Fox isn't quite as powerful on foot.
When Rare’s Star Fox Adventures was released in 2002, it experienced a mixed reception among gamers. While technically impressive, the game lacked originality, and its Zelda-esque gameplay as well as overly naturalistic settings felt somewhat out of place in the Star Fox universe. It seemed as if the characters were forced into a game that could have marked a solid beginning of a new franchise.
Fortunately, Star Fox: Assault doesn’t share the same problem. Namco has returned the series to its roots, while still managing to include new gameplay elements in order to push the series forward.
The ground-based missions, which make up approximately one half of the game, represent the most drastic of these elements. On paper, the decision to include them is a commendable one. Obviously, the idea is to break up the constraining on-rails bits by offering the player plenty of freedom. On a broad scale, this goal has been accomplished. In many levels, you can opt to just run around on foot going crazy with your missile launcher, mount the Landmaster Tank and perform classic hover moves and barrel rolls, or take to the skies in your Arwing. The vehicles are all controlled very differently, but the process of getting in and out of them is quick and seamless, so it never breaks up the action.
Other aspects of these ground-based levels are significantly worse. The main problems lie in boring level objectives, which mostly revolve around finding and destroying dozens of switches or computer terminals, as well as poor controls. The tank, for example, is hopelessly slow, and it takes forever to make a 180-degree turn. Furthermore, Fox’s immensely fast movements come at the expense of precision control, resulting in many undesired falls, which are frustrating despite the lack of fall damage. Aiming also feels wrong, particularly when throwing grenades. You simply never know where they’ll end up.
The ground levels are often characterized by poor visuals, too. The framerate seems consistently high, but textures are flat, lighting and shadowing effects almost non-existent, and special effects such as explosions look plain dull. Also, Fox himself looks almost identical to his Star Fox 64 counterpart in terms of character detail. Where are the beautiful fur-shading effects and fluid animations from Star Fox Adventures?
A final word of critique directed against the ground missions has to do with the fact that, somehow, you gain no satisfaction at all from gunning down enemies – no matter what weapon you’re using. Perhaps it’s because of the enemies’ poor AI, their uninteresting design, or their lack of reaction upon being shot. The fact that most weapons, especially your standard blaster, are remarkably weak only serves to make things worse. In a game so focused on slaughtering enemies, it should be more enjoyable to do it.
The classic on-rails flying portions of the game are executed much better, both visually and in terms of design. The flat textures evident in the ground missions become a non-issue here since you don’t get to see them up close. Enemies fly by quickly, weaving in and out behind buildings, and in this context they actually look quite respectable. Meanwhile, the Arwing’s blaster lights up surrounding objects nicely, and eliminating half a dozen enemy fighters with a charged up beam looks satisfyingly brutal. The backdrops are impressive too, and despite the immense amount of objects and enemies on-screen, the framerate remains consistently high.
As in Star Fox 64, the clever setup of steering the Arwing and the aiming cursor at the same time using just the control stick feels very intuitive. The setup is easy for beginners to get into, yet proves difficult to master. This is the case even though the speed of the Arwing seems to have been lowered, compared to previous instalments. Given the amount of stuff happening on-screen, it’s an understandable move on Namco’s part. Had the craft moved faster, the game would have become nearly unplayable. Instead, the pacing feels just right, still requiring lightning quick reactions from the player.
As for the game’s structure, Star Fox: Assault completely abandons the “branching paths” idea, which was such an integral part of the N64 version. Instead, the game incorporates a totally linear structure, consisting of only ten levels. As a result, the end sequence pops up far too soon. Fortunately, a level select option becomes available. You will likely go back and replay levels to get gold medals, especially since the rewards for doing so are quite remarkable. Among them are classic arcade games, as well as levels that become available in the multiplayer mode.
Still, Star Fox: Assault must be considered a slight disappointment. The game, which is too short, hardly pushes the GameCube hardware. The quality of the levels varies greatly. Some - especially the classic flying missions - prove to be a lot of fun, while others - notably the ground missions – frustrate more than they entertain, largely due to poor controls. Still, the ground missions do provide a nice break from the on-rails bits due to the greater sense of freedom offered.