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Mini-Review: Star Fox: Assault

Star Fox: Assault This article was originally published at Kombo.com on February 11, 2005. 

Whenever danger faces the Lylat System, General Pepper turns to the heroes-for-hire Star Fox team to eradicate the enemy menace and restore civility to the solar system. The Star Fox team's battles against the twisted scientist Andross have become stories of legend, primarily because each title in the series has some level of notoriety surrounding it: the original Star Fox brought us the Super FX Chip, Star Fox 2 is still considered "the one that got away", Star Fox 64 rocked our world with the Rumble Pak, and Star Fox Adventures received more attention as the first and last Rareware title for the GameCube than for the actual gameplay itself. Now Nintendo and Namco have teamed up to create the latest installment of the Star Fox saga, Star Fox: Assault, and for the first time Fox McCloud and friends have to stand alone without new technology or nostalgia covering their backs.

One year after the events on Sauria the last of Andross’s troops are attempting to regroup near the planet Fortuna when Cornerian military forces engage the enemy fleet. Andrew Oikonny, the nephew of the late Andross and former member of the renegade Star Wolf team, is attempting to lead his hired troops to glory in a plan to follow in his uncle’s footsteps. The Star Fox team arrives just in time to pursue Oikonny to the planet’s surface where, without warning, a large creature plummets from space and crashes into the would-be emperor’s ship, destroying it. This interstellar visitor is no friend, however. It is an Aparoid, a member of a species of insectoid-like creatures that are devoted to consuming the resources and residents of neighboring solar systems. As the Aparoids invade the Lylat System the Star Fox team springs into action, determined to destroy the enemy menace.

There have been a few changes to the formula, however. Peppy Hare is still retired from active flight duty, instead remaining behind on the Great Fox mothership to offer advice and dispense equipment. Taking his place behind the controls of an Arwing is Krystal, the fox that McCloud rescued on Sauria. She has taken on the role of the team’s telepath, offering up information on the thoughts and intent of incoming enemies. Falco Lombardi is back with the team after a long hiatus, but Slippy Toad is just as helpless as ever under fire. Even the Star Wolf team has undergone some changes: Andrew Oikonny has left the team to take up his uncle’s mantle, newcomer Panther Caroso has taken his place as Star Wolf’s resident womanizer, and former Star Fox member Pigma Dengar has been kicked off the team after betraying his co-pilots. 

Star Fox: AssaultStar Fox: Assault is, at last, a true sequel to the classic Star Fox 64. Playing the role of Fox McCloud, players are called upon to track down and destroy the Aparoid menace in a series of missions that are split into three basic types of gameplay: Arwing-based “on rails” shooting missions, “all-range mode”-style ground-based assault missions, and 360° blasting missions in which Fox must stand on an in-flight Arwing and shoot approaching enemies out of the sky. Fortunately, taking the controls of the Arwing is like slipping on a familiar pair of flight gloves. Namco has retained the Arwing’s controls from Star Fox 64 for the most part. The control stick maneuvers the ship, the A button fires the blasters (and holding down the A button charges up shots), the B button launches a nova bomb, and the C-stick’s up and down motions engage a loop and U-turn respectively. What has changed is that the R button acts as the Arwing’s brakes, whereas the L button brings the ship into a barrel roll. Press the L button down slightly to tilt the ship or press it until the button clicks to spin the Arwing completely around to evade enemy fire. These Arwing missions involve flying from Point A to Point B, blasting enemies all along the way and engaging a boss character at the end of the level. For instance, at one point the Star Fox team is attempting to track Pigma Dengar to his hideout. After flying through an asteroid field, the team comes across an under-construction base that the Aparoids are in the process of consuming. After flying through the base’s many twisting paths and clanging construction machinery, the team finally encounters Pigma and must engage the level’s boss.

The Arwing-based missions are most likely what the majority of players are looking for in a Star Fox title, but those missions are only half of the game. What stands out in Assault are the ground -based assault missions where Fox leaves the comfort of his Arwing and, blaster in hand, engages the Aparoids on foot. Judging by the criticisms that are popping up around the Internet, many players look down on the assault missions and see them as an unwanted aspect of the game. As mentioned in GCA’s hands-on impressions of Assault, it is important that beloved game franchises continue to grow and change, lest they grow stagnant. Allowing Fox to stand on his own two feet outside of an Arwing is the next phase of evolution for the Star Fox series. Remember, if Mario had never met Yoshi there would have been no Yoshi’s Island, if Samus Aran had never entered the third dimension there would have been no Metroid Prime, and if Hyrule had never been depicted as a side-scrolling platformer world there would have been no Zelda II: The Adventure of Link

