I had the fortune to get to play the E3 demo build of Star Fox Zero for the Wii U this week, thanks to the fine folks at Mario’s Hat. I was positively giddy at the prospect because I’ve been a lifelong fan of the franchise. Star Fox 64 was the first videogame I bought with my own money. I got Star Fox Adventures, Star Fox Assault, and Star Fox Command all at launch and played them all to completion. On purpose. I don’t know if that’s devotion or a cry for help, but since nobody’s staged an intervention, I’m cued up to pin all my hopes on yet another stab at getting the game right.
In short: I’m wary, and fully admit my optimism is colored by fandom.
In excoriating detail: I got to play four times; twice through the Corneria stage, and twice in Area 3.
Corneria was broken into three “phases.” The first has you fly in over Corneria Bay and through Corneria City as it’s besieged by Andross’s forces. This is your classic on-rails shooter section complete with flying under archways, blowing up small clusters of enemies, and saving Slippy from a single bogey. You have the option of playing as the walker mode during this bit, but the minute you hit a body of water you automatically revert to the Arwing.
Phase Two switches to All-Range Mode as you defend a Cornerian Army tower from a flock of enemy fighters, and then a series of giant robo-ticks. The third and final phase introduces the boss fight, which can be completed in two ways. Blowing it up section by section allows its pilot to escape and earns you a “Mission Complete.” Blowing away one section and then infiltrating the interior in the new walker mode (which I affectionately call the “ChickenWing”) blows up the entire boss and earns you a “Mission Accomplished.”
Area 3 felt like the introduction to a larger stage. You fly into the open space around a giant ring-shaped space station, shooting down a few enemies before Pigma appears in a Wolfen and challenges you to a one-on-one dogfight. Once defeated, Pigma retreats and the Star Fox teams moves on to – presumably – the rest of the level. The demo cuts to a “Thanks for playing” screen.
There were a number of other games playing around me, and Mario music pumping from the speakers at the venue, so I couldn’t hear a thing from the game. So I can’t really comment on the music, sound quality or voice acting.
Let’s break this down by the buttons before getting into how it all works together.
L-Stick – This is your general control, with the directions already inverted (so “Up” is up, “Down” is down.)
R-Stick – Up is boost. Down is brake. Left and right are sharp turns, and double-tapping either way causes a barrel roll. Flicking down, then up is supposed to make you summersault, but I couldn’t get it to work.
X – Summersault.
Y – No function (that I could tell)
B – Change into the ChickenWing (and back)
A – U-turn
ZL – Target lock-on
ZR – Shoot (hold for Charged Shot)
Start – Pause
Select – Switch to first person view and back.
L-Trigger, R-Trigger, D-Pad – no function (that I could tell)
Gyroscope – Aim
I played this considerably less than the Arwing, but the notably changes in controls for the R-Stick are:
Up – Sprint
Left/Right – Cartwheel dodge
Down – Hover
How well does it come together? Serviceable at best, cumbersome at worse. The more I played it, the better I could handle it, but it isn’t remotely fluid or intuitive. The gyroscopic aiming is accurate enough, but I felt as if I was fighting with myself when playing. If I’m steering to the left and dodging to the left, my hands are going to be naturally tilting in that direction as I move the sticks. They will not be aiming to the right, where I am trying to shoot the enemy. It’s a small but distracting element.
When I held the game pad directly in front of my, almost hugging it to my chest, and didn’t move much I found I had an easier time of flying and shooting at the same time. This was not a very comfortably way to play, however. The Arwing itself left slow and floaty.
The signature barrel rolls are also slow to execute. It doesn’t seem like clicking a trigger twice and tapping a stick twice would be that different, but it feels like more effort for the thumb to make these quick movements than it is to pull a trigger.
The target lock button is a mixed bag. On the Corneria stage it felt like a last-second patch for the lack of a radar. The camera took a cinematic angle focused on the target, whether or not I could actually see it for the terrain. However, during the Pigma fight, it made for an exciting dogfight and some really cinematic near-miss strikes.
The ChickenWing was more fun to play than I anticipated. A hold-over from the canceled Star Fox 2, the ChickenWing looks ridiculous but made for nimble, ground-level combat.
Given how intrinsic the gyroscope seems to be with the game’s design, I’ve got very little hope that there will be an option to turn it off.
This is where I had the most trouble with the game. In Star Fox 64, you rarely lost control to a cinematic. Most of the bosses entered into the stage while you were flying, making a grand entrance. In the scenes where you lost control – like the mothership over Katina and the mobile suit in Sector Y – after the scene ended you had ample time to get your bearings as you approached the boss (or it approached you). In the case of Star Wolf’s first appearance on Fichina (or Fortuna, for you veterans), if you watched the scene you were immediately thrown into the dogfight, most likely having to loop behind Wolf – a simple enough move. If you skipped the cutscene, you could usually shoot down at least one of the Wolfens before they descended. The point is: you were always in control or given time to regain control. It made for a richer experience.
The Area 3 fight got this right. Pigma swoops in during a cutscene, and when you regain control you have time to align yourself to his attack vector.
Corneria got this wrong multiple times. From the very beginning, after the brief intro scene, you go into a first person view, mirrored on the gamepad. The TV and gamepad both respond to the gyro-controls for a half-second. Then the TV view awkwardly pulls back to third-person, while the gamepad still holds the first-person view and responds to the gyro-controls. It’s clunky and distracting.
In the transition during the midway point of Phase Two, you’re forced to watch the Venom fleet escape, but can still fly and shoot with the gamepad. There’s no cue for when the cutscene is over, and I found trying to flying in first-person extremely hard to navigate. It wasn’t clear when I could go back to playing the game regularly.
During Phase Two, if a robo-tick begins to ascend the tower, the game forces you into a cutscene to show you. It doesn’t matter if you’re in the process of shooting it, the game will wrench control away. You can still shoot and aim on the gamepad, but if you’re looking at the TV, the sudden loss of perspective and control is disorienting.
Finally, during the boss fight, you’re forced into a cinematic that then forces you back into your Arwing and in an attack approach. It doesn’t matter if you were exploring the level in the ChickenWing for rings or performing acrobatics in the Arwing – you’re picked up and plunked down into the boss fight. The camera in this fight is stuck in the cinematic lock-on mode, which makes flying around more difficult and requires you to look at the gamepad screen to aim even remotely in the direction of your target.
This is what has me the most concerned with the game. Star Fox 64, old as it may be, had a sense of flow to it. The entire experience was polished, and each encounter led organically to another or to a brief period to rest. Star Fox Zero doesn’t display that. It feels like it has set pieces and targets for you to hit as you leisurely fly along and struggle to make your aiming not undercut your flying, or visa versa.
Mario Kart 8 let you steer with the L-Stick. Splatoon let you turn off the gyro-controls after the tutorial. I’m holding out hope that Star Fox Zero will do the same and give us an option for a simpler, sleeker-feeling control scheme. Otherwise, I can see this being another Star Fox Command – neat elements undermined by a clunky control gimmick.
I’m still picking it up at launch, though. I’m a sucker for this series.