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Friday, July 8, 2011

Review: Star Raiders (PSN)

When I was young, I spent considerable time playing space sims like Wing Commander, Freespace 2 and Freelancer. I loved the idea of being the captain of my own ship and duking it out in intergalactic dogfights with some alien invaders. I loved developing my skills as an epic story unfolded before my very eyes, being witness to massive attacks on allied forces by the enemy, and finally bringing them to justice by the end of the game. I loved being able to quickly issue orders to my flight wing while I perform a strafing run on an interstellar cruiser, and peeling away just before their defensive turrets get a lock. All of it; it was that sort of adrenaline trip that helped fuel my passion for science-fiction.

Considering how much time I put into such games, it’s a shame that space flight sims have largely died out. I’ve heard that the mod communities for Freespace and Freelancer are still alive and well – and I do catch the occasional story of a Battlestar Galactica mod for Freespace – but it’s just not the same. I love and support modding more than some but there’s something about getting a fully polished product from a developer that gives me hope for the future.

That’s why, when I was offered the chance to review Star Raiders, I jumped at the opportunity. A remake of the classic Atari title? Never mind that, a space flight sim being released on the modern market? One that looks pretty enough to compete with other games currently on the market? Sign me up!

See? Very pretty!
Unfortunately, Freespace this ain’t.

Where the stories of Wing Commander and Freespace were epic grandiose tales of tension, challenge, vengeance and retribution, Star Raiders seems to fall short. The story revolves around your character, Talon, being trained as a new recruit in the Atarian fleet alongside his friends, a group of four or five characters who you are introduced to in the opening cutscene. Of course, only two of them are ever mentioned in future cutscenes and you never see any of them in-game, but we’ll get to that in a second.

Shortly into the campaign (read: one mission), the Atarian fleet is attacked by an alien force known as the Zylons. (Yes, you read that right: Zylons.) The main storyline has you fighting off the Zylon forces, clearing trade routes, cutting Zylon supply lines and, finally, destroying the ultimate weapon the Zylons are trying to use against the Atarians. It seems a fairly straightforward plot progression when laid bare like this but, in-game, it seems sparse and hackneyed. In an age when plots for videogames can be intricate, complicated and even delicate, Star Raiders smacks of being overly simple while trying to be a complex tale.

Worse still are the cutscenes: every few missions, you are greeted with a motion comic-style cutscene that tries to extrapolate on the story either by providing unneeded backstory or explaining what happened in the mission previous and where you’re going now (both of which are completely redundant as that information is given at the mission screen). Indeed, the best part of the cutscenes is the fact that the narrator sounds like Bruce Campbell, which merely lends the game an air of unintentional hilarity.

The backstory given in the cutscenes usually involves the other cadets and how they are reacting to the ongoing conflict with the Zylons. Unfortunately this, too, comes off as forced and unnecessary; it’s hard to care about characters that don’t even have voices, never mind that you only ever see them for ten seconds at a time. The game is designed to be a solitary experience – Star Raiders doesn’t have multiplayer features – but Incinerator Studios tries its best to make you believe you are part of a team. It’s a strongly mixed message that ends up feeling confused and makes it seem like they are missing the point.






Which brings me to another point of contention: every mission you fly on, you are always by yourself. Or, to be more precise, you are the only Atarian combatant on the field. There are missions where Atarian cruisers and frigates share the battlefield with you but, instead of putting their supposed impressive weaponry to good use, they sit back and let you, in your lone fighter, take on all the Zylon forces by yourself. It’s a bit frustrating and takes a step back from the squad-based combat of Freespace, especially considering they try so hard to convince you that you are not alone in the conflict.

That being said, the in-game combat is actually fairly entertaining. The missions get repetitive very quickly, mostly boiling down to nothing more than standard WoW-style quests of “Kill X number of enemies”, but that doesn’t mean that the execution is faulty. The HUD for the game is considerably less complex than the complicated displays present in games like Freespace but that’s to be expected with a game designed for a console controller as opposed to a keyboard. 

The main point of interest, however, is that Star Raiders bases its gameplay entirely around the ability to change between three different modes of attack: your fighter can transform between Attack Mode (your typical dogfighting fighter), Assault Mode (used to strafe weapon placements) and Turret Mode (a slow-moving heavy weapons platform). These different modes allow for some diverse styles of gameplay and Incinerator Studios utilises this to great effect: though some missions can be completed using only the Attack Mode, the later missions require you to transform between the different modes to complete your objectives.

The flight controls are fairly simple though aren’t quite as intuitive as the controls in other flight sims like HAWX: where HAWX allows you to control your flight with both sticks, Star Raiders has you controlling your entire flight in Attack Mode with your left stick, leaving your right stick completely useless. In Assault and Turret Mode, both sticks are used in a more expected manner, but Attack Mode often feels clunky and unintuitive, often leading you in directions you weren’t expecting.

Check out the space elevator!

For the most part, the level design works beautifully. After all, it’s kind of hard to screw up massive expanses of empty space, and the best level involves assaulting a space elevator that very strongly resembles the one in the newest Star Trek movie. That being said, there are the occasional levels that could use some serious work: one requires you to fly inside an asteroid where there is no ambient lighting, leading to many frustrated curses as you fly into a wall and explode for the fifth time in a row. Another requires you to make a fast escape from the core of a planet while explosions block your line of sight and cause you to, again, crash and die multiple times. These moments are frustrating more than can be described but luckily occur quite infrequently.

If you were a big space flight sim fan when the genre was popular, then you’ll probably get a kick out of Star Raiders: in some ways, it very strongly channels its heritage into the modern era and does so with verve and spunk. That being said, don’t expect epic arching storylines like you’d find in Freespace 2 or Freelancer. At the worst of times, Star Raiders seems contrived and unnecessary, while at the best you tend to forget there’s a story at all.

Still, if you’re someone craving a dogfight in an intergalactic fighter jet, you could definitely do much worse than Star Raiders.

- Nick J



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Review: Star Raiders (PSN)
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