Monday, January 28, 2013

Not-Review: Strike Suit Zero by Matthew W-A

This is not a review. Not really. I have a personal policy when it comes to reviewing games: I finish them before I render judgment. I have not finished Strike Suit Zero, and most likely never will.

Space combat is a genre that is very special to me. Star Wars: X-wing was one of the first games I ever played. I sank countless hours into X-wing Alliance when I was still in elementary school, and I even beat Freelancer (which, let's be honest, was an “okay” game at best) twice. Freelancer came out in 2003, and there has not really been an even competent space combat. When I say that I am desperate for a good space combat game, I really mean it. The genre has practically been in a coma for the last decade.

My experience starting up Strike Suit Zero was not exactly smooth. The game froze at the first splash screen and I had to shut down the program with the task manager. It worked on the second try, and I started a new game, only to have severe audio sync and stuttering issues during the opening cutscene that were only fixed by reducing the graphics quality. After about twenty minutes of troubleshooting I was finally able to get into the game. I ran through the tutorial first using a gamepad, then a standard mouse and keyboard setup, and ended up pretty frustrated both times. The only key difference was that the game was actually playable with a gamepad. Then I failed the first major combat engagement in the game five times. Why? I didn't get shot down. The capital ship I was protecting kept on getting taken out by enemy fighters within five minutes of starting the engagement. This is the point in the game when you have just learned the controls, and all you have is a small number of missiles and a set of plasma guns that have extremely short range, fire slow projectiles, and need to cool down after only firing a few shots.  And the best part? When the ship you are supposed to be protecting gets destroyed, it doesn't explode, or show signs of damage, the game just pulls you into this quasi-cutscene view where the ship ceases to exist. One second it's there, the next it's not, and you just failed the tutorial. Again.

The second mission quickly moves you into protecting a fragile ship that has it's guns offline for most of the time that you are protecting it. Thankfully it's less fragile than the first ship you protect, but don't worry, there is a new enemy on the horizon to ruin your day: enemy corvettes that drop your framerate to single digits when they explode, thus increasing your chance of running into something and losing all of your shields, and buying the rest of the enemy forces times to plink away that the defenseless military cruiser. I tried deploying countermeasures in the form of dropping all of the graphical settings to minimum, but it was all for naught as doing so did little to improve my framerate whenever there was a large explosion on the screen. At first I chalked it up to my laptop not being up to the task, but after speaking to some other people with much better computers than me, they confirmed that they were having the exact same issues. Eventually you end up protecting a carrier that seems to be made out of tissue paper and be strangely lacking in point defense as you have to protect it by shooting down enemy torpedoes that are moving with all the urgency of a stoner riding a unicycle. I failed this section several times (and then discovered that you cannot save mid-mission, which is a pity as some missions take as long as an hour to finish) before finally finishing it only to have the game lock up somewhere between the final cutscene at the mission complete screen. I had to close the program with the task manager again, only to find that it had not saved my progress. Two attempts later I finally managed to finish the mission.

Mission three started off promisingly enough by giving me swarm missiles (which feel awesome to fire and look really spectacular in flight) and sending me to blow a bunch of stuff up without having to escort anyone. It was just me and a few other fighter pilots in a target-rich environment. Unfortunately lots of enemy ships means lots of enemy fire, and while basic fighters barely do enough damage to even come close to taking down you shields, the game lets you know that something has hit you by shaking the camera around and filling three quarters of the screen with white light and static. Also radar seems to have yet to be invented in the future, but you do get a few arrows that point you in the general direction of stuff the game wants you to shoot, although the interface doesn't bother to tell you what that actually is. About halfway through mission three you finally get the strike suit, a fighter that can transform into a mech that can fire enough missiles to make the Macross animators feel insecure. You also have access to a pair of fairly large guns that you will never use because the camera control while in mech mode is absolutely abysmal. What this meant was that I resorted to holding down the missile target button and spinning around in circles until I was locked onto as many enemy ships as possible before letting go a flurry of forty missiles that actually looked pretty awesome.

Remember how I said the first part of mission three was a lot more fun due to the lack of poor defenseless metallic space whales for me to protect? While just before you get the strike suit, your friendly carrier shows up and once again you must shoot down enemy torpedoes, and take out the enemy corvettes firing them. Then it gets better. “Take out the flak turrets on the enemy cruisers so our torpedo’s can get through,” says my commander. That's right, the enemy has advanced point defense technology that can shoot down torpedoes! Well at least you don't have to worry about your carrier getting shot down, and sending swarm after swarm of miniature missiles with blue exhaust trails looks really cool.

At the beginning of mission four, I finally begin to understand why my side is losing the war: lack of common sense. You know how they just have acquired a prototype fighter that is based around firing scores of missiles and wiped out half an enemy fleet in its' first battle? Well the powers that be decide that the next operation should be an ambush conducted in a nebula, where missiles don't work, forcing you to rely on machine guns and dumb rockets. All the fun toys that were introduced in the last mission are stripped from you. And did I mention that this is also another escort mission? Well, it is. The worst bit comes at the end of the mission, however, when you must take out the beam turrets on two large enemy cruisers within two minutes or else your carrier is toast. Around this point, it occurred to me that the strike suit was actually more durable than the carrier. There are six turrets in total, each surrounded by a cluster of flak turrets that exist for the express purpose of ruining your day. Normally this wouldn't be a problem, but because of the time limit you don't have nearly as much time as you should to conduct proper strafing runs and allow your shield to recharge. Your carrier appears to also have beam turrets that you can see being fired at the enemy cruisers (the whole battle actually looks really cool with beams and missiles lighting up the blue nebula), only they are a lie. They are re-purposed strobe lights that literally cause no damage to the enemy cruisers. It took me seven or eight tries, but I eventually managed to take out all the flak turrets and then the mission ended rather abruptly as the carrier somehow managed to completely refit itself and replace its' strobe lights with beam cannons that cut the remnants of the enemy fleet into little bits of burning metal in under a minute.

