Star Fox Zero Wii U Review: Open the Wings

I'm going to guess a lot of people will write off Star Fox Zero at the outset due to its motion controls, which initially feel finicky and uncomfortable. If that's the case, then it's a shame. Star Fox Zero may not be everything I could have hoped for out of a successor to the legendary Nintendo 64 shooter, but it's still the best game the series has seen in a long time.

Of course, given the franchise's uneven history in the wake of Star Fox 64, that may be something of a backhanded compliment. After all, it's not all that tough to top the rough Star Fox Command or the (admittedly underrated) Star Fox Assault, both of which are seen as inferior successors to the first two games in the series. The former was hurt by middling touchscreen controls and unsatisfying missions, while the latter was farmed out to Namco and ended up leaning heavily on its much-maligned on-foot shooting. Like both of those games, Star Fox Zero has its share of shortcomings, but it also reaches greater heights than either of them.

Developed in conjunction with Platinum Games, Star Fox Zero represents a return to the franchise's roots, specifically Star Fox 64. It borrows heavily from its famed predecessor - so much so that it occasionally feels like a borderline remake. But just when it starts to feel like a silly rehash, it redeems itself by taking an enemy or a scene from Star Fox 64 and turning it completely on its head. The latter half of the game in particular is rife with such moments, several of which really got me smiling.

This is in large part due to the latter half of the game leaning heavily on the Arwing - traditionally the most satisfying vehicle to pilot in a Star Fox game. As in the previous games, you swap between on-rails shooting and arena combat, with the Arwing able to use its standard mix of lasers, homing shots, and Nova Bombs. In the early going, the missions spend a lot of time introducing concepts like the Walker transformation; but around the midpoint, Star Fox Zero cuts loose a bit and actually gets pretty hard. The latter half of the game includes an exciting fleet battle, a thrilling Death Star trench run-like race to Venom, and a one-on-four dogfight with Star Wolf, all of which prove to be a lot of fun. Star Fox is at its fastest, its most exciting, and its most creative in the Arwing - hardly a surprise given that Star Fox is at its core a shoot 'em up not that far removed from Space Harrier or Galaga. It's at its best when it plays to its strengths.

Unfortunately, as with the previous games in the series, Star Fox Zero tends to lose momentum when Fox jumps into one of the other vehicles on offer. In Star Fox Zero, the Arwing is capable of going full VF Valkyrie and turning into a mech - a nod to Star Fox 2, which was completed but never released on the Super Nintendo. The Walker plays an integral role in several missions, usually as a way to maneuver in tight quarters; and while its adequate in its role, it also slows down the action considerably as Star Fox trades traditional shooting for a more deliberate approach. Missions featuring the Walker often mix awkward platforming with very narrow hallways, which feels claustrophobic in comparison to the freedom found in the sky.

This goes double for the Gyrocopter, which stars in easily the worst mission in the game - Zoness. The Gyrocopter is even slower than the Walker, with much of its action revolving around using a tiny robot to access narrow crawlspaces and activate switches, which is as exciting as it sounds. Zoness is a plodding stealth mission that feels totally out of step with the rest of the game, and is honestly just a pain to play through. It alone hurts Star Fox Zero's replayability more than the rest of the missions combined.

Fortunately or unfortunately depending on your point of view, this mission as well as handful of other weaker levels are mostly front-loaded; which, when coupled with the initially awkward motion controls, may be enough to turn off new players entirely. Here's what I'll say, though: Stick with it. It gets better. Yes, even the motion controls.

I suppose that brings me to Star Fox Zero's most controversial addition, and the reason that you're probably reading this review in the first place. Do the motion controls work? Yes, I think so. In the early going, they're extremely annoying, particularly when piloting the Walker; and no, you can't really turn them off - they're pretty much baked into the design. The sooner you come to grips with them, the better.

Star Fox Zero's motion controls are rooted in Nintendo's desire to get more use out of the Wii U's second screen, which is the game's raison d'être. When you're flying, your ship is visible on the television while the Wii U Gamepad features a cockpit view (or vice versa - you can switch them) from which you can use the motion controls to line up your shot. When in All-Range Mode - the arena-like mode that takes you off the rails and gives you total freedom of movement - you can lock-on and keep track of enemies with the top camera while aiming with the Gamepad's gyroscope, which is particularly useful when dogfighting with Star Wolf.

In the early going, I mostly played the game from the third-person view, because that was what I was used to. But as time went on, I spent more and more time playing the game from the first-person perspective, particularly when in the Walker and the Landmaster (yep, the Landmaster is back too). It's tougher to dodge incoming fire from the first-person perspective, but in return the motion controls feel much less awkward. It also makes it easier to get a bead on enemy weakpoints, which is essential in some of the later levels. And once you get used to them, they feel pretty good

So in the end, I was able to get used to the motion controls, and even like them to some extent. But having said that, I'm still on the fence as to whether they're actually a good addition. The second screen-driven lock-on mechanic has some pretty far-reaching effects on the level design; in particular, making every boss fight into an All-Range Mode arena battle. That's not a bad thing per se - I really like some of the boss battles in Star Fox Zero - but I also miss the really intricate battles that take place on rails in Star Fox 64. Solid as they are, I'm not sure that Nintendo had to go and reinvent the wheel when the previous scheme was already pretty great.

With that, I guess my feelings on Star Fox Zero are kind of mixed. It certainly has merit, and the controls are less of a problem than I first imagined, but it feels like there's something missing with this game. It may be the fact that I don't feel any particular inclination to replay the main campaign after clearing all of the planets, which feels strange given that I replay Star Fox 64 roughly once or twice a year. In theory, that's where Arcade Mode comes in - an opportunity to make a straight shot through the main game and try to collect a high score. But here's the thing: there's no real way to chart a wacky course through the Lylat System. The main route split is pretty well-defined, which makes it less interesting to replay in the long run. Worse, there's no way to skip the dreaded Gyrocopter levels.

To Star Fox Zero's credit, it does try to be unpredictable at points. Several of the levels have alternate exits, with at least one featuring a more difficult and interesting variant of the first level's boss. In addition, taking one path can result in something interesting happening on the other, such as Wolf showing up and challenging you to a very difficult one-on-one dogfight. There are also tons of medals to find and collect, if you're into that sort of thing. Every level has at least five hidden medals, some of which can be found by killing enough enemies, and some of which are hidden within the level itself. So if you're the obsessive compulsive completionist type (I'm not), you'll be busy for a while.

Personally, I'm about finished with Star Fox Zero, which feels strange to say after waiting a decade or more for a new game in the series, but is nevertheless hard to deny. I enjoyed Star Fox Zero - particularly the second half - but now that I'm done, I don't feel like it has a lot of staying power. It doesn't even have a competitive multiplayer mode to its name, which may have to do with how the lock-on mechanics interact with actual human players, or perhaps the fact that nobody played that mode in Star Fox 64. It's too bad, because I think Star Fox's dogfights could be pretty neat with a few extra maps, some more ships, and a larger number of players.

In any case, it turns out that Star Fox Zero's biggest problem wasn't its motion controls after all. It has its moments; but in patterning itself so closely after Star Fox 64, it mostly serves to highlight its own shortcomings.

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