Star Fox Zero Review
Not including the remake of Star Fox 64 on the Nintendo 3DS, the last original Star Fox title to be released was Star Fox Command on the Nintendo DS in 2006. It took ten years for Nintendo to finally give fans Star Fox Zero, though they themselves seem confused as to whether it’s a reimagining of the acclaimed N64 entry or an original tale. Much like how previous entries experimented with the technology of their respective consoles, Star Fox Zero makes extensive use of the Wii U GamePad’s screen and motion controls. Sadly, the end result is something that tries to justify the Wii U’s tech but ultimately fails and will leave fans disappointed.
Star Fox Zero recreates the story of Star Fox 64 but adds a little more depth to the overall plot. In the opening prologue, players learn that an evil scientist named Andross was banished to the planet Venom. Fox’s father, James McCloud, journeyed to the planet to investigate strange activity, but was killed when a teammate betrayed his squad. Fast track a few years later and Andross is threatening the Lylat System once more, which prompts Fox and his band of animal friends to come to the rescue under the orders of General Pepper. There is a new sub-plot involving teleportation technology, and side characters such as Kat and Bill have slightly expanded roles. Other than that, there aren’t too many surprises and it’s mostly ground that has been covered before.
If you’ve never played a Star Fox game before, the series is traditionally an on-rails shooter. Levels usually have branching paths, and will lead to different areas if you meet specific conditions. In Star Fox Zero, for example, if you continue through the Corneria level autonomously you will come to the default path. If you happen to flick a switch in the middle of the level though, you will face-off against a different end-level boss and continue to a different planet. Adding to the experience are gold medals which can be collected and are also earned by attaining a specific high score. It’s fun to discover all the hidden paths and secrets, and it will definitely keep completionists occupied for a while.
In previous Star Fox games players were largely limited to using the Arwing and Landmaster tank, but this time they will pilot a couple of new vehicles. The Arwing can transform into a Walker, which lets players travel on foot and slow down to explore areas more thoroughly. This includes infiltrating enemy ships to take down shields. The Landmaster can transform into the Gravmaster, a slower, tankier version of the Arwing. Last but not least is the Gyrowing, which is a helicopter-like vehicle that can deploy a tiny robot to hack computer terminals and is suited for stealth missions. The new vehicles, however, don’t feel fully realised. The Walker is an absolute mess to control, being clunky to maneuver and not fun to use. Meanwhile the Gyrowing levels are slow and tedious – they deviate too far from the intense space combat which made Star Fox a household name in the first place. The Gravmaster is really the only interesting addition, but it’s also the least innovative.
Star Fox Zero is at its best when you’re playing on-rails levels as this feels truer to the series origins and is generally more engaging for players. There are also more all-range mode levels this time, where players can freely navigate a 3D space in the thick of combat. These levels set the perfect scene for many of the game’s intense dogfights, though at times the excitement wears thin and is poorly executed. An example is the Attack Carrier boss. The boss fight plays out like a game of cat and mouse – the carrier will target players who must dodge lasers, then turn around to attack exposed weak points. The concept isn’t necessarily bad, but the fight drags on for too long and there’s a struggle to reposition the Arwing before the weak points close. Thankfully this is the exception rather than the rule, with most boss encounters being satisfying and memorable.
The most controversial feature of Star Fox Zero is its control scheme. The game requires players make use of the Wii U GamePad’s screen to aim at enemies, while the face/shoulder buttons and control stick let you maneuver your vehicle and fire weaponry. Motion controls are used to aim your crosshair on the GamePad, which displays the action from a first person view in the cockpit. The TV screen displays the game in a traditional third person view, so the general idea is you switch between screens.
Your immediate instinct will be to focus on the TV screen, and Star Fox Zero never quite pulls you away from that normality. Enemies often approach you from behind, and while on the TV screen you can easily dodge and see what’s happening around you, the GamePad feels more boxed in and leaves you unaware of your surroundings. As the Star Fox series has always been about shooting down enemies, your attention is likely going to be focused on the GamePad. This means the balance between both screens is lost, meaning enemies attacking from behind will get a few good shots in before you realise they’re even there. Another issue you’ll encounter is when shooting enemies at a distance. On the TV, the bigger screen means distant enemies are clearly visual. On the smaller GamePad screen, they look like a blur of pixels and are not as noticeable. For a game that has an emphasis on improving high scores, it can be utterly frustrating.
There is a secondary control scheme available to players. This makes the game play more closely to classic Star Fox titles, though you can still aim your crosshair using motion controls when holding the trigger button. It is obvious Star Fox Zero was not designed with this control scheme in mind – during more intense levels maneuverability feels sluggish, meaning you’re going to struggle to shoot down many of the enemies on screen. Adding to the frustrations are the constant prompts from teammates; “use motion controls for superior aiming”. While acceptable in the opening levels as a tutorial, it becomes as annoying as Navi’s constant “HEY!” notifications from Ocarina of Time. It’s poor gameplay design and seems like Nintendo is forcing players to use the gimmicky motion controls.
For the most part Star Fox Zero runs smoothly with frame rate drops only occurring when there’s a lot happening on screen at once. Screenshots do not do the environments justice either – it looks better in motion and there are a couple of times where you will be taken aback by the game’s beauty. Of particular note is the very first level where team Star Fox are entering Corneria from space. The GamePad lights up as the Arwings enters the atmosphere and smooth out over the glistening ocean. There are some beautifully orchestrated music tracks throughout the game as well, with many being remixes of existing themes. However, a lot of them are forgettable.
At its core Star Fox Zero is a good game. The on-rail levels are frantic and engaging, dogfights in space are always intense, there are inspiring boss fights and it’s fun to discover all the hidden paths and secrets the game has to offer. Unfortunately the gimmicky controls and lackluster addition to vehicles really bring down the experience. This is not the Star Fox games fans have been waiting for and will be remembered as a low point for the series.