Instead of being praised for its inventions, Star Fox: Assault is defined by its irregularity, and most of the worthy new steps it tries to implement end up being disappointing
The beginning of Star Fox: Assault is, simply put, quite spectacular. In the orbit of Fortuna, the Cornerian fleet is facing the last remnants of Andross’s army. Led by his nephew, Andrew Oikonny, the evil forces are trying to avenge the major losses they incurred years earlier during the events portrayed in Star Fox 64. The cruel space monkeys little by little reveal their flexible arsenal of ships, launching them towards an increasingly overmatched group of Cornerian pilots. Fearful they will lose the battle, they call upon their secret weapon: the Star Fox team.
Piloted by a now retired Peppy Hare, whose old age has forced him to leave one-on-one dogfights to his younger peers, The Great Fox – the team’s flagship – bursts into the battlefield gloriously accompanied by the playing of the classic Star Fox theme. Fox, Falco, Slippy, and Krystal (coming straight from Star Fox Adventures) are soon shown running to their vehicles and going over the standard procedures that precede taking it to the skies. Soon afterwards, four Arwings are launched out of The Great Fox’s belly and Oikonny’s army trembles in fear as the major defeat that quartet of ships made them suffer is a not so distant past.
What follows is a generous well-designed slice of the gameplay fans of the franchise have come to love so deeply. Controlling Fox, and traveling along a fixed path, players maneuver amidst enemy forces, which try their best to stop the team’s advance by using a myriad of ships and weapons, but fail massively as all of them are shot down by timely laser blasts.
Explosions happen everywhere, vessels both big and small come into view only to become floating piles of smoking debris, Fox’s teammates run into trouble every once in a while and he has to step in by taking down the bad guys on their tail, and swarms of hostile projectiles head to the character’s Arwing and force him to perform his traditional airborne ballet – by executing barrel rolls or tight turns – to respectively deflect those beams or let them fly by. Almost seamlessly, the battle is taken to the skies of Fortuna when Oikonny, sensing another defeat, flees to his ground base, but Star Fox gives chase and – after briefly flying by the planet’s exuberant nature, which displays the game’s very good visuals, they destroy the place and beat Oikonny following a boss battle.
All of those events happen during the first of the ten missions that Star Fox: Assault packs, and they work as a great background to the showcase of the franchise’s best traits operating at their peak. Unfortunately, although that piece of the game serves as proof that developers from Namco and Nintendo involved in the title’s making were fully capable of delivering the goods, the overall result found here implies that capacity was not fully taken advantage of. And that is because Star Fox: Assault is an absurdly inconsistent adventure.
Not one to rest on the laurels earned by Star Fox 64, the game tries its hand at bringing some significant additions to the table and drastically toying with the general format of the series’ missions. It is a noble intention, one that can be admired to a certain extent, but the implementation of those changes is usually so unfulfilling that it is awfully easy to wish the installment had safely stuck to what the series does best.
Out of the ten missions of Star Fox: Assault, only three follow that ideal path. That is, they focus solely on: Arwings moving on-rails and letting players free to try to destroy as many targets as possible in order to achieve high scores. Additionally, there is one mission that is entirely dedicated to the All-Range Mode introduced in Star Fox 64; in other words, it features a rectangular map within which Arwings can move freely, leaning therefore in the direction of dogfights that have gamers using the ship’s looping and tight-turning abilities to gain an edge over foes.
Even though one may argue the goal of that last quest borrows a bit too heavily from one of the most notable episodes of Star Fox 64, there is absolutely nothing wrong with any of those missions. They are thoroughly enjoyable, thrilling, fast-paced, and – taking advantage of the Gamecube’s hardware – they give an extra cinematic luster to the wild combats. The problems of Star Fox: Assault are elsewhere.
Fox and his team, having dealt with the menace of Andross, suddenly have to handle a new threat to the galaxy’s peace; namely, the Aparoids, sentient part-machine part-biological creatures that have decided to impose their alleged superiority over other beings. As they do so, numerous will be the times when the hero will have to step out of his Arwing and execute tasks on the ground. And therein lie the issues.
