Star Fox: Assault
If asked to list Nintendo’s top franchises, it’s likely that most people would respond with the usual suspects: Mario, Zelda, Donkey Kong, Metroid and Pokemon. But, lurking at the peripheral edge of the average gamer’s perception of the Big N lays another series. A series with a history that, while not as storied as that of other famous Nintendo franchises, has produced games that have been littered with critical praise from both diehard and casual gamers alike. Of course, I’m referring to Star Fox.
The original Star Fox on the SNES was undoubtedly a revolutionary step forward for console shooters, due to exciting on-rails gameplay and lush (for the time) 3D graphics. Its sequel, Star Fox 64, took the idea even further by offering free-roaming missions, a new land-based vehicle – the Landmaster tank, and addictive splitscreen multiplayer. Many followers of this budding series were eagerly anticipating the Rare-developed GameCube release to be another advancement of Star Fox’s unique shoot-em-up gameplay, but instead got Star Fox Adventures – a Zelda-esque action/adventure title that featured a very limited amount of Arwing piloting. While still quality, this game was seen by many as regressive, and fans were forced to grudgingly wait for a “true” sequel for Star Fox 64 to emerge. Well, my friends, the wait is finally over.
Produced by Shigeru Miyamoto and developed by the talented folks at Namco, Star Fox: Assault (henceforth Assault) is a true evolution of the Star Fox formula, seamlessly blending trademark series elements with exciting new innovations. Nostalgia will surely glaze over the eyes of many gamers as they direct ace pilot Fox McCloud through Assault’s first level, which is an action packed, on-rails roller coaster ride through a massive naval battle in deep space, to the flourishing surface of Fortuna, climaxing with a devilish, Andross-like boss encounter. The best part is, this is just the warm up. Nine more terrific stages await, with locales ranging from the snow covered expanses of Fichina to the beautiful rolling hills of Sauria.
Yep, Sauria – a.k.a. the Dinosaur Planet from Star Fox Adventures. You see, though Assault’s gameplay is rooted directly to that which was found in the first two offerings in the series, temporally the game takes place one year after the events depicted in Adventures. This means that Falco has brought his perpetually sour attitude back to the Star Fox team and Krystal, the sultry she-fox introduced in Rare’s title, has been inducted as a new member.
Plot-wise, Assault begins with the Cornerian armada rounding up the last remnants of Andross’s once mighty fleet, now lead by Star Wolf defector Andrew Oikonny. Just before the Star Fox team is able to land the coup de grāce on Oikonny and his squadron, however, a powerful insectoid-like fleet arrives and forces the Cornerians to beat a hasty retreat. The remainder of the game pits Fox and his crew against this aggressive, hive-minded enemy, known as the Aparoids (think the Borg from Star Trek), in an effort to save the Lylat system from total assimilation. Surprisingly, Assault’s story arc does not shy away from taking some morbid twists regarding some of the series’ more beloved characters, though, admittedly, this boldness is compromised a smidgen during the game’s ending.
In reality, the above average story provided here is just a pleasant side bonus. The real meat to Assault’s appeal rests with the game’s intense arcade-style shoot-em-up gameplay that seamlessly combines land based action with aerial dog fighting. Indeed, many of the levels start Fox out on foot, but almost always give the option for the player to hop in a Landmaster tank or Arwing fighter, depending on what the current situation calls for. For example, one level has Falco and Krystal piloting Arwings around a space station, while Slippy and Fox enter the base on foot to take out key internal structures. As you complete objectives within the station, things could begin to heat up outside (the number of enemy ships outside is represented by the “Might” gauge located in the upper left-hand corner of the screen), and all you have to do is jump in your Arwing, fly out of the base and help your teammates out. A few other games, such as Mace Griffin Bounty Hunter, have attempted to allow smooth transitions between indoor action segments and dog fighting sequences, but none have done it quite as smartly as Namco has here.
