Star Fox Zero does a lot of things right, but it also mixes them up with so many wrongs that it’s hard to justify it as a worthy reincarnation of the classic Star Fox 64 of nearly two decades ago.
When I first envisioned a, well, re-envision of the 3D scrolling shooter game, I imagined it would take heavy inspiration from well-known aerial combat titles like the Ace Combat series, or perhaps even from currently under-development games like No Man’s Sky and Star Citizen.
What Star Fox Zero does in reality though is ignore proven control systems and base mechanics that have made similar genres a success, and adds counter-intuitive mechanics and features that cater to fan service and forceful use of clunky hardware.
As a game itself, its one that doesn’t hide its indecisiveness between delivering something absolutely fresh or presenting a nostalgia-quenching experience aimed towards those who experience 1997’s classic Nintendo 64 title.
The fresh, fast-paced approach to dog fighting and shooting mechanics feels new, as do the colorful yet acceptably detailed visuals of the game. However, there’s little imagination involved when it comes to re-utilizing some of the retro elements in the game. Enemies and certain scenarios from the previous game feel forcefully placed with oddity, and often pop out in an unattractive manner because of their out-of-place nature.
Regardless, it does a satisfactory job of not making everything seem like fan service. In fact, there are enough new features and designs to make Star Fox Zero feel like a modern day game that encourages casual fun for multiple age groups. The problem is though, Star Fox Zero’s appeal hits a huge dent when you pick up the controller and play it.
Initially, the game’s tilt mechanics seem acceptable and fairly intuitive to use, but in noticeably important scenarios and crucial stages of the game, the controls of the game pop out like a tumor. Star Fox Zero is a prisoner of its own device, literally.
In an attempt to utilize the Wii U’s system, the game splits the combat into two distinct screens. On the TV, you observe the environment and Fox McCloud’s vehicle in a conventional third-person environment. It looks pretty, it feels fast paced, and the bulk of the action is happening there.
However, the game’s controls only partially facilitate what you see on the main screen; a semi first-person environment from within the cockpit takes up your Wii U Controller’s screen, and it’s this screen that has you aiming with precision.
The reticle on the TV screen can be substituted as the target reticule in more casual set-pieces during a mission, but during the core gameplay, the game punishingly emphasizes that it’s merely a representation of Fox McCloud’s line of vision. The actual aiming is done from the display on the controller.
It’s essentially a hammer with two handles, and just like one, its main function is serving pure frustration. You’re essentially force to constantly switch your focus between the third-person perspective on the TV and the cockpit view on your controller, making it a tedious mechanic that is not only hard to master, but also difficult to enjoy even when your mind adapts to it.
It takes a massive chunk away from the game’s immersiveness, with the player inevitably having to sacrifice spatial awareness for concentrated targeting, and vice versa.
This can make Star Fox Zero a short experience for many, as it also happens to be the game’s biggest challenge. It’s never a good thing when a game’s own design decisions become the source of its difficulty, and unfortunately that’s exactly how it is with Star Fox Zero.
The fun bosses, exciting set-pieces, well-designed environments and (for the most) intriguing missions suffer a blow because of the game’s mechanics all the way till the end, and the inclusion of some tedious quests such as those involving the Gyro-wing Hovercraft.
Yes, Fox McCloud has more than just his signature Arwing at his disposal, but it’s mostly a choice the game makes for you instead of letting you choose which vehicle you want.
The Arwing is obviously the most utilized and arguably the most fun craft to play with. It has an added dimension where it turns into a clunky and not-so-exciting bipedal mech, which doesn’t offer the same kind of immersive experience as the space-craft itself, but works better than some of the other vehicles in the game.
There’s the restricted movement of the ground-based tank, which isn’t half as exciting, but still has the perks of being able to transform into an aircraft, albeit a slow one. Then, there’s the previously mentioned Gyro-wing Hovercraft, which is a part of some of the worst missions in the game.
It’s slow, it’s tedious, and it completely deviates from the game’s fast-paced action in a way that doesn’t feel fresh or unique, but more like a speed bump.
The game’s campaign is made out of several missions, and on a whole it can take you around 5 to 6 hours to go through it. It’s disappointingly small on paper, but Star Fox Zero excels in encouraging replayability. There are many branching paths to take during the campaign, and it’s almost certain you’re to miss some content in your first playthrough.
This is where Star Fox Zero is at its strongest. Its set-pieces and mission design for the most are done well enough to encourage multiple playthroughs on their own, but the game’s ability to give you something new to work with every time you decide to go through its campaign makes it a more than just a boxed-in experience.
After you’ve finished the campaign, the game even mixes up the missions to make them feel new. Own snooze-fest Gyrowing Hovercraft mission will suddenly turn into a speedy one that requires quick reflexes and acrobatic maneuvers, while another where you’d be controlling a tank will have you play with an entirely different vehicle.
In addition to this mix-match, there are plenty of unexplored events you’re bound to come across as you go through the game again, and it helps even more when you co-op.
In fact, the game becomes more enjoyable two-folds when played with co-op, as it allows one player to assume complete control of the third-person perspective on the main screen, while the other pilots the cannon in the shooter view on the controller. This is by far the best workaround to the terrible controls that can negate the replayability factor of Star Fox Zero.
It’s an experience that matches the thrill of aerial combat observed in Star Wars, save with adorable animals instead of Jedi knights and Sith lords.
It’s also an experience that suffers from similar inconsistencies, because though the general mission designs are good, some of the design decisions are nothing short of strange and out of place.
A good example is the first boss of the game, where the lock-on basically prevents you from flying properly to collect items, or even shooting effectively at the boss itself.
Overall, Star Fox Zero feels like a game that doesn’t get the hardware to work for it, but one that works for the hardware. It’s control mechanics are forced to facilitate a greatly struggling console, and the reason for the struggles gape like wounds in the experience.
That’s not to say Star Fox Zero is a bad game though. It takes a hit because of its questionable design decisions, but it’s an engaging and fun experience that has high replayability value, once you get past the steep learning curve associated with the controls. Star Fox Zero is arguably best experienced by co-oping with a willing friend, but as a standalone title, it falls just short of expectations.