It was the year 1997, and Nintendo had just released their second Star Fox title in the series. Star Fox 64 boasted multiple paths to take in your conquest to save the galaxy, the innovative (at the time) Rumble Pack, and voice acting for every line in the game.
Five years later, Rare took up the reins and turned the series into a Zelda clone. Gamers were disappointed in the lack of traditional shooting stages, but they generally accepted the title for what it was. It also introduced a new member into the ongoing cast.
At almost the same time, Nintendo announced that Namco was going to take the series back to its roots. Now, in 2005, Namco has released Star Fox: Assault to the masses.
Is this title truly a sequel to Star Fox 64? Or did Namco try to improve upon the formula like Rare did and make gamers wish for the original games?
Let’s just say that they did the latter.
As a run-and-gun shooter, Star Fox: Assault doesn’t hold the same detail that Star Fox Adventures did. You’re simply too busy trying to stay alive to enjoy the scenery, anyway. This is not to say that the game looks bad though – the Arwing (a space superiority fighter) levels are a visual treat, filled with dozens of moving ships, fighter craft, or asteroids, all trying to do their best in some way, shape, or form to kill you off.
During cinema scenes, you’ll see that the cast and their surroundings are well detailed and animated, doing a good job at making the world they live in seem real. Their eyes will open wide in shock, they’ll shake their heads in disbelief, and they show sorrow when appropriate. It’s unfortunate that the voice acting doesn’t match their visual moods, but that’s another issue entirely.
On foot or in the Landmaster (a mobile tank), is where the visuals start to fall apart. Short of the bosses and a few other exceptions, the enemies you’ll be blasting constantly are created out of relatively few polygons, and it shows. They’re spiky looking and run through a limited set of animations as they try their hardest to kill you.
The bosses on the other hand are very well done. More often than not they are many, many times larger than yourself or your fighter craft, and they use that size to bully you around. Energy beams of mass destruction emit from almost every opening, and others will simply try to swat you out of the skies with their mass.
Unfortunately, there’s one large issue with the game – Fox McCloud (the hero, and who you play as) is for all intents and purposes, blind. If an object on-screen isn’t part of the scenery (walls, floors, giant inactive spaceships in the background, etc), then you can only see it within about a 100 yard/foot (depending if you’re in the sky or ground) range.
What does this mean exactly? Enemies will constantly ‘appear’ in your field of view once you get close to them. Spacecraft will appear out of the blackness of space with no warning. Some bosses and teammates will only be a computer generated targeting icon far in the distance. Even worse – you’ll be able to lock onto those targets with your weapons, and attack them before you can see them.
The only even remotely plausible reason I can come up with as to why this is like that is to keep the framerate at its nearly locked 30/60fps (60 in the Arwing, 30 otherwise). Short of one or two instances where the game tossed everything it could at me, I never saw the game drop under that framerate.
Does it completely break the game? No, it doesn’t, as the AI has been instructed not to attack you until you can see your target. So in the end, all it does is end up being a very strange visual anomaly.
Let’s get the good out of the way first – the music in Star Fox: Assault comprises mostly of remixed music from Star Fox 64. During mission briefings you’ll listen to the ‘stage select’ music from the N64 game, and you’ll pick out some of the better themes if you were a fan of the older title.
The Star Wolf (your near equal in the skies in SF64) theme in particular comes off very well audibly. It’s been turned into a Mexican Rumba, believe it or not. As odd as it sounds though, it just works for no reason I can figure out.
Regrettably, it’s all downhill from here.
As far as I’m concerned, Namco tried their hardest to bring in their ‘outstanding’ voice actors from their Time Crisis series over to this title. Incase you haven’t played Time Crisis, that roughly translates into ‘people who just say their lines unemotionally and without a care in the world’.
From the ‘acceptable’ side of the voice acting: Krystal, who’s British, just like she was in Star Fox Adventures; Falco, who’s somehow turned into someone from the New York Bronx District; Panther, who’s the smoothest of the smooth of talkers; and Wolf, who’s natural sounding voice tends to fit with his actions.
From the ‘not-so-good’ side: Slippy, who’s finally a guy (but still an annoying one at that); Peppy, who sounds about 15 years too young for his assumed age, and is somewhat unemotional in general; Pigma, a swine who tries way too hard to act out his lines; and Leon, who’s lizard voice sounds nothing like his far better N64 counterpart.
From the ‘utter tripe’ side: General Pepper, a clueless hound dog that looks 80, talks like he’s 40, and has issues just reading his lines. He’s unemotional and uncaring about what’s happening to the galaxy around him, even though he’s the commander of all the defensive forces in the system. He even mispronounces simple words at times.
And then there’s Fox McCloud. He’s the team leader. His job is to get his crew to follow his actions without a second thought, to put down their very life if needed for the greater good.
Fox is completely and utterly emotionless in his lines. Did a teammate just die? Oh well. Forced to shoot down his friend of many years? Doesn’t matter. The entire system on the brink of destruction? Who cares?
As Fox ‘talks’, his character shows all kinds of emotional gestures and reactions, none of which even remotely match the words that are coming out of his mouth. Star Fox: Assault attempts to present a semi-serious story, of an alien presence attempting to utterly destroy everything that Fox knows, and it’s ruined because of how bad his voice is.
Personally, I recommend you mute your TV while playing and find a good music CD to toss into your stereo. Yes, you’ll miss some great soundtracks, but it’ll keep you from cringing every time you hear somebody talk.
When I first played Star Fox: Assault back at E3 2002, I absolutely hated the controls. Thankfully Namco has listened to the critics and given gamers three different control types to choose between.
