Once a mission gets going, the core gameplay mechanic of any space sim comes into full effect - the space-battle dogfight. More than anything else, the story, the graphics, or all the other trappings, this is where Dawnstar really needs to shine. Space combat is the very heart of this genre so controlling your ship needs to feel almost intuitive, and everything you need in order to tell your current state, where your enemy is, and what dangers you need to avoid, has to be readily available with a quick glance away from the action. In the case of Dawnstar, ship control is a bit off as certain maneuvers, such as a barrel roll or loop-the-loop, don’t do much other than look nice, and all of that critical information you need boils down to something of a guessing game.
What’s missing here, basically, is a good HUD and some actual defensive maneuvers. The HUD that’s currently in place shows the ships that are in the area but it’s incredibly hard to tell precisely where they are. Instead of a radar, there’s a circle sitting on top of your crosshairs with friendly and hostile dots that just roll around as you tilt and roll your ship. When you finally do locate your target, firefights in Dawnstar basically boil down to keeping your eye on the target and killing your target before all his incoming fire catches up to you. Missiles will hit you unless you speed up enough to get away from your foe, and that isn’t always a guarantee. Even if it does work, you’re left with tracking him back down again. This whole exercise becomes exponentially more difficult when faced with multiple foes all gunning for you, or unique-named foes that are tougher than your average space fighter and seem to have the kind of slick maneuvering that you should have.
Should you succeed in shooting your opponent down, you may find yourself rewarded with some better weapons and shields to equip or sell off in order to buy the aforementioned better gear. This is where the action RPG elements of the game start to find their way in and they are, for the most part, one of the more satisfying aspects of the game. In addition to the loot, you’ll also gain experience from your space kills which eventually earn you different skills and passive enhancements that can give you an upper hand in combat. They’re not as in-depth as Diablo 3 or Torchlight 2, but they definitely keep things interesting and fun.
The action-RPG elements carry over well into co-op play, too. The entirety of the game, which spreads across five chapters, can be played with up to three friends online. One player is the host and controls what sector the group goes to and starts missions, while the other players joining his or her game get to keep all loot and experience progress when they go back to their own. Once joined by your compatriots, enemies get a little tougher and they drop better loot, which is individual to each player. Better loot is always a good reason to play cooperatively, but the better reason (aside from the usual “it’s fun to play with friends”) is that it provides a solution to the previously mentioned targeting/maneuvering issues. When you get into a difficult situation, and don’t have a way of getting out real easy due to the lack of defensive maneuvers, having a few friends there to help shoot down harassing foes can make all the difference. The only real problem with co-op play is the connectivity issues. Connecting to a friend’s game can be tough as Dawnstar suffers from the usual firewall/allowing certain ports on the router issues that PC games not going through a major digital distribution service encounter these days. This can be fixed with a little bit of effort, but it does make embarking upon this journey with pals more of a concerted effort than a seamless integration.
It would be unfair to mention the issues Dawnstar faces without also mentioning that since the game’s release last Tuesday, the game has been patched 7 times. Most of these patches fixed little glitches with things like audio, or controls not working, but each includes something that’s in direct response from the feedback Wraith Entertainment has received on their forum. It’s a rather impressive amount of post-release work to be done on a new title and is a great sign of commitment to their IP. It gives me hope that much of the problems will be smoothed out eventually.
If you read back through what I’ve said so far, Dawnstar’s issues can seem rather incredible. A radar that only sort of helps. No way to avoid or even know when there are incoming enemy missiles. Poor targeting controls. Connectivity problems, audio/control glitches, and more. Yet in spite of all this, I still recommend playing this game if you’re a fan of space sims. The overall package, from the gorgeous cel-shaded graphics and jazz soundtrack to the basic gameplay, is enjoyable, fun, and worth the price of admission. It’s also a little more palatable when you know what you’re getting. The coffee table you purchased may not end up looking as advertised, but a board that sits on a couple of cardboard boxes still works. And, hopefully, those 3/8” screws and missing legs are in the mail.
The Co-Op Experience: Players team up through the game's campaign.
Co-Optimus game reviews focus on the cooperative experience of a game, our final score graphic represents this experience along with an average score for the game overall. For an explanation of our scores please check our Review Score Explanation Guide.