The six remaining missions suffer terribly because of that. It is not that such kind of gameplay is completely incompatible with the franchise; it is just that these levels are, more than held back, considerably harmed by an impressive number of flaws. Due to that, Star Fox: Assault ends up being a game where the best of one world (the frantic flying and scoring) meets a pretty lackluster instance of another one (third-person action), and given that – in sheer numbers – the latter is more present than the former, the sum of the parts is a rather mixed bag, one that will string together moments of sheer joy with occasions of frustration.
In those missions, while most – if not all – of Fox’s teammates will stay in the air, he will grab a gun and go to the ground to, invariably, disable a handful of targets. In some of them, he will have to perform that task while keeping an eye out for a gauge on the top-left portion of the screen, which will keep track of the amount of enemy ships flying around the place. If that meter happens to fill up, his partners will be overwhelmed and the mission will automatically be over.
Nicely, when such a mechanic is in place, it is – most of the times – possible to take control of the parked Arwing and temporarily take it to their air in order to destroy a bunch of ships and keep the gauge under control. It is a feature that adds a nice dynamic to those levels. Switching between both perspectives at will is fun and the fact gamers have to manage both fronts wisely adds a good deal of tension to the experience, but even so, given the air combat in those situations is extremely straightforward, that duality – though very good – is not as satisfying as it could have been.
When on the ground, Fox will have at his disposal a pretty neat arsenal: there is a blaster, with infinite ammo, that can have its shots charged; a machine gun; a sniper rifle; grenades; a rocket launcher; and a pickup item that allows him to create a temporary shield. And it is fair to say the enemies he will encounter will have him use all of those weapons. It is too bad, however, that those areas are the sole elements of that gameplay facet that can be genuinely complimented.
The level design itself ranges from uninspired to clumsy. The desert outpost that serves as the setting for the third mission, for example, is a dull square base that has players running around in circles while shooting enemies and looking for the targets that appear. And the same goes for the snow-covered Fichina. Meanwhile, other two levels offer a few opportunities for Fox to fall either to his death, which will cause the stage to restart from the beginning, or back to the first floor after having climbed his way to the top, which is – to say the least – annoying.
That multi-floored setup all those ground locations feature creates yet another problem due to the game’s radar. The main targets are displayed on it as red dots, and their size indicates whether they are on the same level as Fox or either above or below him. It is a good implementation, but the game completely lacks a map that clearly shows the design of all floors and how they can be reached, since the one that is displayed by pausing the game is a totally flat mess that serves more to confuse than to guide.
Consequently, most of the time spent on those missions will involve cluelessly running around looking for tunnels, ramps, or elevators while players’ teammates tell them to hurry up. And that is another negative particularity of Star Fox: Assault, for the generally good voice acting of Star Fox 64 is replaced by one that is very irregular. It is not just that it is annoying to frequently hear Falco, Slippy, and Krystal shouting over the radio while Fox tries to figure out a maze. It is that the nice tone of the Nintendo 64 game, which was that of an action cartoon, is overwritten by one that often takes itself too seriously, therefore hitting upon extremely cheesy lines and deliveries when it tries to be too thoughtful or dramatic, an issue that is aggravated by the fact Star Fox: Assault has a lot of cutscenes and dialogues before and after all of its missions.
The biggest roadblock on the way to enjoying the ground segments, though, is easily the control scheme. In those cases, Star Fox: Assault is a third-person shooting title that lacks a lock feature. As such, players are responsible for aiming, which would have been perfectly fine if the game had not handled that action so awkwardly. The control’s C-stick, which would have been ideal for that action, is instead weirdly mapped to cycling through Fox’s arsenal. Instead, given the camera is always behind the character, the sideways aiming is done by moving him around. It works fine to a point, even if it forces gamers, from time to time, to execute some unnatural moves that would have been replaced by more efficient alternatives had the aiming been handled separately from the walking.
The main annoyance is found when it is necessary to shoot upwards or downwards, because in those cases the R button must be pressed. With that, the analog stick will freely move the reticle around the screen. However, of course, since he will be locked in place, Fox will basically become a sitting duck waiting to be shot down by enemies, which – bafflingly – makes it almost impossible to aim vertically without taking damage.