The default controls play more or less like Metroid Prime. The left analog moves you or your Landmaster around, A shoots, pushing or clicking L all the way down makes you either sidestep or roll, and holding R turns the left analog into an aiming control (while keeping you still).
There’s a control configuration that uses both analogs – left analog moves you forward/back/sidesteps while the right analog turns you/looks up and down. The L button still allows you to roll, and the R button shoots. This is the best (and most complicated) control setup of the three, but it gives you the maneuverability needed to keep yourself from being pummeled while on the ground.
The final control configuration is how the game played back at E3 – the left analog has you rotate/look up and down, while the R button allows you to run forward. A still shoots, while L rolls/sidesteps. It’s an extremely simple control scheme, and one that the game will all but punish you for using due to your total inability to walk backwards while on-foot. You might be able to aim better, but you’ve lost half of your mobility in return.
While you can’t reconfigure the controls beyond that (short of allowing the gamer to invert the up and down controls in all three gameplay modes), odds are you’ll find one that works out well for you.
Like Rare before them, Namco decided to improve and innovate upon Star Fox 64. Instead of keeping Fox in the stars and/or on the ground with an armored shell of a vehicle around him, they forced him to spend 65% of the game upon his own two feet.
To put it another way – three of the game’s ten stages are entirely Arwing levels, with half of another and change keeping you in the pilot’s seat. Those are also by far the best stages in the game, where the gamer feels like he’s playing the Star Fox titles of old.
Thankfully the other seven stages aren’t completely a loss. But they have nowhere near the same quality and fun factor of the other levels.
But enough of my complaints.
Star Fox: Assault starts off simply enough – Corneria and its allies are attacking the remnants of Andross forces, lead by Andrew Oikonny. The fight looks like one that Corneria will win, but a sudden surprise attack by Andrew’s forces stall the assault. A warp gate on the edge of the battlefield opens, and in pops the Star Fox team, ready to assist.
The game plays homage to Star Fox 64 by making your first boss fight a battle against the staple end boss of the series – a giant head and his two hands. From there, the story takes a drastic turn as an alien race called the Aparoids decides to make its return to the Lylat System.
Now it’s suddenly a race against time as the Star Fox team attempts to stop these Aparoids before they destroy the system itself.
You’ll travel all through the system and attack these creatures on-foot, in the Landmaster, and in your trusty Arwing. You’ll also hop onto a teammate’s wing twice and lay waste to everybody nearby with a rapid-fire assault cannon.
As stated above, the on-foot and Landmaster sequences are the weakest modes by far. The game overwhelms you with easily defeated numbers while you’re on-foot and enemies that fall over like cordwood while you’re in the Landmaster. In addition, your turning speed in both modes are too low, almost forcing you to take cheap hits as you line up for your next shot. There’s simply no fun in these modes, as all you do is move forward and kill, and the levels themselves are rather uninspired, offering nothing more than ‘go kill x number of targets’.
You’ll have the most fun in the Arwing stages by far. While you’re on rails in most of the levels, you’ll dodge incoming fire, roll out of the way of more solid objects, and focus your blasters upon the boss’ weak points. They tend to be very frantic fights, but with excessive use of your firepower, and a little bit of skill, you’ll be able to emerge alive at the end.
For those of you who played Star Fox 64, you’ll be glad to hear that Fox’s nemesis team, Star Wolf, has made a return after going MIA in Star Fox Adventures. It’s not a triumphant return, but you do get to battle them once. Why only once? Let’s just say that they play a minor yet important part to this game, and thus shooting them down a second time isn’t exactly good for your health in the end.
In addition to the short (6 hours or so) single player game, Namco put lots of resources into a few multiplayer modes. You’ll be able to tackle up to three other players in one-on-one or team battles, on ground or in the skies.
Two ugly problems show up in multiplayer though – first off, the draw distance for your opponents is limited. Just like in the main game, your characters are effectively blind to anything but the scenery after about 100 yards, so you’ll be spending lots of time hunting for target lock symbols.
The second issue is that the two vehicles tend to be overpowering in multiplayer mode. Pilots on foot can take down the Landmaster without too many issues thanks to its slow moving/turning speed (but in return, the tank has one heck of a cannon), but the Arwing’s maneuverability and firepower (and the fact that it’s on a different plane than everybody else), combine to make a nearly unbeatable craft unless somebody has the bazooka handy and is good with it.
In Namco’s credit, the disparities between on-foot and vehicle mode in multiplayer used to be far worse during my time at E3. Thankfully the vehicles have been toned down in power a bit, but the Arwing still rules over all.
If you can find three other people to play multiplayer with, you’ll have lots of fun. It’s no Halo, but it’s lots of run-and-gun excitement. The Arwing only levels in particular are a blast to play, as long as your friends are all as proficient as you are, as the levels have lots of solid objects to hide/dodge behind.
One final note – unlike Star Fox 64, where the difficulty level actually adjusted the computer opponents’ ability to aim and deal damage, in Star Fox: Assault, all it seems to do is make them take more damage before they blow up. Expect a button pounding firefight during the entire final stage if you play on Silver or Gold difficulty because of this.
The three Arwing only stages (and the sections of other stages where you hop into the craft) are by far the best levels of the game. Thankfully, once you’ve beaten the game for the first time, you’ll open up a mission select, allowing you to replay those stages to your heart’s content.
Overall, Star Fox: Assault offers 10 stages, three difficulty levels, a somewhat fun multiplayer mode, over two dozen unlockables (almost all for the multiplayer mode), and the Namco classic, Xevious. The main game takes about 5 to 6 hours to finish (less if you skip all the cinema scenes and mission details), and is a decently fun experience the first time through.