Publisher: Born Ready Games
Genre: (Space) Combat Flight Sim / Action
Reviewer: Philip Smith
Overall: 7.5 = Good
Dual Core 2.4 Ghz, Win Vista, 4 GB RAM, NVidia 250 GTS / ATI Radeon 4800 series, 3 GB Hard Drive space
Sometime in the early 2000s, the combat flight-sim genre began to wither into its current lamentable, near-death state. Such classics as TIE Fighter, Colony Wars, Wing Commander, and FreeSpace have been relegated to best-of lists and remembrance pieces; spoken highly of, yet left as monuments to a bygone age rather than used as a stepping stone to something greater. Fans eager to get their fix have had to placate themselves with mods for aging engines or grabbing whatever leftovers have been overlooked at auction sites and digital outlets. While designers and developers might be eager to carry the genre’s baton, publishers have not shared in that enthusiasm. Enter crowdsource funding. Thanks to services like Kickstarter, underserved genres can once again come alive as gamers fill the coffers of studios that are itching to recreate and surpass those memorable experiences of years past that are lacking in today’s market.
Such is the case with developer Born Ready Games, who quickly reached their goal of $100,000 for the space combat sim Strike Suit Zero. Since the end of the fundraising campaign, the game has been released and several updates have followed, with each patch expanding and improving upon the base game. This review is based on the game with the third and latest patch applied, which was created to address several complaints and suggestions—in particular, the early criticisms regarding several unforgiving difficulty spikes and a lackluster checkpoint system. The update added new difficulty levels (Easy, Normal, and Hardcore), the ability to change difficulty level before each mission, several checkpoints for each level, numerous enhancements to the first-person view (a cockpit that reacts to damage, thrust, etc.), a new five-type target priority filter, as well as a host of cosmetic changes and other tweaks. The result of their efforts is a much more balanced and enjoyable game. And while it doesn’t quite reach the high watermark set by its many inspirations, it nevertheless does a good job of demonstrating why the genre was once popular.
In the future, Earth and its off-world colonies are again at war. Initially, the colonies rebelled in the hopes of greater control over their destinies, while Earth had no interest in letting its far-flung holdings gain their independence. The discovery on a remote planet of the signal that led to interstellar flight years earlier resulted in a brief armistice during the early years of the war, as the two sides began to research the mysterious object. Both factions, the United Nations of Earth (UNE) and the Colonials, soon fell afoul of one another over what was uncovered. The war was renewed, and both sides are now running low on resources, with Earth about to bear the brunt of a new weapon that could see the colonies toppling the UNE. As an Earth-born pilot, it’s the player’s job to ensure that the colonies are stopped from using their new doomsday weapon on the vulnerable homeworld. It’s not an original story, but it’s also one that I never tire of: remote colonies pitching together to battle an increasingly isolated Earth, and I’m there to see the conflict through to the bitter end. There’s nothing like a futuristic what-if civil war between our great-great-great-grandchildren to get the blood pumping.
Of all the various genres, it’s difficult to find one that has been as innovative as the flight sim. Ignoring the hardcore technical simulators, which are on an entirely other level, it’s been an ambitious genre, as even the more sci-fi-themed and action-style efforts of Origin and LucasArts were groundbreaking with dynamic campaigns, independent ally AI, and branching storylines. Later releases from Volition, Psygnosis, and Digital Anvil advanced the genre by focusing on stronger narratives, more advanced physics, and richer combat systems. The genre is rich with possibility, and has been left dormant for far too long.
Strike Suit Zero is more limited in scope than many of its predecessors. Budget considerations aside, Born Ready Games is more interested in the action side of the space-combat spectrum, with dogfights taking precedence over sprawling storylines and expansive areas dotted with waystations and marauding pirates. Some of the genre’s standout titles have taken a similar approach, and much of what makes it so appealing is on full display here, with everything from small-scale engagements between patrol squads to full-blown battles between fleets of frigates and cruisers. Combat isn’t just the game’s focus but also how it differentiates itself, and it does so through a combination of traditional dog fighting and mech combat via a Gundam-style battle rig known as the Strike Suit. In addition to looking cool, the Strike Suit serves as a mobile missile platform that is capable of locking onto multiple targets in one go, using a targeting system similar to Panzer Dragoon, and recharging its energy and armaments through Flux absorbed from space debris. This means that the suit can not only lay waste to dozens of fighters with a few volleys, but it will then use the enemy’s remains to re-arm and continue the fight.
