Review - Star Fox Assault (Gamecube)

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Apr 12, 2005
  1. werwe
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    STAR FOX ASSAULT

    Platform: GameCube
    Publisher: Nintendo
    Developer: Namco
    Release date: 2/14/05

    BACKGROUND

    Nintendo's Star Fox franchise has most certainly presented some unusual points of interest across its twelve year existence. The original SNES game, which was the first game to use Nintendo's storied Super FX chip, was an arcade-style rail-shooter, sporting impressive 3D graphics for the time and attracting much praise from critics. The sequel, titled Star Fox 2, and likewise designed by Nintendo's flagship studio EAD, was in nearly complete form when Nintendo without ceremony cancelled the project in 1995, possibly in lieu of the development of Star Fox 64 for the fledgling Nintendo 64 system.
    Eventually released in 1997, EAD's Star Fox 64 was a landmark title in Nintendo history. It was the first game to use Nintendo's new force-feedback peripheral, called the "Rumble Pak," and was actually sold with the peripheral packaged in the box. Also, the game featured voluminous amounts of spoken dialogue, the most for any Nintendo-developed game to date, and an astonishing amount considering the memory limitations of cartridge technology at the time. The gameplay itself was largely derivative of the original Star Fox, but also introduced free-roaming stages, two new vehicles, a combo system, and multiplayer. Though reviews of the game tended to vary in opinion, many hardcore Star Fox fans were pleased in the game's extension of the original's concept and found the game to be a worthy addition to the series.
    From this point began a drought for the series which, some people would argue, still continues to this day. The next game to be released with the Star Fox branding would not come until late 2002, when the Rare-developed Star Fox Adventures was shipped for Nintendo GameCube. Though the game itself turned out to be a bland, uninspired Zelda knock-off, Adventures drew much attention for some unusual circumstances in its development. Beyond its notable distinction as being the final collaboration between longtime partners Rare and Nintendo, Adventures was originally designed to be a completely original title known as Dinosaur Planet and, at the request of Nintendo, inherited the Star Fox mythos late in its development. Subsequently, then, Adventures did little justice to the Star Fox franchise, shunting it away from its shooting roots, and introducing story elements that clearly didn't fit within the series' canon. The game's debatable quality further exacerbated these faults, resulting in a release which not only disappointed many Star Fox fans, but also Nintendo fans in general.
    And that brings us, finally, to the new Star Fox for GameCube, Nintendo's latest entry into the series. First revealed at E3 2003, the Namco-developed shooter turned few heads at that event, mostly attracting interest only from Star Fox diehards who hoped the game would be a long-awaited return to the series' roots. Interestingly enough, an arcade adaptation, planned for the GameCube-based Triforce arcade board, was also announced at this event, but has since been quietly shelved.
    At E3 2004, an updated version of Star Fox for GameCube was previewed, but to comparable disinterest. The game seemed to be making improvements, but was hardly shaping up to be the high-end product that fans have come to expect from Nintendo. The new Star Fox thus was painfully overshadowed at this event by such GameCube heavy-hitters as Resident Evil 4 and Metroid Prime 2.