Once on the ground Fox has a variety of weapons available to him. His trusty blaster is always ready to go, capable of firing both standard and charged shots. Weaker Aparoids can be destroyed with a few plain shots, but shielded enemies require the blaster’s full charge. Scattered around the ground-based environments are various guns and grenades, including machine guns, sniper rifles, and rocket launchers. These special weapons have limited ammunition and do not respawn after collection, meaning that Fox must make every shot count. Namco has provided three different control methods for controlling Fox on the ground, allowing players to choose the method that suits them best. The default control uses the control stick to move Fox, the R button to aim, and the A button to shoot, but another control scheme involves using the C-stick to aim, requiring simultaneous use of both sticks. Yet another control method uses the R button to run and the control stick to aim, turning the game’s controls from less of a 3D platformer to more of a traditional shooter. Ground-based missions require Fox to track down and destroy a specific number of Aparoid targets or shield generators that protect these targets. For example, when the Star Fox team is dispatched to Sauria to answer a distress call, they find that Hatchers, an Aparoid weapon that generates wave after wave of new Aparoids, have taken root in key positions. Fox transports to the planet’s surface to find and destroy every last Hatcher. While Fox is more than able to wander the planet with his advanced weapons, he’s also able to hop into the Landmaster tank or Arwing at will. The Landmaster has been refined somewhat from Star Fox 64; it’s slightly larger now and retains its cannon, boost, and hovering abilities. As for the Arwing, taking flight allows Fox to soar above the planet’s surface and take out targets from the air. While on ground-based missions the Landmaster and Arwing have an energy meter separate from Fox’s own, meaning that if a vehicle takes too much damage it will explode and leave Fox to fend for himself. Players can switch in and out of vehicles by pressing the Z button at anytime, and switching between vehicles brings out one of Assault’s greatest strengths.

Star Fox: AssaultImagine finding yourself on Sauria’s surface, blasting waves of Aparoids in search of Hatchers. Suddenly Falco’s voice crackles on the comm. channel; new enemy reinforcements have arrived in the sky above and are shooting at your teammates! You race to the nearest Arwing and climb aboard, lifting off and joining the battle above. You shoot enemy crafts out of the sky left and right, but your Arwing has taken plenty of damage as well. With energy running low and a wing damaged, you bail out of the Arwing and drop to the ground below, landing in the middle of an Aparoid swarm as the Arwing flies on unmanned, crashing to the ground in a fiery explosion. Surrounded by Aparoids, you shoot your way through the enemy line and take refuge in a nearby Landmaster tank, turning the tables on your foes and cutting a swath of destruction through their forces as you make a beeline for the nearby Hatcher that is generating even more foes. Fortunately for you, Peppy has detected the destruction of the Arwing moments ago and transports another to the surface, allowing you to leave the Landmaster behind and return to the sky to track Hatchers on your radar and take them out from above until you’re forced to land the Arwing and move on foot into the planet’s narrow cave system in search of the last of the Hatchers.

Star Fox: Assault is filled with moments like these, bringing out nearly all of the classic scenarios that one would expect to find in a Star Fox title. The Star Fox team will travel to Katina to find the source of a distress call, venture to Corneria to knock out radar jamming satellites when the Aparoids attack the capital of the Lylat System, explore the snowy wastes of Fichina when a weather control station comes under attack, duel with the Star Wolf team deep within the Sargasso Space Zone, protect the Orbital Gate from Aparoid missiles, and travel to the edge of the galaxy to destroy the Aparoid Queen in a last-ditch attempt to end the invasion. Nobles heroes will give their lives in battle, despised enemies will finally get what they deserve, and lifelong foes will team up to prevent their mutual destruction. 

The heart of Assault is the single-player Story Mode, but in an effort to provide some replayability Namco has included the Mission and Survival Modes. Mission Mode allows players to return to completed levels in an attempt to achieve higher scores and earn medals. Unlike Star Fox 64 which required players to play through the entire game in order to return to specific levels, Assault’s Mission Mode consists of a menu of available levels. Pick a level, review the medal requirements, and plunge into battle. Medals are awarded for completing a level without having team members shot down and for earning the required number of points. Points are awarded for the number of enemies destroyed, the speed at which the level is completed, the number of enemies blasted in a single shot (combos), and the level of difficulty. Speaking of difficulty, there are three levels of difficulty to choose from (Bronze, Silver, and Gold). Each level of difficulty raises the goal for earning a medal and provides a greater challenge during battle, and collecting enough medals unlocks hidden levels, characters, and items for use in the game’s Multiplayer Mode. Additionally, there are five yellow flags hidden in each level. Collect all fifty to unlock even more hidden goodies. Survival Mode harkens back to the Star Fox 64 experience, challenging players to complete the entire Story Mode without saving. Once Fox runs out of lives, the game is over.

