Star Fox Zero Review (Wii U)
"It's about time you showed up, Fox!" After eleven years, the ace fighter pilot and his team of mercenaries are returning to a home console in Star Fox Zero, and a long hiatus like that creates some major expectations. Surely if Nintendo thought it was time to bring back Star Fox now there'd be some big things in store, right? Well it seems those "big ideas" aren't quite as big as I had hoped.
The first thing I noticed about Star Fox Zero is how much it borrows from Star Fox 64 — the game considered to be the pinnacle of the series. In fact the majority of the game plays identically to the old classic, with scenarios bouncing back and forth between on-rails shooters and the "all-range" mode that allows for a little more free-flight. I'm perfectly fine with this approach, as it's the format in which Fox and his team clearly excel.
However, there comes a point where Star Fox Zero becomes less an homage to the classic and more a direct rehash. The story beats are basically the same, some of the quotes are taken directly from the old script (more than just the "do a barrel roll" quotes you're expecting at least), and even the mission-specific extra characters are the same as before. There are a few new planets, but even then the "new" areas are just renamed areas: Sectors X, Y, and Z are now Sector Alpha, Beta, and Gamma. Oh, but there's a new fourth Sector called Omega, let's not forget that!
Again, emulating the old game isn't a bad idea — Star Fox Adventures proves that vehicular combat is the way to go — but was Nintendo so devoid of ideas that they just remade Star Fox 64 without calling it Star Fox 64 Remastered? I would have preferred the latter so my expectations weren't misled rather than think "new Star Fox": and get the same old thing.
There are some new elements, most notably the enhanced aiming abilities allowed by the Wii U GamePad. Where the TV screen looks like normal Star Fox, the GamePad's display gives a cockpit view straight from Fox's eyes. This more precise aiming mechanic is fine, but the gyroscope inside the Wii U GamePad does it no favors. I think I've pressed the button to re-calibrate the aiming reticle about as much as I fired my laser, and that's not a good thing. Unfortunately this issue becomes even more apparent when taking on bosses; the frustration in trying to re-center the aim while a massive dreadnought is firing giant laser blasts at me was enough to make me put the controller down and walk away for a while. That's not what a game should do.
The new vehicles in Fox's arsenal fall right in line with the new aiming mechanics: a good idea in theory, but ultimately a bit frustrating in practice. The Walker transformation for the Arwing is neat, but the transition from plane to biped is not smooth on the controller. I'm also not impressed with the Walker controlling like a duck that's eaten too much bread at the lake, trudging forward and struggling to quickly turn around. The returning Landmaster is still the coolest vehicle we can use, enhanced even more by its ability to transform into a Star Wars Snowspeeder-esque machine for limited flight.
The most useless new vehicle, however, is the GyroWing, a slow and plodding hovercraft that turns a high-action game into a feeble attempt at stealth. The mission with the GyroWing requires me to avoid the slowest moving spotlights of all time while I deploy a mini R.O.B. robot into a structure and disable a force field from within. It's an interesting attempt to change the pace of the game, but stealth should be nowhere near a Star Fox game. I'm playing this to blow stuff up and perform some dogfighting acrobatics, not inch across a small waterbed to avoid a shining light operated by a senior citizen.
I know I make it sound like this is an affront to video games, but these new elements pushed onto us by Nintendo do more to hurt the core experience than to improve it. When Star Fox Zero sticks to its classic format and focuses on aerial combat, it's incredibly fun. The all-range space battles against Star Wolf and other enemies are awesome even if I have to keep re-calibrating, and like the older game there are plenty of secrets to be found and medals to earn that I will certainly reconsider going through it again. It also doesn't hurt that the game is beautiful to behold, with each environment flowing with color and personality even in the far reaches of space. That first jaunt through Corneria saw me lose a life simply because I was taking in the scenery, it's that impressive.
There's a lot to like about Star Fox Zero, but those ideas are rooted in games past and the new features muddle the whole thing up. Adding new vehicles shouldn't make me long for the classic Arwing. Enhancing the aim with first-person view on a separate display shouldn't make aiming more difficult because of repeated re-calibration. Star Fox Zero is a game that should have stuck to the basics, but instead falters under the weight of the new and shiny things Nintendo thought it needed. Maybe next time, Star Fox.
This review was completed with a retail copy of Star Fox Zero provided by the publisher for the WIi U.