Solemn trumpet fanfare streams into the DarkStar One universe; a universe brightly colored and lavishly detailed -- saturated, in fact -- with solar systems crowded with reams of inhabited planets, floating landfills of debris, and asteroids, asteroids, asteroids. There’s relatively little space out there in outer space, which only serves to shrink any grasp at the immensity of the DarkStar galaxy. But the promise of this becoming the next Freelancer is gripped in a handshake from developers Ascaron. A handshake affirming the expected gameplay niceties of a space simulator (trading, technology trees, and joystick-lovin’ space combat) but perhaps squeezing a little too hard on the keep-it-simple principles.
Sci-fi themes can easily (and often do) fall in love with their own bloated sense of “imagination,” while ironically relying on stereotypes manufactured on a sci-fi assembly line. And so it is with DarkStar One. The final frontier has been burned, pillaged, and rebuilt overtop of itself so many times that it’s all instantly familiar. You’ve been there. And you’ve done that. Aside from a few fun conventions introduced early on, there’s rarely any sense of awe or discovery at what you come across. And those fun-sounding conventions wear down quickly. Exploring over 300 systems looks good on paper, but the nominal variety between them all turns the universe into a bland soup of tired expectations. This game could’ve expanded to 3,000 systems and accomplished nothing more than its initial public offering. And on that same token, 30 systems would’ve felt much more fully-realized and wholesome; you could’ve gone home satisfied. Instead, it’s platter after platter of a five-item menu.
The trashy, beach-read storyline -- while a noble effort -- is anything but a page-turner, and often smacks of summer writing workshops. And some of the voice acting needs to hook itself up to a heart monitor to see if there’s any life left in it. The cut scenes’ acting registers well, but some of the in-game voice actors -- especially the lady doing air traffic control for the Terran trade stations -- are struggling with with their script reading.
The public announcement system inside of space stations works like a champ, though. You will be grazing through the mission bulletins, or the trade lists, when a voiceover will broadcast the arrival of a large freighter (loading and unloading goods in real-time), or newscast reasons for the recent shortage in energy cells, or even give a heads up whether pirates have entered the system (if you’re trading, you might want to wait out the intrusion; if you’re ‘rat hunting, you could scramble your own fighter and snag some bounties). Either way, it’s far more engaging than listening to the pilots outside complaining about why the landing queue is so long.
Once you’re out there, though, the pirates aren’t just going to be lurking around the corners … they’re out there mingling with the locals, mixing it up with security forces, and tossing up trouble everywhere within a tight radius of the space stations. The arcade combat action is convincing, though, and it’d be easy to lose a roll of quarters on that aspect alone.
The menus, in and out of the cockpit, are picturesque and a snap to navigate, although some functions you’ll have to dabble with and discover on your own. Even the tutorial slacks on some important details for this simplistic simulator. You’ll never have to dig deeper than two levels into any icon. It’s a level of restraint lost on menu whores like EVE Online, but not so minimalistic that you’re teeth-grindingly lost like in X3: Reunion. The universe map is begging for a Search button, despite the VH1 pop up video style statistics, since manually tracking your mouse over hundreds of untagged stars is a hobby best left to Myst adventure gamers.
Travel between the stars is fast and oiled down, with only a few cursory equipment timers keeping you from hopping like Q-Bert through huge blocks of space. Your ship (the “DarkStar One,” incidentally) is equipped with heavy thrusters to aid you in short bursts during dogfights, but an hourglass icon also beckons from the side of the HUD to speed up time. Which is great if you’re not into sightseeing, but takes another chunk out of the breadth and scope of space. The X- and Y-axis keep shrinking in the DarkStar universe, no matter how many stars you sprinkle on the map.
And, despite the huge number of stars to contend with, the political map doesn’t try to dig too deep either. Much like the economics. Much like the character development. Much like the entire 2-dimensional DarkStar One endeavor. And don’t try to complain about frequent desktop crashes and system freezes: Their critical error email is written entirely in German. So unless you’re familiar with what “Ein unerwarteter Fehler mit unbekannter Ursache ist aufgetreten” means, we’ll have to rely on German speakers to report the bug-filled universe to Ascaron, and hopefully get a patch translated into English. Cross your fingers.
Or cross your legs. Since this space simulator effectively castrates itself with all-around shallow functions, a disposable storyline, bland economic modeling, and repetitive mission assemblies. The rich, creamy graphics can’t hide the fact that DarkStar One is a lot of empty calories and little nutritional content. The basic space sim food groups are here, but are overwhelmed by eye-candy amenities.