    GAMEPLAY

    And now, with seemingly as little fanfare as ever, Star Fox Assault has finally been released, a scant few months after the final name had even been announced. Though preliminary reviews from various outlets were quite disappointing, I purchased the game in full hopes that Assault would be a game which would finally do the much-beloved franchise justice on the GameCube. What I found, surprisingly, was a game which attempts to take the series in an ambitious new direction, but unfortunately at the expense of classic elements which had been thoroughly more enjoyable.
    In sum, Star Fox Assault espouses the free-roaming aspect of Star Fox 64 and expands upon it, with the object of making it the featured component of the game. The result is admittedly an evolution of sorts for the series. In fact, moving from the rather rudimentary base established in this game, I feel that future iterations of this series will have the potential to take the series to heretofore unseen heights. In forging this new path, however, Namco has neglected the signature element that for years had been the series' bread and butter, the rail shooting stages, and has made them lively bookends to a game which strives too hard to offer something new.
    There is no doubt that the primary focus of the designers was in fleshing out this free-range gameplay, as it is featured in seven of the game's ten levels. At its most complex, it involves actively switching between three modes of travel-- on foot, by tank, and by arwing-- in the interest of ultimately destroying all designated targets in the area. Any one of the game's free-roaming missions may feature a particular combination of these three modes, the combinations being on-foot/tank, on-foot/arwing, on-foot/tank/arwing, and arwing only.
    Each style of travel has its strengths and weaknesses, of course. Traveling by foot has the fewest advantages, as it exposes you to heavier bodily damage. You'll only want to do this when you have no other means of transportation, or need to fit into a tight space, such as inside a building or a cave. Traveling by tank, on the other hand, is usually the optimal mode of travel in the more open portions of a level, as you can absorb more damage, simply run over weak enemies in bunches, and shoot a powerful homing blast from your cannon. The third and final method of travel, the Arwing, is the best way to defend your allies in the skies. The Arwing also helps in reaching particularly out of the way areas-- a target over the edge of a waterfall perhaps-- though its weak laser and high speed make it impractical to use for your average ground assault.
    From the start of a free-range level, you are given total freedom to traverse the landscape in any direction, hunt down enemies, or change vehicles(when available). Though the settings themselves will vary greatly, from a war-torn metropolitan area, to a bleak desert military installation, to the verdant wilderness of Sauria, the primary objective of EVERY one of these stages is to track and destroy a set number of targets which are judiciously dispersed throughout the level. In a few missions, you'll also have the secondary objective of keeping an eye on an "enemy presence" meter, which indicates how saturated the skies have gotten with enemies. If this meter gets too high, the mission will end regardless of your status and progress.
    A tertiary objective, though often quite essential, is to avoid the fire of, and destroy, the scads of lesser enemies that litter your path in every direction. From footmen to missle turrets to space fighters to large mutant insects, Star Fox Assault certainly suffers from no shortage of things to shoot at. And the designers didn't forget to dish out the ammo either. Besides the standard arms in the tank and Arwing, as well as the unlimited-use hand blaster, Fox also has access to several new on-foot weapons which he can gather throughout the level. Among these special, limited-use weapons are machine guns, rocket launchers, sniper rifles, and grenades. With all this firepower to back you up, you'll indeed have no problem tearing through the hordes of enemies standing between you and your designated targets.
    On the whole, the free-range stages are solidly-designed, though they do suffer from a lack of variety, as well as the occasional periods of downtime inherent in a free-roaming shooter. The main objective is ALWAYS to destroy the map's "targets," though you'll often find yourself needing to do this in different ways. For example, in one mission, the only way to destroy the level's targets is by meticulously combing the map for them, and then blasting them from afar with the sniper rifle. In another, the targets are the members of Star Fox's infamous nemesis, the Star Wolf team, and they must be brought down through some dogfighting in the Arwing. While this all may sound fairly basic, the result is surprisingly fulfilling if you're a shooter fan, though never nearly as satisfying as the sustained, seat-of-your-pants excitement of a well-made rail-shooting level.
    In fact the only substantive augmentation which has been provided to spice up the basic "find-and-destroy-the-targets" gameplay is a fairly barebones combo system. It is ultimately in this system, of course, that hardcore players will be most interested, as only by exploiting it will players be able to achieve the highest scores. The system itself is your basic time-based combo algorithm, similar, for example, to the one in Capcom's P.N.03; When you destroy an enemy, it starts a timer-- kill another enemy before the timer expires, and add one to your combo and more seconds to the timer, and so on, earning a sizable point bonus every ten kills. The devoted gamer will thus derive the appropriate paths necessary to stringing together and maintaining massive combos, perhaps even from the beginning to the end of a level. Indeed, it is in this examination of the best ways to progress through a level while maintaining a combo that players will find the most challenging, and potentially rewarding, aspect of the game.
    One other minor variation in the gameplay that should be noted is the inclusion of five invisible "S-Flags"(a contribution from Namco's considerable oeuvre) hidden in each level, the rail-shooting levels included. Akin to the notorious blue coins in Super Mario Sunshine, these flags are the designers' way of encouraging the player to explore every inch of the game's enormous levels and are stashed away quite well. And like Mario's blue coins, the average player may never find all of the S-Flags, as they are invisible and the levels are quite large. The only way to find an S-Flag, in fact, is to keep a close eye on Fox's aiming reticule, which changes graphically whenever placed upon a target. When you notice this graphical change and no enemy is present, odds are the reticule is pointing to an invisible S-Flag. From here, you have to shoot several times to make it appear, and then collect it. Ultimately, these flags add little to the gameplay, however, as the deep exploration required to uncover them directly contradicts the game's fast-paced style. Simply put, it's not a whole lot of fun to meticulously scour a huge level full of bland, uninteresting space with the objective of flushing out a few invisible, randomly-placed game tokens.
    Finally, it should also be added that, as an unnecessary addendum to a couple of the free-range stages, there are short bits at the end of a level where Fox will stand stationary upon the wing of a moving fighter and fire at pursuing enemies. These portions, which play roughly like a light-gun shooter without a light gun, are overly simplistic and not very much fun. Rather than providing much-needed variety, they ultimately slow the game down and should not have been included.
    Besides the free-range stages, Star Fox Assault also features three full-length rail-shooting levels. One thing, above all, that I would like to stress about these levels is that they are an absolute delight to play. Running at a crisp 60 FPS, with buttery-smooth controls, and interesting level designs, they certainly represent classic Star Fox gameplay at its finest. If you've ever played Star Fox 64, you'll know what to expect-- the feel and controls are virtually identical. Enemies and obstacles cleverly placed, the challenge is appropriately measured, and the combo system, which is largely derivative of Star Fox 64, is simple but compelling. Indeed, these levels are the ones I find myself wanting to replay the most for high scores. My only complaint is that the bosses in these levels, as well as the boss battles themselves, are extremely unimaginative, slow, and laborious. Some games should not necessarily include bosses merely because they're a standard video game convention, and perhaps Star Fox Assault would have been better served without them.
    My largest qualm with the game, then, is in the inexcusable lack of rail-shooting levels. Despite the fact that the three levels present fail to advance the franchise one bit beyond the design already established in Star Fox 64, they are more than adequate for whetting the appetites of long-time Star Fox fans hungry for a true rail-shooter. In fact, when playing through Assault, I couldn't help but think that all the development time Namco spent on the playable, yet basic and unspectacular free-range stages could have been better used on the evolution of the traditional Star Fox rail-shooting engine. As it is, the rail-shooting levels included are so much more fun than the free-range stages that one can't help but feel a little disappointed-- perhaps moreso than if the game had failed to include rail-shooting levels at all.
    Therefore, while the free-range levels definitely represent an interesting departure for the Star Fox series, they are simply not developed to the point where they are able to carry the game. As it is, Star Fox Assault is essentially a slightly above-average 3rd person shooter with vestigial, albeit intensely-enjoyable, rail-shooting elements. Whereas Assault could very well have been a fantastic, first-rate rail-shooter, with some interesting free-range elements sprinkled about to break up the monotony, Namco has instead chosen to present its unadorned, experimental efforts as the main thrust of the game. And while there is certainly potential for future chapters in the series to further refine and expand upon the framework of free-range levels presented here, this potential fails to obscure the fact that the Star Fox design was not ready to shoulder such massive alterations in a single installment of the series. Regardless, Star Fox Assault is still a fun little romp, however in the grand course of gaming, few people will look back upon this game as being anything more than a mediocre 3rd person shooter and a disappointment to the Star Fox brand.

