Star Fox Command is the latest installment in the venerable Star Fox series. It's the first installment made for a handheld system. It certainly takes liberties with the basic Star Fox formula by introducing multiple playable characters and ships, strategy-based map segments, and of course the infamous multiple endings.
While the game may be remembered more for its controversy than its quality, and it has a few annoying flaws, it's still a fun game and a good way to pass the time. Read on for way more than you ever wanted to know about why.
The story mode is the real meat of the game. In it, you play through a progression of levels that differs based on the choices you make. Each level consists of a single map screen on which you'll keep charting courses for your ship (or ships) until you've destroyed all the enemies and bases, all-range battles where you do the actual destroying, on-rails chase-the missile stages, and generally a boss fight.
An important factor that some may overlook is that the game saves between every level. The ability to put the game down on a moment's notice without losing a bunch of progress is a major boon to gamers who may have stuff to do.
Every level has its own map. Your mothership, the Great Fox, stays parked in one spot on the map. Your fighters, each marked with an icon showing the character that pilots it, are free to move around--but only so far. Pick-up items like extra time, missiles for the Great Fox, and health are often scattered around the maps. You can tap anything, be it a ship, base, missile, or pick-up, to get more information.
There are three basic types of enemies on the map. First, there are squads of enemy fighters, which look like clusters of red dots. Next, there are bases, represented as either a red pyramid or a launch tower. Launch towers denote bases that can fire missiles. If you don't destroy these bases before they fire, a missile will appear on the map screen and move closer to the Great Fox with every turn. If Great Fox has missiles (it can hold three at a time), you can fire one by drawing a line from the Great Fox to an enemy fighter group. You can't use them on missiles or bases.
Pressing the fire button ends your turn and sets your fighters and any enemy groups into motion. If your fighter crosses paths with an enemy fighter group or lands on a base, a battle will be queued up for you to fight. End on a missile, and you get a shoot-the-missile stage. If more than one character lands on the same base, you get to pick which one you want to use. This way, if you die, you get another chance to destroy the base within the same turn. Otherwise, you have to wait for the next turn.
Once you beat a base stage, the base on the map becomes yours. Fly over it to double the distance your fighter can travel. With multiple captured bases, you can fly three or four times as far. Beating a base also earns you extra turns.
Unfortunately for you, there are obstacles on the maps. There are certain areas you can't fly through at all (though enemy missiles have no such difficulty). Certain stages have debris fields that scramble your flight path, limiting the distance you can fly. Most of these just add challenge, but there's one obstacle I found purely annoying: the so-called "Fog of War." On most stages, a cloud will cover your map screen, obscuring your view of everything but missiles. You can wipe away a little bit per turn using your stylus. Your fighters will clear some of it away along their flight path, and captured bases will have a clear space around them. The problem is that it grows back after every turn, almost as fast as you can clear it with the stylus--sometimes it feels like faster!
The map adds an interesting strategic element. Whether it's fun or not depends on how annoying that blasted fog gets. It's also a gimmick that will wear out its welcome if Nintendo decides to put it in every Star Fox from now on (if they make any more). Overall, I think it's a great addition to the game.
This is where the bulk of the action is. The top screen looks more or less like past titles. The bottom is an instrument panel that's customized (more like skinned, really) for each ship. This panel is dominated by a map that shows your position and the positions of all your enemies.
Your first goal is to shoot down every enemy of a certain type, designated as "core" enemies. These are usually the hardest enemies to take down, but once you do they'll drop a Core Memory, which looks like a big honking red-and-white star. Once you're down to one, ROB will hilight the last one for you. (And he couldn't have done that for all of them... why?) Some battles feature bases being guarded by enemy motherships. Once you collect all the cores, a set of rings appears. Fly through all of them while rolling to take down the mother ship and free the base, which helps you out back on the map screen.
Controls are a little clumsy at first, but they feel natural enough once you get used to them. The map is also your control panel: You control your flight path by touching your stylus to the touch screen, a little like a joystick. The barrel roll, which can now be done continuously at the expense of your boost meter and attracts items as well as deflecting enemy fire, is triggered with a quick back-and-forth motion. Boosting and braking are both double-taps, toward the top and bottom half of the map screen, respectively; expect to get them mixed up until you get used to them. The loop and u-turn are on-screen buttons. Only pausing (Start) and firing your weapon (everything else) use actual buttons.
You drop bombs by dragging bomb icons onto the map screen. To be honest, they're not very useful because (a) you lose control of your ship while the camera shifts to watching the bomb explode on the top screen, and (b) if you're bombing anything that moves, it'll be long gone by the time the bomb goes off.
While it's possible to play these stages by collecting the cores and moving on, you will be rewarded for taking a little extra time and mopping up all the enemies. First, getting every enemy in a stage rewards you with an extra missile (unless you already have three). Second, racking up 100 hits gives you a chance to collect ten coins for an extra life. Don't take too long shooting enemies, though--you're on a timer. Pickups (including those extra life coins) give you 25 more seconds' worth of "fuel," but you'll still probably find yourself running out--which can cost you a life. There's definitely a trade-off here, and it's up to you to find a balance that works.