However, it was in the middle of one of the game’s many massive firefights between frigates, fighters, and capital ships that a realization set in: the game is far better as a traditional space combat sim than it is a modern mech shooter. While neither fighter form is perfect, the ship portions are much better realized and implemented throughout the scripted sequenced missions. The biggest reason for this is that, while the ships perform as expected, the Strike Suit is underutilized and only made necessary by artificial restrictions that require the need for the suit’s multi-lock-on capabilities.
Unlike other space-based, freeform mecha titles, like Gundam or Zone of the Enders, Strike Suit Zero is missing a melee element, which is both a big draw for the concept and a key combat variable. There is no closing in with missiles to slash through hulls with a giant laser sword, or pummeling a weakened ship into oblivion. Melee isn’t a prerequisite for a good mech-based action title, but if it isn’t included, there should be something equally useful in its place; instead, the Strike Suit only has a weak close-range burst shot that poorly accentuates the limited dash. Instead of transforming into the robot form to deftly maneuver through enemy fleets and unleashing havoc, players will instead skirt the perimeter of the battle to pepper the enemy with as many missiles as they can before re-engaging in ship form in order to earn enough Flux to boost away and fight from afar. If the game did not have so many timed sections or constantly send in new waves of enemies to drain the fighter’s ammo, there would be little need to use the slower, easier-to-hit robot form.
That isn’t to say that the suit doesn’t have its upsides. I frequently found myself enjoying the rhythm of zipping through fleets transforming, attacking, and fleeing, using the suit to clear holes in incoming enemy waves or punch through a larger ship’s defenses, but the lion’s share of the precision work was done while in ship form. It’s easy to become overwhelmed in either mode because of the lack of an on-screen radar, which I found to be a strange omission. Not knowing exactly who or what is nearby outside of the periphery is made even more confusing whenever damage is taken, as the game reacts by shaking the screen and cluttering it with visual artifacts. It is even worse when using the new cockpit view, which shakes so violently whenever the ship is damaged that it becomes nearly impossible to hit even medium-sized targets. There are warnings whenever the shield is low or an enemy has a missile lock, which works nicely with a timed defensive pulse that can repel incoming projectiles, but I would’ve given half my payload for a decent radar.
As nicely as the game looks, and as much as the patches have added to the game, there is still a lack of polish. Some issues fall on the technical side and others are more with the design. In regards to the latest patch, the cockpit view looks nice and does wonders for immersion, but that immersion is severely dampened by the aforementioned screen shaking and by polygon clipping that makes it seem as if some missiles are launching from within the cockpit itself. Missions are frequently broken up by unnecessary cutscenes that tear the player’s attention away from an exciting dogfight to show yet another wave of fighters jumping in. Other problems were of a purely technical nature, such as a mission failing three times despite the victory conditions being met. Unlike many titles that hit the market these days, however, I have confidence that Born Ready Games will continue to update Strike Suit Zero and address the remaining technical problems.
By the time the anticlimactic final mission wrapped, I couldn’t help but think that the game might have been better off ditching the suit in favor of more traditional fighters. The three other craft that are unlocked during play could have been better differentiated, and the performance-based unlocked upgrades more impactful as a result. Strike Suit Zero is at its best whenever it’s serving as an old-style combat sim, when its massive battles look great while providing that sense of chaotic combat that’s been lacking for years. The fantastic penultimate mission is the apex of what could have been, with the UNE and Colonists engaging in a massive battle of over 200 craft. Instead, the limelight was given to a suit that isn’t accessible until several missions in and ends up being more of a good idea rather than a must-use feature.
Strike Suit Zero is an exciting new space-based combat flight sim that promises a bright future for Born Ready Games. Many of its elements put it in the higher echelon of the genre, but it’s held back by the underutilization of the strike suit, missions that stick too closely to a template, and a handful of bugs and aesthetic issues. Without multiplayer, or even a practice mode (a la Wing Commander), the replay value is limited to the 13 story missions on a harder difficulty level and with one of the unlocked ships. At $20, though, there is plenty of bang for the buck.
(This review is based on a retail copy provided by the publisher.)