I remember sitting down at my parents’ computer when I was about 11 years-old, putting in an Origin games CD-ROM with Wing Commander 2 (and the original Syndicate), and blasting my way through the galaxy one Kilrathi at a time. It’s been ages since I’ve played space sims like that, so I was excited when I saw Dawnstar. Here, I thought, was a game that would take me back to those glorious days of my youth. Once again I’d be cutting my engines to let an enemy fighter fly past so I could lock onto him with my missiles. I’d be adjusting my shield levels to prepare for an oncoming frontal assault. Sadly, Dawnstar falls short of these ideals and often feels like more of an echo of the space sims that I grew up playing than a true revival. Oddly, though, I keep coming back to it.
The overall setting and universe into which Dawnstar places you feels good. Set in the distant future where space mafias and space police vie for control, the main story revolves around infiltrating one of the larger mafias whose capo is “one bad day away from declaring war..” There’s more than a little feeling of “Firefly” to all this, especially when characters mention things like “the core worlds” and the potential for the capo’s actions to lead to an outright revolt. It’s up to you (the generically named “Pilot”), a drunken ex-goodfella, and the undercover police agent that was originally assigned this mission, to breakup the mafia’s power and keep them from causing trouble. All of this unfolds comic-book style with illustrated panels and voice-acting depicting in between the main story missions.
Outside of those missions, the general comic-book aesthetic is maintained with some truly gorgeous hand-drawn, cel-shaded art. On more than one occasion I found myself absent mindedly flying around the different game zones (which are little more than hubs with space stations and a few ships) just enjoying the jazzy soundtrack and looking at the backgrounds. There needs to be more to the game than just graphics and story, though, and it’s in Dawnstar’s gameplay that problems arise.
For many of the story missions, you’ll go straight from the comic-book narrative to some place in space without any clue or indication of how you got there. Just “here you are, do this thing, ok, mission done!” If the game were structured so that this was the norm, i.e., story, mission, story, mission, then it would be fine. Yet, in order to start many of these story pieces that lead into a mission, you have to fly around in and jump through different sectors just to get to the right one where you can kick it all off. That’s wrong.
Part of the joy of any space sim is that sense of emptiness inherent to cruising through the vastness of space. When tasked to go to a specific sector/galaxy to intercept a few ships or take out an entire armada, the journey there is part of that experience. Who knows what may happen along the way? Maybe you’re ambushed by enemy fighters as a part of some overall set piece, or maybe you just decide you feel like taking on that seemingly weak battleship. Regardless, you’re forced to make choices that ultimately affect what you do when you finally come face-to-face with your primary objective and that’s part of what’s missing from Dawnstar: that sense of exploration and facing the unknown once you depart from the safety of a space station. This one piece could be overlooked as making the title a little more “arcade-y” if the other gameplay aspects were rock solid. Unfortunately, they’re not.