Review: Dark Star One: Broken Alliance (Xbox 360)

Dark Star One: Broken Alliance
Developer: Gaming Minds
Publisher: Kalypso Media
Genre: Space Sim
Released: 07/13/10

Space Sims are a rare breed these days. The glory days of X-Wing, Tie Fighter and Freespace have given way to the bleak prospect of looking at Star Trek: Shattered Universe and thinking it will suffice to quench the constant craving. It’s a shameful feeling, knowing you’ll play a bad space sim just to get the chance to aim your plasma cannon’s at something resembling a Y-Wing or a Cylon Raider. I don’t care though. One day that alien from The Last Starfighter will come, and I’ll save the universe from some other alien horde, and damn you all, you’ll be grateful then!

Ahem. Anyway, lets get on with the reviewing of Dark Star One: Broken Alliance.

Story:

Honestly, we’re off to a rough start here. You play as Kayron, a recent graduate from flight school who is given the keys to Daddy’s latest hot rod invention, the Dark Star One. This star fighter is capable of being modified and upgraded substantially, and would be worth millions of credits. Your father died recently, and his last request was that you be given the DS1. Your father’s best friend gives you the star ship and then tells you about your fathers death, explaining that he suspects foul play. He gives you all the leads he can and then sends you on your way. In your travels across the known universe you will encounter numerous people, gain a mysterious co-pilot, help some strangers and kill others.

Graphics:

If the story felt a bit lacking in depth, the graphics aren’t going to wow you either. The CG looks to be state of the art for five years ago. The actual game models fare a little better, with numerous systems in the galaxy having vast asteroid fields to navigate. Starbases play an integral role in the game, and you’ll be docking in them quite frequently, so you’ll notice pretty quickly how generic they look as well. Each species in the game has it’s own type of star base, so you’ll wind up seeing approximately six different types of space stations on your quest for vengeance and justice. Similarly, each species has its preferred star fighters and star ship classes. When you figure that there are six races in the galaxy which you are traversing, plus pirates and merchants, I think they did a good job of not boring me to death by sending wave after wave of the same ships at the player.

Sound:

It’s clear that the sound designers for Dark Star One tried put some thought into how each race should sound. How one race should speak with a lisp and how another should sound very aggressive; these kinds of things. What they didn’t do was pay for top caliber voice talent. I noticed the lead characters would often have the wrong inflection for some words, as though they were reading a line and didn’t know it was continuing on the next page, perhaps. It’s either that or the characters are supposed to be bi-polar. Sometimes your co-pilot sounds entirely too cheerful, and it’s not because of her sunny personality either.

The music isn’t bad. It reminds me a lot of the music found in Sins of a Solar Empire actually. It’s mostly symphonic, with hints of Butt Rock, as it used to be known. You’ll notice this when you enter battle, as the music will switch from a grand symphony to a “rockin’ groove” pretty fast, which can be handy if you’re not paying attention.

The worst thing I can think about regarding the audio is the lack of variety. It’s partly tied to the lack of mission variety, but every pirate says the same thing when you first enter an occupied system. They try to vary it a little by getting someone else to voice the same lines, but that misses the point completely.

Gameplay/Controls:

Onto the meat of the game. There haven’t been many games of this type to succeed on the home consoles. The premier console space sim would probably be the Colony Wars series, a set of games which I should point out is just DYING to be paid for again and downloaded to my PS3. Sony – this means you. Anyway, the main reason these games fail is the lack of buttons. Game like this, such as X-Wing, Freespace, and even Wing Commander, were designed with keyboard controls in mind. When you try to map a control scheme to a joystick you quickly run out of buttons. Dark Star One, which did start out life as a PC game, has gone about trying to map the controls to the 360 Controller. I’d say they succeeded…mostly. There are some awkward issues that popped up on me, some continuously, some not. You can roll your star fighter, but only if you press another button on the controller first. This when combined with pressing the throttle stick (right stick), enables you to roll. That I found a little bit tiresome, but I got over it for the most part once I discovered you could click the right stick to automatically roll your ship to what the game considered to be straight and level for that area. Of course you can’t really pick a point in space and say this is right side up, but I’d imagine once star travel becomes common someone will come up with the bright idea of using a reference point, like say a local space station’s docking bay, to keep everyone from getting all confused.

Anyway, so I said I got over it. That’s not completely correct. The final storyline mission contains a trench run. No really. I don’t know if it was an homage or what, but there it was, a trench. And it needed running. The game makes a point of telling you that the auto correction is going crazy while you are in the trench. You’ll discover first hand this is true as you start rolling this way and that. It would have been extremely helpful if I could just control the roll myself during that mission without having to complicate things by pressing another button first.

Another thing which the control scheme did somewhat poorly was the targeting system. You must press a button to bring up a menu that lists all of the targets on your radar, including enemies, friends and neutral parties. You then have to move your joystick along this list of targets to get what you’re looking for. It’s not always like this. If all you’re looking to target is the next enemy you can simply press X, and if you want to target something directly in front of you, just press A, but if you want anything more complex than that you have to bring up the menu.

There is also a very heavy auto targeting system, and I’m not sure how I feel about it. On the one hand it makes blasting alien scum into space dust much easier, but on the other it makes blasting alien scum into space dust much easier. Here’s what I eventually decided: You’re in the future, of course you’d have a computer assisting you to kill enemies. Hell I’m pretty sure we have it now. It’s not like there isn’t any skill required. You don’t just press the trigger and poof everyone else is dead. You merely have to get the targeting pipper close to the target reticule and the computer will link it up, enabling you to blast away.

