"Keep it simple, stupid" isn't a credo that space-sim developers have subscribed to over the years. While other games have practically beaten players senseless with the complicated economics of buying and selling futuristic space-goods, the developers of DarkStar One apparently realized that some of us just want to be Han Solo. This game "gets" the template of 1985's Commodore 64 classic Elite in a way that many other space-trading games released over the past decade or so didn't, thanks to its emphasis on the mid-'80s classic's simple principles of buying low, selling high, and blasting pirates for fun and profit. It comes with a few minor problems in the fit-and-finish department, but the game is still an outstanding return to the frontier spirit that made Elite so memorable.
As with all space traders, the story revolves around a man of mystery with a brand-new spaceship, enigmatic aliens on the attack, and a few dozen planets producing merchandise you can haul around the galaxy to make a few bucks. This time out the man is Kayron Jarvis, the mystery to be unraveled is the identity of his father's murderer, the nasty aliens are the biomechanical Thul, and the galaxy is a few hundred star systems with suitably sci-fi names like Pachae and Cloosa.
Gameplay options are predictable, too. You can stick close to the main story missions (which spin an interesting tale, if you can endure the after-school-special quality of the voice acting); take assignments on offer in spaceports; escort cargo vessels; follow up rumors of illegal activity in certain systems; get into side missions dealing with assassinations, hidden star systems, corporate malfeasance, and more; and schlep goods like machinery, spirits, precious metals, and superconductors from one system to another. Depending on the assignments you accept, you'll eventually become notorious in one of six career paths that range from mercenary to trader to flat-out killer. The basic idea is to follow the main story, make as much money on the side as possible, and outfit your ship--the DarkStar One, natch--into one seriously cherry ride.
But even though all of the above plays pretty much strictly by the book, DarkStar One feels fresh. The big reason for this is a relatively simplistic approach to everything and a user-friendly core. Missions feature a fair bit of variety, involving everything from covert listening ops to blasting an entire pirate gang to smithereens, but they never stray far from quick, action-oriented goals that keep you interested. Even the routine job of picking up an abandoned cargo container typically turns into a dogfight, as you can bet that pirates will locate the goods before you do.
A fair bit of money is on the table right from the beginning, too, so there's no boring grind involved in earning enough cash to buy upgrades for your ship. You can start outfitting Mk II laser cannons, missile launchers, an afterburner boost, an upgraded jump drive, and many more goodies after just a handful of quick missions. This lets you play the game as a gung-ho space sim, as there is enough cash on offer for pirate bounties alone to allow you to skip trading almost entirely.
If you do want to get into transporting goods, though, you don't have to jump through hoops and track the value of items in a hundred to make a buck (as was the case in, for example, X3: Reunion). The market system here is beautifully stripped down to its essentials, meaning all you have to do to turn a profit is buy goods in a system that produces them and sell them in a system that doesn't. There are some variables to consider, such as the wealth and type of government of the system where you're doing business, and whether or not the goods you're transporting are legal (police ships scan you for contraband like drugs or androids on entry to Galactic Union systems), but trading overall is very easy to manage.
With no economic learning curve, you can dive into the game headfirst. Making big bucks in the trading game is as simple as buying crystals at the service colony of Athasho for 40 credits each and selling them at the agricultural colony of Yarie, which specializes in carbohydrates and proteins, for 90 credits each. All the essential information about each system is displayed on the galactic map screen, so you can plan lucrative, multistop trading expeditions in seconds. Devote a few hours to plying the trade routes and you can hoard tens of thousands of credits in your bank account, which is plenty of cash to really trick out the DarkStar One.
But you don't always have to add mechanical gizmos to your vessel. Unlike the ships in other space traders, the DarkStar One is a partially organic entity that can be buffed much like the run-of-the-mill fighter or cleric in an RPG. Ancient artifacts found in asteroids scattered all over the map can be absorbed and used like experience points to power your ship in various ways, like growing larger wings so that you can mount dual laser cannons. You also have an upgradable plasma weapon that boosts your ship's firepower and provides the ability to snap up a defensive shield.
Just a few headaches interfere with your career as a space rogue. Most notably, we encountered a bug that caused serious slowdowns. Everything would be fine one moment, then we would warp into a new system and immediately enter slide-show territory. Only restarting the game would get things back to the normal visuals, which are smooth-flowing with pretty, if a touch dated, asteroid-strewn space vistas dominated by gorgeous planets and shining suns. These wonderful pieces of spatial scenery sometimes come together into these postcard-like panorama scenes that can be simply breathtaking. Dated as the graphics engine sometimes looks, it's also capable of real beauty.
Unfortunately, that amazing scenery suffers due to over-repetition. As great as the game tends to look, the developers reused the same art for many of the planetary trade stations where you do your business. So you see the exact same aliens hanging out around the exact same tables in one system after another, which doesn't do much to promote the idea that you're traveling across the galaxy. Systems overall have too much of a been-there, done-that feel, as almost all of them all feature the same layout of a planet, a trade station, and an asteroid field. Audio suffers from the same problem, with a monotonous musical score and enemies who recite no more than a dozen or so canned threats and screams during dogfights.
The interface could use a little work, too. While it is easy to control the DarkStar One with a joystick or gamepad, mouse-and-keyboard movement is twitchy and there is no way to adjust mouse sensitivity. And although the in-game tutorials and gradual learning curve make it a snap to get into the game right away, some missions aren't properly explained. Sometimes you're left hanging in space without a clue what to do. Compounding the problem is how the game lets you take missions that you have no way of completing at present (for instance, when the system you need to visit is outside of the range of your current jump drive), but it doesn't provide an immediate way to drop them (you need to leave the system in question to fail a mission and clear it from your roster).
But although the flaws in DarkStar One can lead to some frustration, they never get in the way of that "just one more mission" mojo that can keep you playing the game into the wee hours of the morning. Fans of space traders shouldn't miss out on this one.