One of my bigger complaints about the game is that nearly all your flying is all-range mode. There's no switching back and forth, as in previous games. The only on-rails flying you'll do, except for one boss fight (admittedly, one boss that you can fight on several different story paths) is in the missile segments. I can understand not wanting to complicate things, but I miss the style.
Another, more minor issue is that you're on your own. No wingmates in this game, even when you've got two or more characters at the same base. It's a little detail I miss from the other games, but on the bright side, you don't have to drop what you're doing and go save Slippy for the millionth time.
The all-range stages get repetitive after you've played a bunch of them.
The missile stages get repetitive after you've played one.
At first, all you do is keep flying through square "beacons" that make you boost. You really can't do anything until you catch up to the missile. What you do once it's in view depends on your ship. If you have lock-on, you basically just hold down the fire button until you've maxed out your number of lock-ons, then let go. If you don't, just spray laser and you'll eventually hit it enough. The hard part is making sure not to miss a boost marker, which will cause you to fail the stage.
Subtracting even further from the fun is the fact that you, the beacons, and the missile are the only things in the stages. There's nothing to interact with or even look at. Chasing the missile was probably added to increase the challenge (or so they could say they included on-rails gameplay), but it's really just a chore.
The approach to branching paths lies somewhere between the Star Fox approach of choosing one of three paths from the beginning and Star Fox 64's approach of deciding the path based on how requirements were fulfilled (or not) within each level. In Star Fox Command, you're presented with a menu at various points, and the answer you select decides what levels you play and how the story progresses. It's a bit like those choose-your-own-adventure books.
On the first play-through, only one path is available. Each time the menu appears, all but one item is locked. Once you see the ending, you're awarded the "key of destiny," which allows you to select other options. (I was left wondering if that's an actual thing that Fox obtained, but now I'm pretty sure it's just a metaphor. Probably.)
You have to go off the beaten path to be able to play all the levels. The more levels you play, the more characters (and therefore ships) you get. Don't think you can unlock characters and use them in other levels, though. Each level has its own pre-defined roster of characters, who sometimes enter and leave the level during scripted events.
Non-default paths let you play as new characters lke Dash Bowman or Lucy Hare as well as existing characters like Bill Grey, Katt Monroe, and even the current members of Star Wolf. Every single Star Fox member is also playable, but you have to go for the alternate endings to get some of them. (Okay, every member except Pigma and... Well, you'll see.)
Nothing cmplicated here--pick a location, then a level, and you're off. Naturally, you have to play a level in story mode before it will appear in Stage Select. I think this feature is a must-have for any game that features branching paths. I really wish Star Fox 64 had one! It seems like a little thing, but it makes a big difference.
In multiplayer mode, you and your opponents can... fly around and shoot each other in different-colored Arwings (or sometimes other ships; see below). The unique (ish) thing is the way kills are scored. A downed fighter drops a star, and whoever picks it up gets the point. I'll only call it "interesting"; whether it's a good thing or a bad thing depends on your opinion--or whether you're the person who stole someone else's kill or the one who got robbed!
In addition to your opponents' stars, you can also pick up bombs and other power-ups. These include laser upgrades, which you don't get in the story mode because Fox's laser upgrades are story events, as well as invisibility.
The multiplayer is much like the game as a whole: Fun for a while, but it becomes repetitive. What's more, it seems to have been crippled.
For one thing, the only way you and your friends can all enjoy the game's central feature--oodles and oodles of ships--is if you all have a copy of the game, and you're all playing in the same room. It makes sense that you wouldn't be able to have download players use the different ships--Mario Kart DS and Metroid Prime Hunters did the same thing. But you can't use your other ships on Wi-Fi, either. If memory serves, those other games didn't have this limitation.
For another thing, the multiplayer does not incorporate the strategy elements of the single-player mode. I'm not surprised, of course, as it would be a challenge to come up with a way to make a multiplayer game out of it that would... you know... work. Still, it makes me a little sad to see half the game being stripped out. Couldn't they have racked their brains a little and come up with some kind of "capture the enemy base" mode?" Oh well. It's not a huge loss, really.
The real issue is that, like the story mode, the environments are just too sparse. Compare and contrast Assault, in which you could fly in and out of many of the on-foot stages and intricate Arwing-only stages like the Orbital Gate and the Sargasso Exterior. In Command, the most you can ask for is some hills.
To make up for the lack of voice acting (see below), the game allows you to record a sample of your voice that gets scrambled into the gibberish that Fox speaks. I haven't tried it, and I don't know whether it would be cool or just creepy, but it's neat that they thought of it. I guess.
Me, I just wonder why Nintendo thought the DS needed a microphone in the first place.
The game has two galleries: One for all unlocked endings, and one for every character (and ship) that you've used. Yes! This is what I like to see in a game. The pilot gallery shows a picture of each pilot, a 3D turnaround of each ship (complete with stats), and a description of the character. The character's theme music plays in the background, too. The ending gallery shows both the narration and the illustrations just like in Story mode. Okay, the cutscenes from between levels aren't included, but then they aren't really needed.