Those shortcomings also affect the Landmaster, the team’s tank. On ground missions, it is almost always possible to jump into it in order to more easily take care of foes found in wide open areas. Sadly, if in Star Fox 64 piloting it during on-rails segments was entirely fun, as players could solely focus on moving sideways around the screen, dodging fire or obstacles by either performing rolls or temporarily using its boosters to go airborne, and controlling its cannon to blast foes, the settings in which it is deployed in Star Fox: Assault do not do it a whole lot of good.
Firstly, because they are not exactly suitable for a tank, as they are way too tight, feature too many physical barriers (such as trees), and have numerous elevations. Secondly, because the issues related to aiming that afflict an on-foot Fox also apply to it, as – in its case – the C-stick is, even more shockingly, left totally idle when it could have easily been used to freely move around the vehicle’s cannon.
Furthermore, a couple of other changes implemented by Star Fox: Assault end up being unfulfilling. Some of the ground missions culminate with Fox climbing on the wing of a friendly ship and using a bazooka to take down enemies that are trying to attack it. Given all the character can do in those cases is move the reticle around and hold the A button to shoot relentlessly, as opposed to when he has control of a ship and other than doing just that he is also responsible for dodging shots, these portions come off as fun deviations that would have been better if replaced by a more traditional gameplay.
Meanwhile, when it comes to the progression through the game, Star Fox: Assault does away with the excellent alternate routes of Star Fox 64, through which players could have a myriad of ways to get to the final boss, and opts for ten fixed missions. It is a decision that makes sense given the title’s overarching story is more prominent and is deeply connected to what goes on in the missions. As such, altering the pieces that make up the journey to the end would have been complicated. Yet, it is an exchange whose outcome is negative, for in a game such as Star Fox, which thrives in its arcade simplicity, more story does not replace more replay value, which was the biggest benefit of the alternate routes.
To be fair, Star Fox: Assault takes great measures to extend the life of its adventure, which – in a first run – should take players between three and four hours to complete. As it happened in Star Fox 64, all stages have a certain punctuation threshold that, when reached, will award players with a medal. That collectible is made quite alluring because the levels are individually short and, regardless of their format, they have a very good combo system in place that will give incentive to multiple replays, a whole lot of timely shooting, and the memorization of enemy patterns.
During on-rails stages, extra points are handed out whenever, via a charge shot, Fox brings down multiple ships in one blow. Contrarily, on free-roaming missions, combos are kept alive by stringing together a lot of kills. A bar on the right of the screen will always fill up when a bad guy is defeated, and it will start running down slowly. If it empties out, the combo sequence will be broken and players will have to start from scratch; if the sequence remains active it will yield extra points when foes are killed. As such, players will have to look for ways not to spend too much time without causing some sort of destruction in order to keep the combo alive.
Star Fox: Assault further builds upon that established base in numerous ways. All stages have five hidden flags in them, which work as nice collectibles. In addition, the game carries three difficulty modes (bronze, silver, and gold), and not only do they pack a major punch and will be alluring to dedicated players, but they also offer their own medal requirements and, consequently medals. And collecting each of those rewards is, in a way, far more pleasant than it was in Star Fox 64, for – once a mission is cleared – it is possible to just choose it from the menu and replay it at will at any difficulty, eliminating the need to retrace one’s steps all the way back to a certain stage when one is going for a medal, which felt unnecessary.
As a final improvement, the game’s multiplayer mode, which supports up to four players, is far more fleshed out than that of its prequel. There are more available characters (six of them), and they all have different stats. There are sixteen stages, some of which are quite good, and the forms of combat available (Arwing, Landmaster, and on-foot) vary according to their setup. And there are six different modes, producing quite a variety of gameplay options.
It is, however, a major shame that all that very well-presented and pleasantly deep content is hampered by numerous technical issues that affect about half of the gameplay presented in Star Fox: Assault. Had the same amount of care and thought that is showcased in its flying portions been employed in the making of the segments that try to push the franchise towards new directions, fans of the saga could have – in their hands – an excellent product of the same caliber as Star Fox 64.
Yet, as it stands, Star Fox: Assault has ground missions that are just way too clumsy, and given they share space with flying objectives that are absolutely stellar, rather than coming off as satisfying additions to the formula they appear as blocks in the middle of the way that must be overcome so the game’s truly great moments can be reached. Consequently, instead of being praised for its inventions, Star Fox: Assault is defined by its irregularity, and most of the worthy new steps it tries to implement end up being disappointing.