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Darkstar Anticipation

The semester is not quite over yet, I'm down to a finals week and two fairly hefty assignments to finish before then. However, it seems I've some rather awesome games to play now and in the near future. For now, it's DarkStar One. Despite the fact it's practically free, I'm loving this game. (No wonder GameSpot gave it a 8.1 - avg review 73%).

DarkStar One, released in 2006, is one of the few genuinely good "Elite-alikes," or games based on the first person perspective of being a starship captain given free roam of a universe. The last really good one released was Freelancer, and it's been quite awhile - 5 years, in fact. There have been others, of course, but few are truly excellent products. The difference, of course, is in the key features, and here are some that impressed me about DarkStar One:
  • Very technically friendly
  • One of the main aversions most will have to the typical Elite-alike is that they are usually complex, involved simulations that take a bit of getting used to. There's many a diehard fan behind the Battlecruiser series, but you practically need to study as much as you would for pilot's license to play the game. (Not to mention learn how to avoid the bugs in such an ambitious endeavor.) Consequently, many will steer clear of these kinds of games. Video caption: Somebody else's video on Darkstar One. (This is the German version being shown.) The player would normally not spend so much time docked, but he's showing off the highly advanced interface. DarkStar One, on the other hand, is relatively easy to pick up from start to finish. You don't even have to memorize many buttons if you don't want to, simply hold down the space to bring up your cursor and then point and click on various icons. The very first three missions you do involve some fairly rudimentary tutorial missions, and these are quickly knocked out of the way so you can get into the fun. The majority of the interface is very intuitive with a number of popup window information. It won't require you have a beefy, up-to-date system, either. The system requirements for Darkstar One are unusually low: even for a 2006 game, one that can run smoothly on a 1.6 Ghz CPU and a vertex shader 1.1 card was rare. The engine is capable of taking advantage of better hardware as well, and looks pretty gorgeous even on my 1:5000 contrast ratio monitor. (Some of the textures on the enemy ships are stretched, I just chalk that up to the wear and tear of space travel.)
  • Excellent overall presentation
  • In space, it feels properly as though you are in a floating bubble, in much the same way that Samus's power armor is simulated in Metroid Prime. As you pan around your mouse to aim your guns, it feels as though the pilot is looking about the cockpit as well. All around you, a colorful portayal of a local sector is displayed, including a good deal of ship traffic. The individual space areas are small, any travel over large distances is simulated via a simple hyperdrive sequence, but this actually works to the advantage of creating intimate feeling gameplay. When docked, you're given a nice view of the interior of the space station along with various milling around space jockeys like yourself. You can also choose to do a "panoramic" view from the space station which basically involves looking from the observation deck. The interesting thing to note here is that the universe simulation does not pause when you dock, which is something many a lesser Elite-alike would do. There are additional nice touches as well, such as ample pre-rendered cinematics, explorable interiors, fully realized asteroid fields, and more. It really feels nice when you bounce off something in this game, like you really are in a freefloating tin can that hit a rock. The way the different elements are handled, such as weapon fire and freefloating structures, is very clean.
  • Powerful, evolving starship
  • Some people have complained about this: rather than upgrade across different builds of ships, you instead mutate your existing one. Personally, I think that's a really nice mechanic, it allows you to steadily customize your ship in the directions you want. It's essentially the same as having hundreds of different ships to upgrade to, without all the hassle of having to deal with sorting through them all. The ship also has a unique "plasma" system that can do everything from provide temporary invulnerability to freeze time. This is sort of an interesting mechanic because it puts the player in charge of the deadliest ship in the universe. You might think that's a bit hackeyed but, lets face it, the player is always in charge of the deadliest ship in the universe in these games. Even if they're piloting the same ships with the same equipment as the NPCs they're up against, the player is expected to be the hotshot pilot that beats everybody. That's not very realistic - at least DarkStar One provides an excuse.
  • Reputation Bonuses and GTA-style security system
  • You're ranked in one of six categories based off of the activities you do: e.g. Trader, Pirate, Bounty Hunter, ect. Advancing in these different categories gives you certain advantages related to them, but also alienates you with those who oppose your focus. Pirates, for example, might come to see you as a juicy prize if you're a sufficient advanced trader. (At least, I assume so - I haven't really played with this much.) In addition, there's basically three big organizations: The Galactic Union, the Rebels, and Neutral. Depending on your acts in these systems, you're given a five-star ranking (just like GTA). The higher the stars, the more heat you have sicced on you when you're in the area (just like GTA). Original? Perhaps not - but it is a really cool system to see in an Elite-alike.
  • Epic plot
  • Not to spoil it, but it really is a pretty good plot for an Elite-alike. It involves avenging your father from what will eventually become the most powerful ship in the universe.
I really haven't dug too heavily into the game yet, but so far I'm impressed.

The main complaint I would level against it is that it seems a tad easy. When you're able to strafe and fire diagonally in an evolving death-dealing starship, the enemies you're up against are really kinda pathetic. However, perhaps the game is taking is easy on me because I've just started, and I haven't hunted around for a difficulty slider yet.

There is no online play. For some people, that's why Freelancer reigns supreme. However, the original Elite and the vast majority of the games it was based on weren't online either.

Version 1.3 introduces mod support, but if I can't tweak the way the game plays then it wouldn't be the kind of mod support I want. I'll have to play with it a bit, it may be a good Digitally Forging Art feature. The existing weapon balance is really pretty good, with one-shot death cluster missiles that remind me of the good old days with Descent: Freespace.

DarkStar One has been recently added to GameTap, but I discovered soon afterwards that it's also available via Direct2Drive for $10 or even FilePlanet's Hitpoints for a remarkably small 200 hitpoints. (Though I had the GameTap version, I decided to download the Direct2Drive version when I noticed the version number didn't match the latest patch (1.3).) Don't let the price fool you, this is a genuinely excellent quality product - it's a shame such a quality product is going for so cheap in much the same way Psychonauts and Beyond Good and Evil are.
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