes of Mass Effect 2 and God of War 3, aesthetically Darkstar One seems like a massive step backwards. The different alien races have their own ship and trade station models, as you would expect, but that is where the variety ends. Every Raptor pirate is flying the same one-man fighter, just as every Terran cruiser looks identical and every trade station for the different races are made up of the same components arranged in a different manner. Some of the best games are guilty of over-using cookie cutter design models, but Darkstar One takes it to a new level, which simply smacks of laziness on behalf of the design team.
Which brings me to the voice acting, which veers from the hilarious to the simply cringeworthy. Reading the credits, it's clear that the voice talent on display are almost exclusively German, which goes a long way to explaining the indecipherable accents, as well as strange turns of phrase used by enemies to taunt you ("I will see to it that you personally do!" Just seems off, doesn't it?). I find this hard to put down as a real criticism as it is geniunely funny at times, and I had a lot of fun trying to guess exactly where some space pirates were supposed to be from (so this one's an...Irish alien space pirate? Indian? South African?).
So that brings me round to what I liked about Darkstar One. Although the ships were lacking in variety, the alien races themselves were fairly well-realised. Each uses their own unique weapon which deals out damage in a different way (some can devastate shields, others deplete hulls more rapidly, while a couple do equal damage to both) and all can be fitted to the Darkstar One, either as a forward cannon fired by you, or an automatic turret that fires on the closest enemy. The combat tactics also vary from species to species, the Klingon-like Mortock use reverse thrust when chased to escape from your line of fire, while the Raptor use a combination of a shield-depleting weapon and missiles that can cause problems.
The Darkstar One itself is another well thought-out and executed aspect of this game. It is split into 3 upgradeable sections - hull, wings, and engine - that are advanced by collecting artifacts found in certain systems. This allows you to tailor the ship to your own style of play, those intending play as traders upgrade the engine and hull to improve the ships performance when laden with cargo and make your ship robust enough to shake of pirate attacks, while those going down the bounty hunter route will want to concentrate mainly on wings to make the Darkstar One more nimble and to ensure it packs enough punch to make light work of pirates and fugitives.
The biggest plus point, for me, has got to be the combat system. Simple enough to be completely accessible, though more advanced players can add upgrades to their ship to manually manage things like the power ratio between shields and weapons, and targeting assist can be turned off to make proceedings more challenging. It strikes a good balance between having to be mindful of your surrounding (much of the fighting takes place in Star Wars-style asteroid fields), trying to counter the way your opponent fights, and keeping an eye on the Darkstar One's shield strength and weapons power.
All in all, Darkstar One is a decent game that would have made an excellent Xbox Live Arcade download in it's current form. Given that it is a full retail release, it really should have been given a more substantial update than an unconvincing HD facelift. The biggest positive that can be taken from this game is that it has shown that space combat sims can work on current gen consoles, so hopefully major developers will take note and revive a genre that has been in decline in recent years.