I can't recall the last time I felt this conflicted over the relative merits and missteps of a new video game. Typically, this is easy: it's either good, or it's not. Everyone understands that. But Star Fox Zero, the PlatinumGames-developed Wii U comeback of anthropomorphic space-fighter pilot Fox McCloud and his zoological crew of Arwing-riding colleagues, has me both grinning like the cat who got the cream, the cake and the key to the backdoor of the bakery, and screaming obscenities at my television because, just sometimes, the whole thing feels backwards, if not actually broken.
This disharmony begins mere seconds into the experience, before so much as a single barrel roll's been executed. The visuals are bright, bold, clear and crisp – but, after hours of play, soaring through the colourful skies and coasting over the shifting sands of several environmentally diverse planets in the Lylat System, I'm not certain that there's anything here that's truly pushing the hardware.
Outer-space dogfights, set largely against the vast blackness of the void, move fluidly, excitedly, but aesthetically they feel like a return to the low-res graphics of the original Wii. Textures can appear flat, and the player-controlled models – the series staple Arwings, as well as the tank variant Landmaster and the newly introduced, chicken-like Walker (an alt-mode for the Arwing) – are a far cry from the gorgeously detailed skells (mechs) of another Wii U exclusive, Xenoblade Chronicles X. Looks wise, Star Fox Zero really encapsulates how underpowered its parent platform is against the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One.
The game's sound design is striking, with communications between the Star Fox strike team and their commanding officer, General Pepper, broadcast through the GamePad in a wonderfully 3D fashion. What you see on the left comes through that side of the pad and straight through your body, and likewise the right. Laser blasts and crashing musical crescendos are all present and correct, and while the panicked shrieks of Fox's fellow fliers can become repetitive – yes, Slippy, I hear you, and I'll be there in a second – they're each easily identifiable. The introductory voice-over, though, is tortuously bad, as is Fox's meek declarations of smashing the enemy forces. The appearance of a female ally around the halfway stage of the multi-route story campaign is accompanied by the worst kind of clichéd dialogue, her "sassy" personality conveyed by unnecessary innuendo.
But how the game looks and sounds isn't where the real internal argument raging inside this old brain of mine is rooted. When I first played Star Fox Zero, at a London preview event in July 2015, I was far from alone in feeling that it controlled like a nightmare. And those first impressions appear to hold firm as the final, retail version of the game begins. The opening level sees Fox and company defend the planet Corneria from the attentions of old enemy Andross and the diabolical space ape's forces. You steer your ship with the left stick, and use the right to brake, boost and barrel roll. Precision aiming is handled on the GamePad, using its accelerometer, so you're constantly switching from big screen to small and back, and gently swinging the pad around to line up the perfect shot. This is a headache enough when not under any pressure, but you're asked to multitask while dodging pieces of futuristic architecture, enemy fighters and incoming projectiles. Dings and dents are inevitable.
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Flying the Arwing in the expanse of space, Platinum's innovative slash massively divisive controls just about work without spirit-crushing mechanical confusion and fingers-and-thumb entanglement. There's little to smash into, which helps. The first time with the Walker is horrible, though – take the dual-screen operating system into an enclosed space and the whole thing begins to creak, crack and fall apart. You'll want to turn right. You'll be looking at the TV. But the movement is now best viewed from the perspective of your GamePad. You don't turn right, and you curse your worst as your craft collides with something painfully solid.
The Landmaster is comparably awkward to feel fully in control of, initially (and do note that emphasised word, there) – it took me until a boss battle with a gigantic, ground-slamming sand worm to really be comfortable. But that encounter illustrates how Platinum is quite aware of the problem it's made for itself: with the challenge of pointing your cannon in the correct direction half the fight itself, the worm's gigantic glowing target points are easily exploded once locked onto. Beat the navigation, and you beat the big nasty. A simpler time is had with the hovering Gyrowing, which features a deployable robot buddy, useful for unlocking gates and hacking terminals in enemy bases.
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I'll understand when a raft of players deem Zero's singular interface for Flying Fantastical Space Ships And That a disaster, that it presents a surprisingly high barrier of entry for the fun times they remember from the older games in this 23-year-old franchise (one without a truly original title since the DS's Star Fox Command, of a decade ago). But having lived with it a little while now, I've sort of made my peace. Platinum's delivered unprecedented gameplay systems in the past – the 360-degree slashing of Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance's Blade Mode, Bayonetta's screen-slowing Witch Time (okay, I'll concede you Max Payne's Bullet Time), and The Wonderful 101's array of weapons drawn into existence on the GamePad's screen. The latter game, three years young this summer and still a misunderstood gem in the Wii U catalogue, should have served to telegraph the Osaka studio's likelihood of implementing something on the unusual side. The "warning signs", so to speak, were all there as soon as their involvement was confirmed.
Which leaves you with two options. Well, three, really. You can do as I have and work out the kinks preventing you from getting along with Star Fox Zero – which will absolutely involve involuntary explosions of air-reddening profanities, so it's best to take your first steps while the kids are in the garden. You can ignore the game entirely, which the largest percentage of the gaming audience will on account of low global sales for the Wii U.
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Or, three, you can get a friend involved, because when played in co-op, with two brains instead of one, using the GamePad and a Pro Controller (the TV perspective) in tandem, Zero becomes fantastic fun. If you can play it that way, do – it'll stave off the grey hair that little longer, and you might even learn a thing or two about your pal's (in)ability to follow perfectly simple instructions.
So rare is the appearance of a genuinely new Wii U release featuring established Nintendo royalty that I can't imagine purchasers of Zero spending half an hour with it, losing their temper and binning the thing. We've waited too long, and I hope that players will find the thrills to be had, by tapping away at the surface of what is, to begin with, a tough game to crack. After 30 minutes, I was thinking Platinum's work here represented a low for the Star Fox series, that they'd tarnished its reputation by imprinting their own idiosyncrasies on proceedings without respecting the accessibility of prior entries. But after four or five missions, I'd changed my tune. There is greatness here. Problems, too, and potentially too many for some; but who really got The Shape of Jazz To Come straight away? Or The Fountain? Or Binary Domain? We all understand a little more about the culture around us by waiting a while in its company, without judging on a kneejerk.
Star Fox Zero is released exclusively for the Nintendo Wii U on April 21st. Also available, both bundled with Zero and as a standalone download, is Star Fox Guard, a cute tower defence game set in the same universe. More information at the game's official website.
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