This whole formula is strengthened greatly by the responsiveness of the controls during the on-foot sections, as Fox can nimbly leap about the environments, lock onto enemies and snipe with precision accuracy. A plethora of weapons can be found and used by our fuzzy hero, with everything from machine guns, sniper rifles and missile launchers to grenades and sensor bombs there and accounted for. Another big plus is the inclusion of a dual analog stick method for moving and aiming, which will certainly please gamers used to the traditional first person shooter set up. Naturally, the flight portions, which do indeed make up a majority of Assault’s gameplay, are just as well implemented as they were in Star Fox and Star Fox 64, so series faithful need not worry about Namco dropping the ball here.
When played on the Bronze (i.e. the easiest) difficulty level, Assault can be completed in about five or six hours. While indeed a cause for concern, it is my belief that the Bronze mode was made exclusively for children ages ten years old and under, and more experienced gamers shouldn’t consider finishing the game on this level any special feat. The Silver difficulty level will provide adequate challenge for most (and a longer experience to boot) and Gold will inevitably have even the hardest of hardcore gamers muttering foul oaths under their breaths and hurling their controllers in frustration. As they say, “the greater the challenge, the greater the reward.” Right?
There are certainly plenty of reasons to keep replaying completed levels, as medals earned for completing tasks, such as acquiring high point totals and bringing in all allies safely, unlock secrets in the game like bonus multiplayer levels and other goodies (an arcade perfect version of Xevious is there to be had). Also, multiplayer is surprisingly robust and customizable (and is slowdown free even during four-way split-screen matches), though lack of LAN support is a mild disappointment.
Anyone who has played Sonic Team’s Phantasy Star Online will have a good idea about the graphical style and quality of Star Fox: Assault. Environments are all modeled with crisp, clean polygons, and textures, while not terribly detailed, are vibrant and eye catching. Slick use of blurring presents a truthful sense of motion during ship acceleration and barrel rolling, and metallic surfaces, whether on an Arwing’s hull or Fox’s armor, all look realistically reflective. Unfortunately, the convincing fur that Fox and his comrades all sported in Star Fox Adventures is only used in cut scenes, but its absence is not really noticeable during actual gameplay. Similar to Namco and Sega’s Nintendo-published GameCube title, F-Zero GX, the lack of complex lighting and hyper realistic texture mapping means that the in-game engine is absolutely never hit with any slowdown no matter how much is happening on screen. While nothing compared to graphical powerhouses like Metroid Prime and Resident Evil 4, Assault nonetheless stands as one of the prettier Cube titles currently available.
In terms of audio, at first it can be a tad off-putting to hear Slippy, Falco and other members of the Star Fox team actually chatting intelligibly back and forth for long periods of time during missions, especially for those who’ve become accustomed to the gibberish talk of Star Fox and the limited number of voices from Star Fox 64. This is partially due to the fact that a few of the voices seem too “Saturday morning cartoonish” for their own good, but the acting does tend to grow on you over time. Thankfully, many of the more “serious” characters, such as Fox McCloud, Krystal and Wolf O’Donnell, are voiced well (Panther Caroso, a member of Star Wolf, sounds remarkably bad ass in a suave, James Bond-ish sort of way).
Assault’s score is a mixture of addictive electronic beats and full-blooded orchestral offerings that sound not dissimilar from John Williams’ work for Star Wars. The official Star Fox theme is tied marvelously into a variety of different melodies at various points throughout the game, and is always welcomed wherever it pops up. Namco even included a fantastic little Spanish tune that accompanies Team Star Wolf’s arrival at several places in the story. Some may be disappointed that legendary Nintendo composer Koji Kondo wasn’t involved, as he did a phenomenal job with both Star Fox and Star Fox 64, but Namco’s in-house team and the Tokyo New City Orchestra did stellar work in his stead.
Many Star Fox fans felt cheated when the series made a drastic departure with Adventures, but Star Fox: Assault brings the franchise back to its glorious roots. While certainly not perfect – the game is short and could have benefited greatly from LAN or online multiplayer support – there really isn’t a more versatile arcade-style shooter for the GameCube system. Both longtime Star Fox fans and newcomers alike would do well to sink their vulpine teeth into this action-packed gem.
Nine out of ten