Replayability:

For a single player game there is a lot to do here. First, there is the huge area of play you’ll encounter. I didn’t count but it wouldn’t surprise me if there were 100 or more star systems for you to warp into. This is both good and bad. Good because the game experience is lengthened, and if you’re enjoying the game why not take as much of it as possible? Bad because in order to fill all those systems with something for you to do the designers had to reuse many of the same mission types over and over…and over again. It becomes pretty tiresome to know that when you jump into an occupied pirate system the pirates will always appear in the top left quarter of your screen. They’ll say the same line (as mentioned above) and then you’ll have to shoot down a few waves before the system is considered liberated. That’s fun for a while, but when you are liberating as many systems as possible in order to get the artifacts you need to upgrade your ship with, you notice the commonalities pretty damned quick.

Next, I’ll mention that the game has perhaps the most in depth resource trading system I think I’ve ever seen in a game of this type. Your star fighter can be outfitted to haul cargo, and believe me it can be a nice quick way to make a buck when you need to upgrade your jump drive in order to continue the story. When you upgrade your ship to haul enough cargo, and if you are paying attention to the markets nearby, you can pull in a nice hefty haul. You don’t even need to PAY for the goods you’re selling. If you invest in the proper equipment you can do some space mining yourself, then take the loot to a handy space station and sell it. The market varies by where you are selling, so don’t bring crystals to a planet that is rich in crystals. Simple enough but the amount of things you can trade in the game is quite hefty. I focused mainly on things I could obtain with blasters so I didn’t do much buying to sell elsewhere, but there is more than a page of items you can invest in to ship if you choose.

And you don’t even have to be a goody two shoes in Dark Star One either. If you choose you can be a dirty Nerf herding smuggler and pirate. You can hijack goods from cargo ships and then pass them off as your own and make a handy buck or two. You can also collect on bounties offered on space station terminals, or take up side missions offered on some stations to gain access to secret star systems which usually contain the alien artifacts you need to upgrade your ship.

I’ve mentioned that you can upgrade your ship but I haven’t really gone into much detail. I shall now rectify that. The Dark Star One was designed by your late father to take advantage of any superior technology you might encounter in the galaxy. That’s basically the line they give you in the game. For you the player it means that as you earn money you can invest in additional, more powerful weapons, better engines and a number of other items. All of these upgrades are enabled by collecting alien artifacts which are scattered across the galaxy. You’ll notice as you play that they are all found in asteroid fields, which led me to suspect that the story would somehow evolve to explain that, but it didn’t and I’m OK with that. Collect enough artifacts and you can then purchase an upgrade to one portion of your ship. It could be the front, where your weapons are located, the middle where your technical systems are generally located, or it could be in the rear, where your engines go. Which upgrade you choose can have a big effect on how you progress in the game, as you will often need a specific level on one system or another before you can upgrade your hyperdrive or weapons etc.
Upgrading also grants you additional points on your armor to mount more weapons. For me I wound up finishing the game with four forward firing weapon hard points and three auto-targeting turrets, but I’m sure you could probably get more.

You also unlock special abilities when you upgrade your ship with the alien artifacts. You can enable your ship to supercharge your lasers for a short time, boost your shield regeneration, fire an EMP burst at an opponent, and a few other abilities. I suppose you could look at these skills as a kind of magic, given that you essentially cast a buff on yourself. The portion of the heads up display which displays your energy level for this function is actually very easy to miss, as it fades in and out while you are maneuvering.

Balance:

Seldom did I find myself getting overwhelmed by my opposition. The fact that you can take on side missions and level up your “character” in much the same way you would level up an RPG character means that if you put the time in you will almost always annihilate your enemy in one pass. Even enemy star cruisers start to look like nothing more than bigger targets as you get deeper into the game.

Originality:

I love the trade aspect of the game. I’ve seen similar types of things in other games but not in this genre, and not to this extent. I also enjoyed the “tribute” missions I went on. There were at least two missions that seemed to be the designers paying tribute to the games which inspired them, including one based on Descent.

Addictiveness:

The main story is fairly long, and could probably have ended a bit sooner than it did. With all the effort it takes to upgrade your ship towards the end, it starts to feel like more of a grind than a legitimate use of the player’s attention.

Appeal:

How appealing this game will be probably depends on how badly you’ve been wanting to play a space shooting sim type game. If you’re like me and you’ve been dying to play a decent (never mind incredible) new game that takes place in space, then this will be very much to your liking. If you on the other hand are amongst the vast majority who don’t care for strapping on star fighters and saving the galaxy, then other than the trading system I’m not sure there will be anything here that would convert you.

Miscellaneous:

Multiplayer would have been a nice addition to the game, but since I’m guessing the development team was not very big I’m going to credit them for not throwing something together that nobody would probably play anyway. Perhaps if there is a Dark Star Two however they might choose to include an online co-operative mode and online versus.

The Scores:
Story/Modes: POOR
Graphics: MEDIOCRE
Sound: MEDIOCRE
Control/Gameplay: GOOD
Replayability: GREAT
Balance: POOR
Originality: GREAT
Addictiveness: ABOVE AVERAGE
Appeal: BELOW AVERAGE
Miscellaneous: VERY GOOD

Final Score: ABOVE AVERAGE

The depth found in the game really saves the day here, because while the control scheme is a valiant attempt the AI of your enemies and the repetitive nature of most missions could mean disaster without the variety you yourself can bring to the game. Not Freespace, but not bad either.

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