    GRAPHICS/SOUND/MISC

    The quality of Assault's graphics have been related in various reviews as being anything from "first-generation" to "serviceable." While the graphics fall well short of Rare's notable achievement in Star Fox Adventures, they are certainly comparable in quality to most other first-party GameCube releases. The rail-shooting levels look crisp and polished, and as mentioned, run at a seamless 60 FPS, though they never seem to make too much of an attempt to push the hardware. The free-roaming stages all run at a fairly steady 30 FPS, though the levels themselves tend to look bland, with average, and in many cases, non-descript textures. The game's engine, however, does exhibit an impressive level of draw distance for these rather expansive levels, somewhat excusing the lack of precise graphical detail.
    Unfortunately, while the subject of draw distance is certainly no problem for the game's environments, when viewed in relation to the game's enemies, it is perhaps the game's most telling graphical flaw. That is to say that, in free-range stages, enemies have the obnoxious tendency to only appear when they're virtually on top of you, noticeably fading out into nothingness when they're a only short distance away. Though these enemies are always still physically in the level and remain on your radar, you simply cannot see them unless they're within a close vicinity of your position. This creates a maddening duality throughout the game, whereby the game's environments are always quite clear and visible for some distance, but the objects upon it are constantly fading in and out at a threshold seemingly feet away from the player. Given the sheer number of enemies whirling around many of the game's levels, this problem is salient and disappointing, damaging both the player's ability to destroy far-off objects, as well as the game's intended presentation of epic space, air, and land battles. I should note, however, that this only applies to the free-range stages-- the rail-shooting stages have no problems with this type of draw-in.
    The game's sound direction is a mixed bag, though Nintendo certainly devoted some resources in this regard. Going against character, Nintendo impressively hired a real-life symphony orchestra to perform the game's soundtrack-- a fact which in itself is one of the more stunning aspects of the game. A large chunk of the music itself is remixed from Star Fox 64, though there are some original compositions as well. Nothing too memorable or challenging here, but most of it is catchy and pleasant in some way and won't put too much of a strain on your sensibilities.
    Predictably, Assault, just like its N64 cousin, is percolating with voice work. Unfortunately, the mere presence of voice work is not nearly as impressive for this GameCube title as it was for the cartridge-based N64 title. Most of what is here, however, is at least passably done, though Slippy's new voice is just as annoying as the one from Star Fox 64, if not moreso. You'll witness the usual batch of exchanges between the various team members through each mission, as well as some bland team discussions between levels that help chug the story along.
    The story itself is fairly trite and tends only to get in the way of the action. Fortunately, you can skip most story sequences. Krystal has now replaced Peppy as an active member of the Star Fox team, though Peppy hangs around in the mothership and spews useless directives. I had hoped that Nintendo would have learned its lesson after the incongruous mess that Dinosaur Planet made of the Star Fox storyline, but they've unfortunately felt the need to incorporate these elements into Assault rather than ignoring them like they should have. Krystal simply does not fit into the squadron-- her womanly blandness excites little chemistry within the framework of the team. Furthermore, her "psychic powers," which are supposedly her only real talent, are quite pointless and only serve to irritate rather than to instruct or intrigue. The token, out-of-place Dinosaur Planet level, as well as the gratuitous appearance of the profoundy obnoxious Tricky only serve to further convince the player that Star Fox Adventures is little more than a blight upon this franchise's existence. But fans of the series will apparently have to bear these developments from hereon, as it appears Nintendo has little intention of righting this self-inflicted burden.

