A LITE IN THE DARKNESS
Just as the Xbox One wasn't the first Xbox, Darkstar One wasn't the first Dark Star game. That accolade, I'm fairly certain, goes to the cult ZX Spectrum game that was named after - though is entirely separate from - John Carpenter's cult sci-fi movie from ten years earlier. Neither should ever be confused with Darkstar: The Interactive Movie, but since that arrived after Darkstar One and, as its name suggests, is barely a game anyway, is only worth mentioning to make clear that it's not Darkstar Two, which doesn't exist.
Not that there's any need to labour the distinction. Darkstar One was hard to miss when it was first released, partly because space games in 2006 were few and far between. In addition, the game's protagonist, Kayron Jarvis, was prominent in his distinctive yellow and blue jacket, looking more like a Eurovision contestant than a spaceship captain. With his creepy lingering stare and awkward, cliched lines, he certainly wasn't the hero the genre needed. Nonetheless, he was all we had so we tried not to focus too much on his contrived quest to find his father's killer. Thankfully, as was soon discovered, the headline act was the eponymous ship that Simon Jarvis has conveniently bequeathed his son.
It doesn't look like much from the outside, but the Darkstar One is a neat little ship. Forged from ancient alien technology, it can be expanded and upgraded with alien artefacts found inside asteroids. Apply one of these green glowing blobs to the front of the ship and the vessel's hull integrity will improve and you'll be able to fit better weapons. Midsection (wing) upgrades affect forward-firing hardpoints and agility, while at the rear you can improve your power recharge rates and cargo capacity. The idea was that you can focus upgrades in your preferred area of expertise without ever needing to buy and equip a different ship. And the neat thing is that the Darkstar One looks different with each upgrade so that by the end it's a very different vessel from the one you inherited.
The downside to having a ship that's designed to avert the need for another is that, of course, there are no others. That said, as someone who prefers games with more ships with less flexibility, the inability to try out other vessels was less of an issue compared to how others in the game react to the one you're in. For a one-of-a-kind craft based on ancient alien technology, the people you meet are remarkably unimpressed. "Woah, nice ship!" you'll occasionally hear from a passer-by when you arrive in a system. In another, you'll be set upon by pirates, not because they want the resale value of the Darkstar One, but because that's what pirates do. You'd think they'd try to prize you out of it, but no.
Canned responses are emblematic of the repetition that runs throughout Darkstar One. There are 331 solar systems in the game, which you progress through as the range of your hyperdrive increases. However, they are all pretty much the same: There's a planet you can't land on, a trading post you can dock with and a gate where you can usually find pirates kicking around. Not all systems have asteroids and not all asteroids have alien artefacts within them, but those that do are all conveniently signposted on the map along with any quest triggers. My point is that if you like surprises, the only one that will greet you when you arrive in a new system is the hue of the skybox - which are always rather lovely, to be fair - and, of course, whether one of the locals will complement your ship.
Trading is equally as underwhelming for much the same reasons. Each solar system has a limited set of goods for sale and others in limited supply, but it doesn't really matter what they are. Pick a commodity that isn't red and you are bound to make some profit on it at the next system. Sure, you can study a planetary system's government and economy to maximise profits, but it's 1984 Elite-level basic and the information isn't well presented even by those ancient standards. Moreover, there's no real sense of any wider economy tickings along regardless of whether you choose to engage with it or not. Trading is just a means to bulk out your wallet so that you can afford the next tier of ship upgrade, made worse than Elite's because trading is literally a drag: You tow your cargo behind you, which reduces ship manoeuvrability and speed, and have to drop your cargo and pick it up again when attacked. It seems novel and interesting at first, but you soon realise how dumb it is that you're essentially dragging Amazon boxes around on a piece of string.
Missions fare a little better, but only because they invariably involve combat. Shunting cargo around to order requires less effort than trading, but there's a greater likelihood of coming under attack, which means going through the rigmarole of decoupling your cargo to be able to fight off attackers. Bounty hunting assignments are quite lucrative since you receive a lump sum as well as the standard amount for destroying each ship, but it's probably a good idea not to pick up too many assignments as it's yet another area where the seams in the game design start to show through the more you poke at them. Not that you can line missions up in any case, as you can only have one active at a time.
Combat is the gameplay area where Darkstar One shines brightest. In line with the rest of the game, it's accessible, basic and easy. Enemy ships take wide predictable paths and their long engine trails make them simple to locate whenever you overshoot your target. On the easiest level, the hitboxes are pretty generous and there's never any need to refer to the scanner, but even on harder difficultly levels the AI isn't much more of a challenge. If all that sounds negative, it's really not. You can rack up an absurd number of kills in double-quick time, often before your stock opponent gets to repeat their lines about how they're going to ruin your day. In a game that trades consistently in cheap, easy returns, combat is simply the part of the game that pays the best dividend.
From the very first cut-scene, as Kayron Jarvis tries to hide his boner for a ship he doesn't know is his, you will be groaning at the storyline. The premise, the writing, the voice-acting and the awkward timing of many of the scenes are all pretty dismal. Of course, this makes you want to sit through more to see if it gets worse, and, as can so often happen, you run the danger of enjoying things. That's because, once the cheese-encrusted top layer of the cliched revenge story has been baked off (around about the same time you've accepted the game's many cut-and-paste faults), the story does throw up a couple of surprises. It never strays too far from its b-movie beginnings, but the production values are invariably cast in a better light if you invest your time in the story rather than the busywork.
As a whole, Darkstar One is probably a better game than some - myself included - first gave it credit for when it first appeared, certainly now that all semblance of expectation has fallen away. However, taken in isolation, not one of its parts stands up against its contemporaries, let alone its successors: The earlier entries in the X series implemented a more satisfying economy and Freelancer aced its mouse-driven interface while offering a far more presentable narrative. But, oddly, when you clump all its misshapen bits together, Darkstar One does add up to more than the sum of its substandard parts. Enough to create an infuriating but undeniable paradox - that it's a game that you know is wrong but that you're compelled to endure regardless. Should you find yourself enjoying Darkstar one, that's great, but please just keep it to yourself - no one else needs to know about it. The last thing the genre needs right now is a sequel.
SUMMARY: Developed by #Ascaron, #DarkstarOne is a vibrant #story-driven #arcade-style game of #interplanetary #deepspace #shipcombat, with #missions, #trading and #shipupgrades. Despite its bland gameplay, hackneyed storyline and copypasted setting, it's an easy game to fall into and difficult not to enjoy if you keep your expectations low: #2stars.
PLAYED: #PC version 1.3 - Nov 2006 (originally #released2006)
LINKS: Mobygames profile, Steam, GOG, GamersGate