The models for the ships are very detailed, and each character (with a few exceptions) has a unique ship. For instance, Fox pilots the so-called "Arwing II," which looks suspiciously like the Star Fox 64 arwings, while Peppy flies a Star Fox Assault arwing. Other Star Fox members have their own, Arwing-inspired ships. Not all the ships are Arwing-based, though: Bill Grey returns in a Cornerian fighter, and other characters like Lucy, Katt, and Amanda have their own unique ships.
There are a few rough spots, though. Slippy's ship looks like a fat Arwing, and the Great Fox is looking more like a cross between the Egg Carier (That's from Sonic Adventure, if you didn't know) and the Goodyear Blimp. Kinda interesting, but far from iconic.
The enemy fighters are more of a mixed bag. This may be a technical thing, as there are lots of them in a level at a time, versus just one player ship. And I'll admit, some of the designs were pretty impressive...back in Star Fox 64. Most of the better enemies are the bosses. Some of them are pretty good, while others could have used maybe a few more polygons. And you'll notice that some of the bosses just happen to resemble vehicles from the F-Zero series. What, no Mario?
Additionally, the settings for the all-range stages can be pretty generic--especially the underwater stages. It doesn't take long before even the most detailed, the Corneria City stages, start to feel repetitive. The chase-the-missile stages are even worse: The best you can hope for is a change of background color depending on the planet; the closest things to landmarks are the beacons that you have to fly through.
Don't get me wrong, though--the environments are pretty. They're just bland. Especially once you've seen them a time or two.
Cutscenes come in two flavors. The first, the intro and ending scenes, consist of a series of (mostly) well-drawn illustrations on the top screen, and narration on the touch screen. The other kind, which appear between levels, swap out up to two pre-rendered stills of whichever characters are talking, and the familiar face-and-text dialogue boxes are displayed underneath. When necessary, illustrations appear behind the characters.
These cutscenes get the job done. Nothing wrong with them. Sure, I would have liked to see fully animated cinematics, but that would probably be asking too much given the limitations of the medium and the number of story sequences, and considering the story, they aren't really needed. I guess I just got spoiled by Adventures and Assault.
Another area where I've been spoiled by past entries is voice acting. This game just plays gibberish in the appropriate tone of voice. Okay, there's not really much variation in tone of voice, and I wasn't really impressed with the concept overall, but it doesn't have any real problems, either.
The sound effects are mostly pretty good. They may not be especially impressive, but then you're not exactly going to get 5.1 surround out of a DS speaker, are you? My only real complaints are that many of the explosions are pretty cheap (and they could just as easily be splashes or someone saying "Ch!") and the sound of the barrel roll deflecting a weapon (a metallic clang, for whatever reason) gets to be a little grating. Other than that, everything works nicely.
The music is very nice. You'll reccognize some of the themes from past games. For instance, Fox's theme is Area 6. I don't recognize Krystal's theme, so I assume it's original, but either way it's pretty cool. Also, Wolf gets Star Wolf's theme for his own, and we all know Star Wolf's theme is awesome. In fact, you should buy the game just to get that music. Okay, okay, I'm biased. My only quibble is that we don't have distinctive themes for each planet, but that's not an issue because of the old themes being reused as character themes.
(Does anyone know if there's a ZREO equivalent for Star Fox?)
I'll be honest: I was not impressed.
There are a few what-the-heck moments that can only be described as an excuse for some of the main gameplay gimmicks. For instance, the team splits up at the beginning so that Fox can go around recruiting old and new teammates. But it's starting to feel like the team is apart more than it is together. Some levels let you play as Star Wolf, but it makes no sense that they would have ROB and the Great Fox (or its stand-in), except they have to because that's how the game is structured.
My biggest gripe is with the ending. For one thing, unlike Star Fox 64 or, let's say, Shadow the Hedgehog, there is no single, canonical ending. By now, some fans are wondering if the game is canon to the series at all. What's more, most of the endings are just plain bad. More often than not, the Star Fox Team as we know it is done for, and one of the few that doesn't do that is just plain too easy. A couple of the epilogues reveal that characters randomly changed their minds after supposed character development after the last playable segment. For instance, the default ending has the bad guy beaten, everyone seemingly happy, until Krystal up and decides to join Star Wolf. What?
The overall story isn't great, but I'll give them points for trying. We see a side of Andross that we haven't seen before, and get a glimpse at what went down between him and General Pepper. The new enemy doesn't get fleshed out very well, but there are a few attempts and they're interesting. The bad guys, the Anglar, are bio-weapons left over from Andross, but unlike the usual giant mutant thingies, they're actual characters. Too bad the attempts to spell out their motivation were so few. The tension between their individuality and their hive mind (another gameplay gimmick, by the way) would have been interesting to see.
Overall I'd have to say that Star Fox Command is a good game, but not great. The map screen is an interesting addition and injects a certain degree of strategy. However, the normal flight segments are somewhat lacking. and a confusing story and a lack of visual polish detract from the experience. The game may not become one of your favorites, but it's certainly fun. It's worth a try, even if you just rent it.
If I had to rate it numericlally, I'd stick it right in the middle of the scale: Three out of five.