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Darkstar Evaluation

Finals week begins. I don't have much left to do, but I'm pretty effectively dragging my feet nonetheless.

The weekend was pretty much spent playing Darkstar One. All the awhile, my inner game design critic was running. What we have here are some early observations that I'll probably clean up to deliver on my other Blog before too much longer.

Coding that many asteroids with working collision detection couldn't have been easy.

Once I actually got into the game, I discovered there's very much a routine in place:
  1. Enter a new sector
  2. Collect all free-floating artifacts in asteroids.
  3. Liberate system(s), collecting their artifacts.
  4. Complete the side quest to unlock the remaining system and collect that artifact.
  5. Defeat pirate gangs for "secret service" level weapon.
  6. Complete the main quest line to unlock access to the next sector
Sometimes things would be mixed up a bit. For example, you might need to come back to a sector later to unlock the remaining systems in the sector. However, the variation is minimal, and this is a very prominent-feeling routine that prevents the game from feeling truly open-ended. To an extent, there's nothing wrong with linearity - it's a well-balanced, organized approach - but it eschews the greater challenge of making a truly open-ended game.

Given such a straightforward path, it's a wonder I'm still amused enough with the game that I'll likely finish it. My ship is currently at about level 17 out of 20, and I've only about 25% of the starmap left to fill in. If anything has changed since the start, it's been a steadily unfolding plot (which remains relatively interesting even at this point) and the introduction of a new type of gun with every species (I'm up to five now and expect one more). Aside from the story, the only real lure to keep me playing is perhaps collecting the artifacts to upgrade the DarkStar one.

In space, there's always room for improvement

One thing that bothers me about the game is that there seems to be widely varying advantages or disadvantages to maxing out your reputation by performing certain activities. The Merchant and the Mercenary get a straight up economic advantage. However, the Smugger, Pirate, and Killer only get impediments to make it harder for them to do what they do. The Bounty Hunter gets attacked more often, which is both annoying and advantageous (as destroyed enemies yield a bounty). Why should some players be rewarded while others penalized? It doesn't make good sense from a gameplay perspective.

Solution: Either make these universally beneficial, or allow reputation to decrease in time (which would result in requiring diligence to keep the benefits while simultaneously providing a respite from the consequences).

There are 100 artifacts spread across the campaign map. Flying into a mine every once in awhile to collect an artifact is fine, but when you're doing it 4-6 times per sector, often without any challenge involved, that's just silly.

Solution: Make each artifact collected carry a challenge (perhaps those mines should shoot at the Darkstar One) while avoiding repetition (provide different content than just system liberation or mine raiding). Given DarkStar One's current content, I'd have cut it down to 1 mine shaft collection artifact and 1 liberation artifact per sector and cut down the number of artifacts that need to be collected per system (and per ship upgrade) to 2.

The DarkStar One has a sensor that tells the player where all the artifacts in a sector are immediately. This makes artifact acquisition not require any exploration at all - it makes the game feel that much more linear.

Solution: Reduce artifact visibility to current-sector only. Have a black market informant feature for if the player needs hints as to where to find the artifacts. (This would double as a money sink.)

Collecting a number of artifacts upgrades the Darkstar One to the next level, and more artifacts are required as your level increases. Gaining a level in the Darkstar One allows two kinds of upgrades, a chassis upgrade and a plasma system upgrade. Each system has enough slots to be upgraded 30 times, but the main storyline is balanced so that you are only able to find enough artifacts to upgrade 20 times.

A little bit of forced customization is good, but the way it is balanced allows a player to gimp themselves. An uneven balance curve results: The enemies get tougher at a rate reflecting of the Darkstar One's level, but the Darkstar One does not increase at the same rate depending on how the player invested their upgrades.

In the chassis upgrade, the Thruster is the main genuine power increaser, while the other two (Wing and Hull) only increase the number of guns you can carry while adding a minor defensive advantage: hull points in the case of hull, agility in the case of wings. If you went for a pure 10 hull, 10 wing upgrade you'd have the maximum possible guns (5 turrets and 6 forward firing weapons). However, you'd not have sufficient energy regeneration to use them all and (because this also affects shield regeneration rate) likely next-to-no survivability without using your Plasma system. A 10 engine anything, with its astounding 200% regeneration rate, would likely be neigh invulnerable to most threats in the game.

Solution: I'd have probably made it so upgrading the Hull or Wings provides a more balanced benefit, such as increased shield regeneration rate (hulls) and increased weapon capacitor recharge rate (wings). Thrusters are probably already nerfed sufficiently in relation to this adjustment.

In the Plasma system upgrade, two upgrades make the rest seem largely unnecessary. The Plasma Shield at the top of the tier grants complete invulnerability for up to 20 seconds. The Timeshock will paralyze all nearby enemy ships for up to 30 seconds. (I haven't tried the ECM, but I hear it's sort of like a ranged Timeshock that effects less ships.) The effectiveness of these systems is such that there seems to be little point in the lower tier abilities at all.

Solution: The main trouble, as I see it, is that all abilities drain the Plasma Capacitor equally. I'd have made different abilities drain the capacitor at varying rates depending on their effectiveness. Increasing the level of the ability also increases the charge it requires to use, so even that barely used ability remains handy due to capacitor efficiency. Perhaps the Plasma Capacitor should charge slowly at all times and more than one ability could be active at a time given sufficient charge. (The Darkstar One's total plasma capacitor should probably increase with level as well, so that the charge is reduced significantly by lower level abilities at lower levels.)

The enemies appear to be a pretty ragtag bunch with widely varying abilities. I was pleasantly surprised to see that some of them carry unique abilities such as cloaking devices, the ability to jump around during combat, and this kind of super death cannon that immobilizes them as they charge it. Perhaps my only real complaint about them would be that the balance is a bit odd here. I don't seem to encounter the super death cannon enemies anymore at level 17. If I were to offer any solution here, it would be perhaps to make them seem a bit more consistent with a central theme - less ragtag and more organized.

In the end, Darkstar One is not a terrible game. I'm enjoying it - compared to most games, it's actually very capably balanced and designed. However, these little imperfections are what prevent it from being a game without peer in my mind.
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