Beyond the single-player experience lies the Multiplayer Mode in which up to four players can do battle in a variety of levels, some of which come from the Story Mode and some of which are new environments. Most levels are customizable as well. Some levels, such as Corneria, allow players to battle on foot, in Landmasters, or in Arwings (or any combination thereof). If Landmasters are shunned by the party, they can be disabled, and the same goes for Arwings or on-foot mobility. On the other hand, space-based levels such as the Orbital Gate are exclusively for Arwings. If only two players are participating than the screen is split vertically into two sections (unlike Star Fox 64 which forced a four-way split screen no matter how many players were involved in a battle), dividing into four equal-sized panels as more players join the fight. New content is unlocked as more and more multiplayer battles are completed, much like how Super Smash Bros. Melee unlocks new environments and characters as players spend more time with the game.  Adding to the game’s extra modes are three classic Namco arcade games - Xevious, Star Luster, and Battle City - that are unlocked as various medals and flags are collected.

Star Fox: AssaultFor all of Star Fox: Assault’s strengths, there are unfortunately a few weaknesses. One of the best aspects of Star Fox 64 (and even the original Star Fox to a certain extent) involves the various ways that the story could unfold. Branching paths allowed players to move from one planet to next depending on which objectives were completed, making each time through the game a unique experience. Assault lacks this feature, meaning that the game is a woefully short ten missions in length. Finish the Story Mode once and there is nothing new to see, plot-wise. Furthermore, Star Fox 64 showcased the then-new Rumble Pak by featuring a number of memorable rumble moments, such as the mission to MacBeth where Andross’s supply train smashes into the supply depot, causing the controller to shake and spasm wildly. Assault makes average use of the rumble capability, but never really causes the controller to come alive in a fit of vibration. And speaking of memorable moments, 64 was packed with memorable quotes and dialogue, but Assault’s quips are minor in comparison. Most damning of all is Assault’s ending which cheapens the sacrifices made by the game’s characters by reviving the dead offscreen without a satisfying explanation. These faults in no way detract from Assault’s gameplay, but these aspects are expected of the Star Fox series and to have them absent or diminished here does sour the entire experience somewhat.

Namco faced quite a challenge in developing Assault; the development team had to create a world in which the environments and characters appear sleek while in motion but stunning while stationary. Overall Namco achieved this, although the ground-based environments aren’t as detailed as one would hope. Rareware’s depiction of Sauria, for example, is much more detailed and lifelike than Namco’s version. The Arwing missions look like a next generation Star Fox which should satisfy the harshest critic, particularly the final mission in the Aparoid Homeworld’s core where colors shift violently across the spectrum, flowing back and forth rapidly in a visual feast. Ground-based missions aren’t quite as visually impressive, looking better while Fox is on the move than when standing still. As far as audio is concerned, listen for classic Star Fox music themes and cues as well as some new music that suits the various situations but, again, isn’t exactly memorable. The most impressive musical moment comes in the game’s introductory sequence; prepare yourself for the best rendition of the Star Fox anthem since Super Smash Bros. Melee. Once again the Star Fox team and their adversaries chat up a storm on the comm. channels, quipping and commenting on situations, asking for help (especially Slippy Toad, who thankfully seems to have been through puberty since we last saw him, for his voice is slightly deeper in this adventure), and offering advice in tense moments.

The best way to describe Star Fox: Assault is to say that it’s fun while it lasts. During the first run through the game the twisting plot and intense action are fresh and engaging, but the Bronze level of difficulty can be completed in approximately six hours. After that six hours there’s nothing new to see; the idea is to move on to more challenging difficulty levels and earn higher scores. Traditionally, one of Star Fox’s draws is to see how many ways one can complete the game, but Assault limits players to a linear path. As for Mission Mode, there are some levels such as Sauria and Katina that I’ve gladly played over and over again for the sheer fun of it, but levels such as Corneria and the Aparoid Homeworld I see no reason to return to ever again, medal potential or not. Nintendo and Namco are to be commended for bringing in a new threat to the Lylat System instead of resurrecting Andross yet again, however. The Aparoids are intriguing villains, combining aspects of some of science fiction’s memorable villains. The Aparoids are just means to an end, however; their real reason for being in Assault is not to allow the audience a new villain to interact with, but to allow the audience to see how our heroes react to the seemingly unstoppable force behind the Aparoid invasion. The focus is on Star Fox, not the Aparoids, as it should be.

I stated earlier that Star Fox: Assault is the next phase of evolution for the Star Fox series. Like any advancement there are stumbles here and there and aspects that could have been improved, but for the most part this next step for Fox McCloud is an enjoyable (if not very memorable) adventure. I recommend Assault to fans of the series who have been waiting nearly eight years to control an Arwing again and to newcomers to the series who are curious just how a fox, a falcon, or a frog can fly spacecraft. There’s plenty here to enjoy, but the ride is over far too soon. All aircraft report; we’re heading out. 

(Images via MobyGames)