E3: Star Fox Zero Hands-On And In-Depth

Posted by June 17, 2015 Comment

From Cap Blackard Of Nerdy Show, for Bleeding Cool,

The return of Star Fox has been a long time coming. Now Fox, Slippy, Falco, and Peppy are back in action and their Arwing fighters have even more awesome abilities to fight back Andross’ forces. The WiiU title, Star Fox Zero, comes out holiday this year and brings with it both classic Star Fox gameplay as well as a complex spin on playstyle that challenges and rewards. But does this old crew of anthro aces have what it takes to stand alongside modern games?

Last time we saw Fox and co, was in the 2006 strategy hybrid DS game, Star Fox: Command.  With it came multiple endings and some surprisingly bleak interpersonal drama; depending on which outcome you take as cannon. In Star Fox Zero the slate is swept clean. Rather than being a prequel as “zero” so often implies, it’s more of a fresh start for the series. Much like how Star Fox 64 was in some ways a side-step remake of the series SNES debut, so too does Zero start from scratch while keeping the same general premise. The game opens with Team Star Fox defending their home planet Corneria from the evil simian Andross’ invading forces. What happens after that initial level is sure to have shadows of what came before, but offer a decidedly divergent experience.

At Nintendo’s E3 demo, players could select from the opening Corneria level or “Area 3″ a space dogfight over a large colonial city within a massive wheel. Having watched both while in line, I went for Corneria – the more diverse of the two demos. At first glance, there’s not much different about this new Star Fox; it’s only when it’s in your hands that things change. Using the WiiU GamePad, controls become simultaneously simpler and more complex. Moves like barrel rolls, and somersaults are easily executed and piloting the Arwing feels more plane-like. It’s easy to use the TV to play the game as in past iterations. But meanwhile on the GamePad, you’re able to access the cockpit view. This view, with the aide of gyroscopic sensors, offers more precision targeting: closer to the action and more centered on the ship’s crosshairs. Attempting continuous flight while looking down at the GamePad is hazardous, but towards the end of the 15 minute demo I’d got the makings of a balance between the two screens. Like a quick glance down a scope, I could keep flying, get off a couple key shots at higher accuracy, then get the wide perspective needed to dodge or move onto the next task.star fox zero corrneria

The Corneria level showcases many familiar sights. It’s almost disconcerting for a game as long-awaited as this to so heavily borrow from what came before. It’s not just the same enemy ships, but the build of the world – strange structures that still have more in common with their geometric Super FX chip ancestors than actual buildings people would live and work in. Nintendo games of late have had a remarkable amount of visual depth and realism. Mario Kart 8 and Splatoon both seem lived in, and in many occasions have surprisingly detailed background elements and textures that bring these cartoon worlds to life. By comparison, Star Fox Zero feels like an older generation’s game where landscapes are purely elements of game design, and the narrative theming of the level is a tertiary concern.

This is in large part due to the limitations of the WiiU. Star Fox levels require both scale and speed – the game has both, but at a price. Star Fox Zero plays at 60 frames per second on both the TV and the GamePad. Creator Shigeru Miyamoto said in a recentinterview with Kotaku that this frame rate is a matter of immediacy, “having the image react to what you are doing.” Yet as a result Yusuke Hashimoto of Zero co-developer Platinum Games said, “the visuals kind of can’t be that rich, but we also want them to appear rich.” This is the first time that a main-line Nintendo game has felt the burn of its own hardware’s limitations, and it’s a real shame. (Don’t worry kids, the forthcoming Zelda is in 30fps.)

An awesome feature that unfortunately highlights the vacant spaces of Corneria is the Arwing’s walker mechanic. It’s an ability from the cancelled SNES sequel Star Fox 2 that hasn’t made it into a game until now – that transforms the Arwing into a chicken-like bipedal unit. The walker is awesome and allows for exciting variety in play style and problem solving. For instance, the first level’s mothership-style boss can either be beaten back by destroying its defenses in an Arwing, or outright blown up if you use the walker to go inside the ship and take out the core. But alas, with you playing so close to the ground in the walker, the empty worlds seem even more featureless.

The Arwing is joined by the returning Landmaster tank (now with a secondary hover mode) and the Gyrowing, a copter-like vehicle that can deploy a robotic drone for ground-level exploration. Each of these abilities offer deeper gameplay as well as replayability for levels. As an example: the E3 demo was actually of the second playthrough opportunity for Corneria. In the first playthrough, the walker ability (and therefor the better ending) wouldn’t have been unlocked yet. In spite of these options, the developers say the game is more linear than previous titles.

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Much remains to be seen of Star Fox Zero before it’s release later this year. Can a second restart of the series manage to not feel stale? Will fan favorite character Krystal trump the series’ previous continuity and make an appearance? Does a “more linear” Star Fox mean a more focused story or simply more arcade-style gameplay? And can Star Fox Zero‘s fun gameplay trump its lacking graphics? The answer to that particular question is assuredly “yes”, but with the gameplay learning curve and underwhelming visuals, the odds aren’t stacked in Star Fox‘s favor.

(Last Updated June 17, 2015 3:55 pm )