Fox McCloud and the rest of the Star Fox crew are back in action, but there’s not a whole lot of action for them to participate in. Although Star Fox Zero is nostalgic fun, the adventure is unfortunately short.
Star Fox Zero pits Fox, Slippy, Peppy and Falco against the evil Andross and his army once again. As the two sides face off, the player will travel to a variety of planets and control vehicles new and old. For better and for worse, the game is very reminiscent of Star Fox 64, its most famous predecessor. Star Fox Zero is not a sequel, prequel or remake, but one might consider it a modern reimagining of the Nintendo 64 classic.
But before moving on, the control scheme of the new entry should be addressed, as I seem to hold a minority opinion on its effectiveness. Vehicles are controlled using both thumbsticks, and the weapons are aimed using a combination of the control sticks and motion control. The process is a bit tough to describe, but the control sticks primarily move the ship and swing the weapon a bit as well. Moving the gamepad itself allows for precision aiming.
That goes hand-in-hand with the camera set-up: the television screen shows the classic third-person view of Fox and his Arwing, but the gamepad screen shows a first-person view from the cockpit for precision aiming.
I address that first because my opinion on the control scheme sets my review apart from many others and colors the entire game in a different way. Although most players find the controls frustrating and have a somewhat negative experience with the game as a result, I have had little trouble (except for one instance which I will address later). I have found the mixture of motion control and standard control to be fairly accurate (thanks to a dedicated “recalibrate” button for when the gamepad goes off-center) and fun to use.
Because of the motion + standard control set-up, the player has more freedom for both ship control and weapon control compared to a scheme without motion sensing. The player can choose to shoot one direction while peeling off to the other or continue to fly straight while spraying lasers in whichever direction desired, for example.
The entire process makes the game feel more believable, engrossing and alive. The controls take a couple of missions to get the hang of, but they really help sell the “you’re actually in this dogfight” experience. There is a lot to focus on when flying (or driving), and as a result, battles feel hectic, fast-paced and intense. The player is kept on the edge of his or her seat, scrambling to keep everything under control and fighting to stay alive.
I can’t say that Star Fox Zero is necessarily the perfect showcase for the gamepad, but it’s probably as close as any game will get.
With that being said, I found most of the core experience to be marvelous. Each level is unique in challenges, enemies, boss battles and scenery. All the levels are meticulously crafted and beautiful. To be honest, Star Fox Zero is one of the most graphically stunning games the Wii U might ever see. The soundtrack is also a wonderful mix of old and new. It certainly sounds like a Star Fox game, and it’s as magnificent as one would expect of Nintendo.
But it’s not all about looks and sounds. Each level delivers the fun as well. Gameplay is split between the standard on-rails mode and all range mode, the latter of which gives the player freedom to move around as he or she pleases (within the bounds of the given area, of course). Small enemies pester the player but can deal legitimate damage in groups. Medium sized enemies such as tanks can pack a punch, and large enemies like bosses and battleships give Fox a run for his money.
The levels generally last no more than ten to fifteen minutes and are well paced, if not too easy. Most culminate in a relatively quick but intense boss battle, and I have to commend the bosses for each being unique. No two bosses have the same designs or weaknesses, so every battle feels brand new and exciting (except for the finale, which I promise I will get to).
Fox also has a couple new vehicles and abilities at his disposal. Aside from the familiar Arwing and the Landmaster, Fox can also pilot the new Walker and Gyrowing.
Fox’s new Arwing morphs into the Walker, which looks a bit like a mechanical chicken. The speedy machine can squeeze into tight spaces on the ground, and it really shines during levels where the player must toggle between the Walker and Arwing frequently.
The Gyrowing, on the other hand, isn’t such a great fit. Although the idea for a slower, more stealthy vehicle is well-meaning, it just doesn’t fit into the action in Star Fox Zero and disrupts the flow of the game. Luckily, it is used very infrequently.
Star Fox Zero’s main mode culminates in a battle with Andross, but that final battle is unfortunately a low point in the game for multiple reasons. First of all, the fight is a pretty hard rip on the Star Fox 64 final battle. It’s one thing to pay homage to the predecessors in ways throughout the game (which Star Fox Zero does beautifully), but it’s another to give the player a rip-off of a finale, which he or she has worked to reach and conquer.
Secondly, that final level is where the control scheme finally falls apart. While avoiding spoiling what does make the final battle different, let it suffice to say that the arena is a big, vertical cylinder combined with an optical illusion so that the views on the TV and gamepad don’t line up. Flying around the cylinder involves turning more sharply than the motion controls of the gamepad will reliably allow and the player can’t use the TV screen for much guidance. It’s just a disaster that kills the otherwise solid experience.
Star Fox Zero’s other main downfall is the lack of content. The main mode can be beaten in roughly 1.5-3 hours (depending on skill) if the cutscenes aren’t skipped. If a decent player skips cutscenes, a second playthrough only takes about an hour. The game gets a bit of replayability from arcade mode, alternate routes, collectibles and secret paths, but even nabbing those doesn’t take very long in the grand scheme of things.
Star Fox Zero is a visual and audial beauty, and it really feels like a successor to Star Fox 64. For the most part, it makes good use of the Wii U’s unique features and handles well. Most importantly, the available content is a ton of fun. It’s just a shame that the game itself is so short, and replaying the core mode searching for variants and hidden content is the only way to extend its shelf life.