(PlayStation 4 Review) Strike Suit Zero: Director’s Cut

Developer: Born Ready Games
Publisher: Born Ready Games
Genre: (Space) Combat Flight Sim / Action
Players: 1
ESRB: Teen
Reviewer: Philip Smith

Overall: 7 = Good

Strike Suit Zero is notable for a few reasons, including the fact that it’s one of the earliest Kickstarter success stories. The space-based combat flight sim not only surpassed its campaign goals but managed to sidestep many of the post-funding pitfalls that have plagued many other titles that eventually made it to market. Most of the game’s rough edges were smoothed out during a rigorous patching process that not only fixed bugs but also smoothed out the difficulty with new checkpoints and better pacing, added new view modes, including a more-immersive cockpit view, and improved the targeting system. A subsequent downloadable add-on was released to flesh out the storyline, adding a new combat suit and missions delving deeper into the game’s universe, Heroes of the Fleet. The PS4 version features both the main game and the expansion in a decent port that offers space-combat fans a tantalizing taste at what they’ve been missing.

As a note, those who have read the review of the PC version and want more system-specific commentary should begin with the third-to-last paragraph of the main review. For everyone else, please carry on.

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 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 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 dogfighting 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 is capable not only of laying 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 subsequent patches have added to the Director’s Cut version of game, there is still a lack of polish. Some issues fall on the technical side and others are related to design. 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 dips in the framerate whenever the action became intense. Strangely, the slowdown wasn’t consistent; in a later mission, with over a hundred ships on-screen, there was less than in a previous mission with half as many ships. Playing on a larger screen also highlights some of the rougher models and textures, especially the final, lackluster segment with its nausea-inducing bright lights. On the plus side, the polygon clipping from the PC version has been improved, though I did notice the ship reacting to nearby objects whenever there was no actual contact. Smaller issues cropped up throughout play as well, including audio cues not changing during cutscenes and the ship not always transforming into the strike suit. The latter problem was rather perplexing, since there didn’t seem to be any reason for the ship not to transform, other than the input just not being recognized. These were minor nuisances in the end, but it’s unfortunate nonetheless that the game’s console debut hadn’t had them ironed out before launch.

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.

The new missions, Heroes of the Fleet, are best tackled after the main campaign. The five one-off sorties are based off historical events within the game’s universe. Players will not only get to fight through some of the UNE and Colonists’ most famous battles, but they will also have access to new craft, new weapons, and a new strike suit. The game allows for any unlocked craft to be selected, but the AI does recommend that era-appropriate equipment be used. As with the main missions, performance is graded, with unlocks rewarding skilled pilots and text updates noting how well the outcome is in comparison to the actual event, oftentimes with a touch of sarcasm. These don’t take too long to play through, and even though the new strike suit doesn’t outclass the original, the assignments are decent additions for those who enjoyed the base game.

Strike Suit Zero: Director’s Cut for PS4 is a decent port of a solid space-based arcade-style sim, with plenty of dogfighting and missile-launching mech action. The core game never matches the quality of its predecessors, but it does make for a strong reminder of why the genre needs to make a comeback. The port does have some slowdown and the transformation input did become unresponsive a few times, but these were minor given the hours of play on offer. Strike Suit Zero won’t blow players away, but the price is right and there is some good fun to be had.

(This review is based on a copy provided by the publisher.)

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