Monday, June 30, 2014

Shooter Month: Star Fox Assault

Star Fox Assault
  • Publisher: Nintendo
  • Developer: Namco
  • Release: Nintendo GameCube, 14 February 2005
  • Genre: 3D Action (Flight simulator / Third-person shooter)
  • Players: 1-4
  • Save: Memory Card, 5 Blocks
  • Rarity/Cost: Moderate, US$15-30
Star Fox fans just can't catch a break, eh? Considering how rarely new games come out for this series, you'd think Star Fox 64 is its only entry. There's the first game on the Super NES, which runs about as well as a car with square wheels, so we might as well forget about that. Five years of waiting for a follow-up to SF64 left us with Star Fox Adventures, Rare's swan song as a second-party developer for Nintendo, took so many pages from The Legend of Zelda's book that it apparently lost its identity as a Star Fox game. No, I'm sure it's still a good game! I haven't actually played it, but I'm just trying to foster some understanding here. So let's just skip ahead to the next entry, 2005's Star Fox Assault. This one promises a return to form, to the spacecraft-based combat it popularised, only to dilute the experience with generic third-person shooter stages. So the more things change, the more they stay the same, I guess.

In the time since the end of Adventures (I guess), the foxy female... fox Krystal has replaced Peppy Hare as one of the four pilots of the Star Fox team, but apart from that, everything is just as SF64 left it. The first level starts in medias res, with Star Fox and allies fighting a successor to Andross's armies from the old games, only to discover a new threat in the form of the Aparoids: an insect-like alien race prone to corrupting other ships in some capacity. Thus, Star Fox's quest to quell the Aparoid menace serves as the plot over Assault's ten levels. That's a step down from the total of 15 in Star Fox 64, and instead of that game's branching-path system, Assault lays them out in a more traditional linear fashion. However, you can also re-play specific levels at will, instead of having to start a new campaign, in case you're attempting a medal run on a specific level. And besides, the stages are considerably longer than those of SF64, most featuring two or three objectives each. I may have had the same problem with Goldeneye: Rogue Agent and 007 Legends, but with stages lasting generally no more than 10 minutes apiece once you know what you're doing, I guess I can let that slide.
Get bonus points for finishing off groups of enemies, or larger targets like these.
Of the ten stages, only four take place solely in an Arwing, set in an automatically-scrolling corridor. As before, you score points by shooting down enemies, with bonuses earned for taking down large targets, or multiple enemies with one shot, all in the hopes of earning enough for a medal. The mechanics here are much the same as in SF64, including the charged lock-on shots. The other levels take place in more stationary environs, as an evolution of the "All-Range Mode" levels from SF64. It's here that Assault seems to have garnered its bad reputation. Think about it, it's the first "true" Star Fox game in eight years, and it tries to limit the amount of time spent on the gameplay it first became famous for. But you know what? I actually found the on-foot segments as fun as -- or even more fun than -- the Arwing stages. Yeah, fire in the hole, man. Maybe it's because shooter games (not the scrolling shoot-em-up variety, mind you) have over the past few years have gone so far in a direction inconsistent with my tastes that I'm just playing Assault to cleanse my palate, or I just got bored with Star Fox 64 so long ago that the same has been done automatically, but long-winded excuses aside, the all-range levels felt fast-paced and -- most importantly -- fun.

Whilst traversing outside a vehicle, Fox McCloud is armed with his trusty blaster, which can do automatic fire by lightly holding the R button, or charge up a shot by holding the trigger all the way. It's a shame certain larger enemies are shielded against everything but explosives and charged-up blaster shots (and even then, it takes multiple of those to take them down). In these and other cases, you'll want to seek out alternate weapons, like the easy-to-use Machine Gun which is, again, useless against shielded enemies, the overpowered Rocket Launcher and Sniper Rifle, and the generally useless Grenades and Sensor Bombs. As opposed to the Arwing corridor stages, bonus points are awarded by taking down enemies in quick succession. In doing so, you'll continually seek out targets to keep your combo meter full, which does wonders for the pacing of these sections.

Even the Landmaster was fun to use in these levels; its cannon can overpower just about any enemy's shields, and the extra protection from its shields is just icing on the tactical cake. Compare that with how the Landmaster (and the Blue Marine, which is thankfully absent from Assault) was handled in SF64: basically slower and stiffer versions of the same Arwing experience. It is ironic, in that sense, that the Arwing sections of Assault have a slower feel to them. Another thing that disappointed me about the Arwing stages is that whereas in the original Star Fox and SF64, pressing and holding the fire button would launch a burst of four or so shots before (in SF64) charging up a lock-on shot, in Assault, pressing the A button only fires one shot before charging. So if you want to fire a rapid stream of lasers, break out either a turbo controller or your best rapid-tapping technique. May your controller stay intact after the final mission.
I liked taking the Landmaster for a spin, now that I have complete control over it.
The musical score is comprised mostly of tunes from Star Fox 64, albeit re-recorded with a full orchestra. As much as I would cry foul about the use of "recycled" material, let's face it -- for whatever reason, video game soundtracks over the last decade or so have lost the memorable appeal of the 8- and 16-bit eras. So you might as well update something that already works, I guess. The voice actors have also been re-cast since SF64. Whilst I will forever associate the series' characters with their old voices, and even after the re-cast Slippy is still as un-endearing as ever, I will admit these new guys are far more capable of emoting properly. And certain moments in the story, like when the Star Fox team must ally with their rivals Star Wolf and shoot down their Aparoid-corrupted commanding officer in the same mission, are certainly a step above the emotional bar set up by previous games, so it's nice the actors are able to handle that material.

I can understand the disappointment associated with Star Fox Assault. Entries in this particular series are few and far between, and not one of them has seen fit to perfect the formula pioneered by the original -- scratch that, the N64 one. But I'd be willing to vouch for Assault, even for -- scratch that, especially for its all-range stages. Because I realised something while playing them: it feels like a spiritual successor to Jet Force Gemini, only a lot more fluid. Yeah, it would have been nice to get two separate, full-sized games, one for each style presented therein. Obviously, one of those two games would be retooled as a full-on sequel to Jet Force Gemini. ...Hey, a guy can dream. But for what we got, I ain't complaining.

+ I found the all-range sections more fun than everyone's made them out to be.
+ The story makes some honest attempts at dramatic moments.
+ It was nice to hear updated versions of SF64 tunes on the soundtrack.

- The Arwing sections feel less fun than in SF64.
- The levels could have been broken up for better replayability.

Control: 4 Landmasters out of 5
Design: 4 Landmasters out of 5
Graphics: 5 Landmasters out of 5
Audio: 5 Landmasters out of 5
The Call: 80% (B)

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