Mission five was actually pretty enjoyable once I figured out that I should probably take out the enemy flak platforms surrounding the battlefield sooner rather than later. There was only a bit of escorting that involved running interference for a wing of bombers, but aside from that the game just tossed me into several large areas and told me to go nuts. I did, and after a while I actually started having fun. Nothing could stand in my way as missile after missile streaked away from the strike suit and into the scores of enemy ships that that died like roaches being crushed beneath a steamroller in the face of my glorious barrage. I actually left mission five being somewhat hopeful that the game might actually get better a bit further in.

Mission six was the point at which I said “screw it” and threw in the towel. Once again you are tossed in a nebula, only this time to are forced to fly a stupid looking interceptor that can only carry half as many rockets as the strike suit, and has a weapons range that is about half that of the other ships you fly in the game. This time you are on mine sweeper duty (and you think torpedoes move slowly? For mines, take that unicycle and replace it with a pogo stick), because once again, capital ships with point defense weapons? Heresy! The first time I tried the mission, the third ship I had to protect was somehow destroyed within thirty seconds of me getting the objective to protect it. The game had yet to throw up a checkpoint, so I had to redo the last ten minutes of tedious mine shooting, and I was able to properly defend the third ship. Mission accomplished, I prepared myself for the next objective. It didn't come. I waited for ten minutes, and nothing happened. The next objective failed to trigger. I reloaded the level and tried again. This time the game stopped handing out objectives after I finished defending the second ship. That was the last straw. I just didn't want to start the mission over and spend more time repeating the same boring section praying for the game's scripting to work properly. I stopped. I put the controller down, and closed the game, I had had enough.

There are a few things Strike Suite Zero does well. The sound track is absolutely phenomenal, and really reminded me of Battlestar Galactica, which can only be a good thing. The backgrounds are all really colorful and when the the sky is filled with exhaust trails, missiles and plasma bolts the game is truly a site to behold. I even liked the ship design even though the textures and models were a bit lacking. Unfortunately, that is all the game has going for it. As I was playing, I found myself constantly making excuses for the game, and around mission 3 I realized that if I wasn't playing a space combat game I would have closed and uninstalled it hours earlier. An e-sports caster that I occasionally listen to recently came up with a term that I think is fairly relevant these days: “desperation genres.” Genres that have so few titles that gamers that enjoy said genres are willing to play games that have a lot of issues and make a lot of excuses for said games because there are no better options. Space combat is my desperation genre. I wanted Strike Suit Zero to be good. Space combat games have seen so little love during the last decade that Freelancer still has an extremely active modding community ten years after coming out.

Some of Strike Suit Zero's issues can be fixed pretty easily through patches. The devs have already promised to patch in more frequent checkpoints and allow for the game to be saved mid mission. The performance can probably be improved with a few updates, and the issue of fragile friendly ships could probably be fixed by the devs changing some numerical values in a script file somewhere. Unfortunately, some of the other problems aren't so easy to deal with. I doubt that the interface is going to be completely redone, and the controls aren't going to improve much. If someone sat me down in front of the game and asked me what stage of development the game was in, I would guess that it was in early beta at best. The game is content and feature complete, but considering the graphics, performance feels nowhere close to what one would expect from a release build. There also seems to have been little to no play testing done, as many of the problems with the combat are of the type that become obvious rather quickly. I feel like the devs ran out of money while still in alpha, took to Kickstarter to get enough money to duct-tape the game into a semi-functional state, and shipped.

I wanted to like Strike Suit Zero. Really, I did. I even admit that I had a few minutes of fun at one point or another during the six hours I spent playing Strike Suit Zero. Unfortunately, I can't recommend it, not the way it is now. I intend to revisit it in a month or so and see if Born Ready Games has patched it into a suitable state. Strike Suit Zero is available for $19.99 on Steam and GOG for PC if you insist on purchasing it, but seriously, don't do it. You will be unhappy. The launch trailer is great, but unfortunately the game is not. It isn't even good. Hell, it isn't even competent. If you absolutely need a good space combat game right now, go pick up Freespace 2 or Independence War 2 on GOG, or a copy of X-Wing Alliance on eBay. Even Freelancer is available on steam. You will probably enjoy that a lot more than Strike Suit Zero, and it costs half as much. I wish it didn't have to happen like this. I wanted Strike Suit Zero to be good. I wanted to shower it with praise and demand that people go out and buy it using excessive amounts of unnecessary capital letters. Sadly it was not to be. Maybe Star Citizen will scratch that zero-g dog fighting itch next year, but Strike Suit Zero certainly doesn't. 

No comments:

Post a Comment