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Review: DarkStar One

Justin McElroy

If you're a fan of space combat sims like Elite and Colony Wars, I need to talk with you about DarkStar One. But I need to whittle down the crowd a bit first, so hang tight.

DarkStar One is a PC game from 2006 that's been ported as-is to the Xbox 360, with only an improved resolution to show for the jump. The dialog sounds like the worst community theater from every country was gathered to read a half-finished Babylon 5 script aloud, and everyone there was asked to switch accents with the person closest to them. The cinematics look like deleted scenes from a bootleg DVD of ReBoot. There are frequent graphical glitches, and it completely froze up on me no fewer than twice at wholly inconvenient moments. There are local furniture commercials with better special effects.

... Okay, are you still there? Because if you've hung on with me this long -- if you've read this far and haven't moved on to a different post -- I can pretty much guarantee you're going to love DarkStar One.

Our hero, Kayron Jarvis, has just received a pretty fantastic inheritance from his murdered father (which, honestly, is the least he could do after naming his kid Kayron Jarvis): the DarkStar One, a semi-organic, one-of-a-kind, armed-to-the-teeth cargo freighter. Sadly, before our boy Jarvis can go picking up space babes with it, he gets word that there's a suspect in his father's murder and an intergalactic chase ensues.

Though you'll need to hunt the murderer to advance, you're given a lot of leeway with regards to the speed at which the hunt moves forward. At any moment you can take stop to take a side job for one of the universe's many corporations, escorting their cargo from one system to another or even eavesdropping on a competitor's meeting. If you've had enough corporate espionage, you can search for one of 100 hidden artifacts that you'll use to upgrade the DSO's capabilities.

I can't promise you won't occasionally be irritated by mission and dialog repetition, but the quantity is definitely there.

If you want, you can blow the whole thing off and take up a career in smuggling, buying goods like machinery and fuel rods from poor systems that manufacture them and selling them off in wealthy systems where they're less plentiful. Just be careful: Certain types of goods are considered contraband in certain systems, so you may need to avoid the space cops, depending on the route you take.

There is a lot to do. I played for 18 hours (over the span of two days, mind you) and I managed to uncover just around half of the 300 star systems on the map. I can't promise you won't occasionally be irritated by mission and dialog repetition, but the quantity is definitely there.

No matter what course of action you take, you'll typically end up in a 360-degree space battle, which is where DSO goes from mediocre to hypnotic for me. I don't know what it is about seeing stars blur as I use the afterburners to close on enemies, switching power on the fly between shields and weaponry, or spinning wildly trying to get a missile lock, but I find space combat irresistible, and this is one of the only ways to get a fix on modern consoles.

DSO has made the leap from keyboard/mouse to controller surprisingly well, but the controls are unnecessarily complex, and getting the hang of them takes time. It would help if the instruction manual was the least bit competent in explaining how to pilot your ship or how to decode your HUD, but, sadly, it is not.

In truth, the very best thing about Dark Star One is just how little competition it has in the space combat sim genre. The closest you'll get on the 360 is Project Sylpheed, and that's far more arcadey and fantastical than this. In an alternate reality where top-tier studios were cranking out four or five of these sort of games a year, DSO's dated graphics and abysmal presentation would likely relegate it to an afterthought. But here on Earth Prime, where competent space shooters, especially on consoles, are bafflingly rare? I'm happy for whatever I can get.

This review is based on the Xbox 360 retail version of DarkStar One, purchased by the reviewer.

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