Sunday, 27 May 2012

Star Wars: Starfighter (PC Video Game Review)

For everything bad which came out of the first episode of the Star Wars prequels it can at least be said that there were two good things we got out of it. Firstly it brought us one of the best lightsaber battles in the entire saga, thank you Ray Park, and secondly it brought us some genuinely fun tie in games. Not all of them were great, the less said about Obi-Wan and Obi-Wan’s Adventures the better, but most were actually decently made. Star Wars: Starfighter though? Not as good as people remember.
The big problem with the game is that it feels small and frequently unfocused. The most obvious example of this is the plot – almost all of the time you feel like you’re outside of events. Your characters are barely involved with the resistance on Naboo, most of the game is spent with the characters trying to get their act together and there isn’t even an obvious bad guy. Hell, the final boss, the person who killed the protagonists mentor and left him for dead in an asteroid field barely appears. He’s given only a couple of lines of dialogue, no connection to any of the heroes, you never even learn his name! No really, when he shows up as an enemy in the final level he’s just credited as “Merc Leader”.
Even the finale doesn’t have you doing all that much. Two of the protagonists never had any subplots to really flesh out their characters, the only one who did had it left unresolved, the victory in the final mission is achieved by Anakin Skywalker and none of them ever had a major impact in the war.
Now some of you might be saying stories have never been a major part in these games, but you’d be wrong. Think of a lot of flight simulator games; Ace Combat, Aquanox, the Wing freaking Commander series – all of which had either a recognisable villain, a well-paced storyline or characters who at least felt like they were at the core of events. Each of them had their flaws even for their time, but you could forgive them if they had a good story driving things forwards. They also had sizable casts of characters who were given time to link up with and develop, or at the very least knew one another prior to the game’s start, who speak to one another to develop their personalities. It vastly improves the playing experience when well implemented, but in Starfighter it’s almost never used. For most of the game the characters are either working on their own or join up with individuals who very quickly die. Even when the protagonists properly team up there’s no real communication between them aside from “do mission objectives”. The only time they do manage to get this right is the pirate Nym’s early storyline but it’s only used for about three levels before his side characters are replaced by the regular cast.
Along with the story, something which also makes the game feel small is a lot of its levels. Despite not being a long game it has the habit of either repeating certain levels multiple times or leaving most of the map featureless. This isn’t so much of a problem in space, but on missions inside the atmosphere there’s this habit of confining you to certain areas and not providing enough to distract you from any flaws such as its lack of features. The most notable one of these is one mission where you’re protecting allied units fortifying themselves in a circle of ruins. There’s not enough enemies appearing quick enough to hide the fact there’s nothing to the map outside the ruins themselves, just a continual sea of grass and hills with the occasional TF landing craft. What’s more is that you know this is effectively a copy/paste of an earlier type of mission, the evacuation from Lok. That wouldn’t be a bad thing in itself were it not for the fact that, like Nym’s other early missions, that was a much better designed level than the later ruins defence.
The enemies also felt similarly flawed a lot of the time. The most interesting looking ships you encounter are the mercenary warbands consisting of Dagger, Morningstar and Dianoga fighters, but they only appear in the first couple of missions. The rest of the time you’re constantly fighting droid fighters, which while well designed and head after you in large numbers, become repetitive. Part of your mind already knows that the game has something besides the Federation’s ships to pepper with laserfire and after a few missions you can’t help but hope they’ll turn up again to give you some variety. That’s not the biggest problem through – that would be the exact type of enemies you end up facing.
On a great deal of missions you don’t end up fighting swarms of aircraft so much as you do vast numbers of tanks, turrets and ground based installations. These were easily targeted and you can strafe them without too much trouble. Sure, they might be so heavily armoured they can shrug off anything short of multiple torpedoes but that can be worked around without much trouble. So what did the developers do to make them a challenge? They gave certain ones powerful main guns which not only make a chunk of your HP disappear but have such a high impact they’ll throw off your aim and send you flying in an entirely different direction. They’re accurate as hell as well, with dozens being deployed at once in some missions. So when you are fighting ground vehicles, half the time they’re pushovers and the rest they’re easily ripping you a new one. This results in Starfighter not so much having a difficulty curve as being a series of uneven spikes, with the experience of playing missions jumping from “well, that was easy” to “ohgodohgodohgodohgod I AM SO SCREWED!” seemingly at random.
Even simply comparing it to other flying games from its time, Star Wars: Starfighter really isn’t all that great. Okay, it had vastly better space levels than Battle for Naboo, some nice unlockables and some inventive ideas. But on the other hand it had all the flaws outlined above along with other irritating features such as invincible capital ships and seemingly having no effect upon the Trade Federation’s blockade at all. I’d probably not be criticising this quite so harshly were it not for the fact the series developers produced a vastly superior sequel just one year after this hit the shelves with Jedi Starfighter. It seemed to take into account the flaws in the original, giving a much better story, a wider variety of enemies, a greater sense of power, better subplots and a main villain who not only gets a name but some actual bloody screentime.
Star Wars: Starfighter is available on Steam for £2.99. It’s an admittedly fair price for what you’re getting, but in all honesty you should just save your money for something else. It’s a better game than Tom Clancy’s H.A.W.X., but that’s like saying Goldeneye is a better FPS than Duke Nukem Forever. Just because it can outdo a mediocre modern instalment of the genre doesn’t mean it’s the flawless gem you remember it as, nor will playing through it feel satisfying in this day and age.

Star Wars: Starfighter and all related characters and media are owned by LucasArts.

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