"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.
Hope you like dogfighting with space pirates, because you'll be doing a lot of it here.
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.