Star Fox Zero is the purest entry in the series in nearly two decades. Ditching on-foot sequences and overly complicated plotlines in favor of the excellent ship combat, Star Fox Zero excels at highlighting the finest hours of Fox McCloud and his team. But despite recapturing the Star Fox magic that’s been missing for many years, Zero often rests too much on its laurels in some places, while making unnecessary changes in others. Star Fox Zero is a great revival, but one that is marred by forced motion controls and too much of a reliance on the past.
Star Fox Zero stars the titular team of pilots as they assist the Cornerian army in their war against the evil Andross. If that sounds familiar, it should; Star Fox Zero once again retells the same story as both the original Star Fox and Star Fox 64. Zero marks a return to form for the Star Fox franchise, but plays it a little too safe at times, from the level design all the way to plot points. The war-torn cities of Corneria are laid out seemingly identical to the way they look in Star Fox 64, and familiar story moments, such as rescuing a downed teammate from the desert planet of Titania, are a bit too common. Even the dialogue is exactly the same in many places. Star Fox Zero evokes plenty of fun moments of nostalgia and provides some epic reimaginings, but I wish it would have left its comfort zone a little more frequently.
Thankfully, with the close ties to its past comes the return of excellent ship combat. Piloting an Arwing feels just as great as it did in Star Fox 64, from the exhilarating on-rails assaults to the agile all-range dogfights. Even classic gameplay elements are retained, such as branching paths awarded for accomplishing hidden tasks. Everything that makes Star Fox so special has returned, and developer PlatinumGames excels at making Zero feel just as smooth as the series’ past.
However, while Star Fox Zero feels as mechanically great as it ever has, the jump to Wii U brings unique controls and presentation that often hinder more than help. The action on your TV screen looks the same as it always has, with the camera following closely behind your Arwing, but the GamePad provides a second screen that shows the view from the cockpit.
Gyroscopic movement helps show a greater range of visibility while providing opportunities for precision aiming, but the segmented screens often cause complications. Because aiming is controlled entirely from the movement of the GamePad, trying to line up a shot on your television is not always as simple as it has previously been. Meanwhile, the view from the cockpit provides a limited view of the broader action on the TV, and collisions occur all too commonly. It’s just too difficult to manage both aiming and steering simultaneously, and so the disjointed input gets in the way when the action heats up.
The two-screen experience makes things particularly complicated when GamePad control is forced onto you. Several areas of the game will change the TV screen view to a more cinematic angle, signaling that the current area requires the GamePad view. These segments are usually particularly tricky to navigate because of the limited view, yet still demand precision aiming and tight maneuverability. This complicates matters even further when using the Landmaster tank or the Arwing’s new land-based Walker mode, as controlling movement, aiming, and camera must all be done simultaneously. The new Gyrowing drone is particularly difficult to steer as the mini-robot it deploys is controlled separately from the craft itself, making these few segments feel like a chore. The cockpit view from the GamePad is ultimately a novel idea, but maybe one Star Fox Zero shouldn’t have built itself around.
As frustrating as the two-screen experience of Star Fox Zero often feels, it does manage to create a compelling co-op experience. Every level can be played with two players, with one player using the GamePad for aiming while the other pilots the ship and retains limited weaponry. My partner and I felt like a threatening two-man army, taking out enemies at a much greater rate and racking up a hit count significantly higher than I had achieved while playing solo. There are still a few frustrations from the aforementioned GamePad-only sections, but for the most part, your Arwing is a much more deadly force with the responsibilities divided.
As great as co-op is, though, it is no substitute for the glaring omission of competitive multiplayer. Challenging friends to dogfights was a staple of Star Fox 64, and its absence from Star Fox Zero is unfortunate. While the two-screen experience seen in the campaign wouldn’t work the same way in a competitive setting, it’s a shame that one of Star Fox’s classic modes has been removed.
Star Fox Zero is visually underwhelming, as well. While the action is fast-paced and vibrant, textures mostly look flat and blocky. It’s understandable that rendering the game using two different screens probably eats up a lot of the processing power that could have gone into visual fidelity, but Star Fox Zero just doesn’t impress in the same way that many other Wii U games do.
Despite its setbacks, Star Fox Zero is still a thrilling adventure that accentuates the best that the series has to offer. Most importantly, though, is just how well the vehicle combat has been reimagined, giving nostalgic players a faithful return to Star Fox’s best days. Motion controls may overcomplicate the experience, and competitive multiplayer is sorely missed, but Star Fox Zero wonderfully recaptures the spirit that the series has been missing for so long.