The last time we saw Fox McCloud and the Starfox team on the GameCube, they had ditched the space combat formula that had made them famous on previous incarnations on the Super Nintendo and Nintendo 64. Starfox Adventures was more Legend of Zelda-like, putting Fox in an adventure title and ditching the aerial acrobatics.
Starfox Assault, however, takes the series back to its roots by putting the Starfox team back into space and the skies. And while many will welcome the return, the game feels strangely old-fashioned and dated as a result.
Not that Starfox Assault dishes up a disappointing gameplay experience. Assault's chaotic space battles are a blast to play, and will impress you with the sheer number of ships and graphical effects on screen at the same time. It's just that the rails-based combat doesn't feel too different from Starfox 64, while the on foot and land vehicle sections don't feel sufficiently smooth in control terms to be a standout. As a result, Starfox Assault isn't a great step forward for the series, despite being a generally fun game to play.
Fans of the series will be pleased to hear instead of the armies of Andross, the Starfox team square up to a completely new villain in Assault -- the Borg-like Aparoids. The Aparoids are a hive-like alien race that can take over the bodies (and minds) of machines and other creatures, and its up to McCloud and his team to beat back the invaders. As well as using Fox's trusty Arwing ship, he'll also use the tank-like Landmaster for ground missions, as well as going on foot.
Most of the aerial battles (both in space and in a planet's atmosphere) are typical Starfox rails-based levels -- that is, your Arwing's path is preset, with an invisible wall pushing your craft forward through the level. Controls are fairly straightforward and shouldn't be a concern for Starfox fans -- you can move your ship using the left joystick to avoid fire and target enemies, while pressing the left shoulder button will execute a fast roll manoeuvre that can dodge most incoming assaults. Your Arwing's weaponry consists of a laser turret and bombs, but you'll mainly be using those lasers to take down foes.
The whole rails system feels rather dated nowadays, but thankfully the game does throw up a few open levels where you can pilot your ship anywhere in wide ranging dogfights. In our view these levels -- such as one which sees you taking on the rival Starwolf crew -- were probably the highlight of Assault, and left us wanting more.
But to be fair, even the normal rail-based levels are quite fun. There are always plenty of things happening on screen, and the game does an excellent job of convincing you that you're in the middle of a massive space dogfight.
Things aren't so bright when Fox hits the ground, which he does so for a fair amount of time in Assault. Fox on foot plays like a 3D platformer/shooter (think Ratchet and Clank on the PS2), but the controls aren't bulletproof tight, resulting in some aiming difficulties. The weapons you'll find are also generally unimpressive -- you'll come across pistols, machine guns, rocket launchers and more, but most enemies can be finished off using the stock standard pistol, meaning you can just rely on button mashing and strafing to get through. Controlling the Landmaster tank is somewhat better, although it does tend to fall off ledges if it's even remotely not balanced.
The on-foot missions on their own can be a grind, but luckily Assault mixes up these levels with the opportunity to have at least one if not both the Landmaster and the Arwing standing by for you to jump in. These missions are another highlight of the game -- after making sure the skies are clear with your Arwing, you can land and jump into the Landmaster to destroy large enemies, before heading into buildings on foot to finish the job.
Starfox Assault is a very short game -- most gamers should be able to finish the story mode within five or six hours at the normal difficulty. The developers have attempted to increase the replay value by hiding collectable items within each level, but most players will probably put the controls down after the first go through. There's also a multiplayer mode for up to four gamers, but it's fairly stock standard.
You'll be treated to some fine eye candy for the short duration of Assault, particularly in the impressive space battles where dozens of ships are flying about in all directions. The actual character model of Fox McCloud seems to be slightly less detailed than in Starfox Adventures, but otherwise the game maintains a bright, clean look and a rock-steady framerate throughout. Sound is also handled well -- make sure to listen to your wingmen's conversations as they often give you hints and tips about the mission at hand.
Starfox Assault' s a fun to play game that should please those nostalgic about the old Starfox days. It's quite short, however, and some control issues stop it from being outstanding.
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