    LASTING VALUE

    For most gamers, Star Fox Assault will have little lasting value. Though only comprised of ten levels, Assault, like any classic shooter, is intended to be replayed multiple times in the interest of attaining higher scores. In this day, however, that is only enough to keep the attention of only the most hardcore of gamers. While Assault sports three difficulty levels, "bronze," "silver," and "gold," the only one really worth playing is gold-- the lower two play like the "very easy" and "easy" modes of most other games. Within each of these difficulty levels, and for each stage, there is a target score which, once obtained, provides the player a congratulatory medal(thirty in all)-- and this, along with the S-Flags, is the lone practical motivation for replaying a level. The only problem is that, very often, you'll find yourself hitting this score on the very first attempt of a level, particularly on the bronze and silver settings. Even the toughest gold target scores only take a very cursory manipulation of the game's combo system to reach. Truly, Assault's replay value could have benefitted greatly from more finely-calibrated score requirements.
    Another point which is barely worth noting: The single-player game itself is structured into three modes-- story, mission, and survival, which are basically three "different" ways of doing the same stuff. Story mode is a straightforward playthrough of the game's ten levels, with saves after every level. Mission mode allows you, at your leisure, to play any mission you've previously beaten in story mode, which is useful for getting high scores and looking for S-Flags. Finally, survival mode, which must first be unlocked, and adds virtually no enjoyment whatsoever, is the same as story mode, except you have to play it all in one sitting and there are no 1-ups.
    Star Fox Assault also features a free-range, versus multi-player component which I have not had the opportunity of testing thoroughly, as I can't find anyone willing to play it long enough to figure it out. It appears to be very similar to the multiplayer from Star Fox 64, with various elements from Assault, such as the additional on-foot weaponry, meshed in. There are several interesting-looking arenas and characters to use, most of which are unlocked by progression through the single-player game. Indeed, it's only through multiplayer that you'll ever be able to play as someone besides Fox. Overall, if you liked the multiplayer from Star Fox 64, you'll probably like Assault's multiplayer, though Assault seems somewhat less accessible to people inexperienced with the game. Basically, then, Assault's multiplayer will probably be beneficial to you only if you know someone else who owns the game, so keep that in mind if you're basing your purchase largely on this component of the game.
    Finally, though early reports from various media sources revealed that there would also be three unlockable Namco arcade games in the finished product, only Xevious has made the cut for the US version. The other two games, which incidentally have been included in the final Japanese version, are the somewhat obscure duo of Battle City and Star Luster-- two forgettable Nintendo Vs. System games from the mid-80s. If you're a fan of Xevious, here's your chance to play it on your GameCube. For most people, this won't add much to their enjoyment of Assault.

    CONCLUSION

    Overall, Star Fox Assault is an enjoyable enough game. The gameplay is solid, if not average and unremarkable, and the production values are on par with any other first-party release. Even if you happen to find Assault particularly enjoyable, a thorough exploration of the single-player mode will only last you around 4-6 hours. Therefore, Star Fox Assault is probably only worth a rental unless you're a hardcore Star Fox fan, or the type of gamer who likes to replay games endlessly for high scores.

    A very forgettable game, but worth at least one playthrough if you can rent it or buy it for cheap.

    6.5/10
     
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