It has always seemed to me that the quality that Star Wars games struggle with most is individuality. By virtue of their license, these games are inevitably placed in an awkward position: they must be true to the vision of the films while creating plot and gameplay elements that make them unique. How does a game with such an established license find its own identity, yet immerse players in a distinctly Star Wars universe? Making matters worse, developers know that gamers hold the bar high when it comes to Star Wars titles and, therefore, are not very motivated to experiment with more creative, yet potentially unsuccessful variations. Instead, they confine their games to recycled concepts, hoping that only modest improvements in gameplay will be enough to satisfy gamers. The latest effort from LucasArts, Star Wars: Starfighter, is no exception.
Starfighter closely follows the footsteps of Factor 5's N64 games, Rogue Squadron and Battle For Naboo. The game does not revolve around the movie, but tells the story of three characters intertwined with the Episode 1 universe. Some of the story is presented via full-motion video, but most of it unfolds during the missions themselves. In the game, players pilot a variety of spaceships through missions broken down into sequential objectives, such as destroying freighters and factories or protecting friendly ships from enemy fire. Additional "bonus" objectives may be completed to unlock additional missions and spacecraft. The missions feature a number of fairly creative (not to mention graphically stunning) locales and a decent variety of objectives. In one mission, for example, you are required to protect a friendly supply ship as it slowly makes its way through a tortuous canyon teeming with hostile Federation craft. In another, you must destroy legions of fast-moving fighters, tanks, and bombers in a desperate attempt to thwart an invasion of the planet Naboo.
Starfighters stunning technical presentation is a significant leap above its predecessors. While many past console shooters have been plagued by choppy frame rates and monochromatic textures, Starfighter is filled with vibrant special effects, colorful alien worlds, and frantic action that rarely stalls. At times, the sheer number of craft onscreen is breathtaking—it truly enhances the suspense of the game when huge fleets of enemies can be displayed on the screen at once. The locales, though drawn from (or inspired by) the Star Wars universe, are often creative in their design. Better yet, players will rarely encounter the invisible walls found in Nintendos Rogue Squadron. There is a great deal of space within each level to maneuver about, so much so that it is easy to forget you are confined to a limited environment. The immersive feeling generated by the visuals is further enhanced by the respectable voice acting and music lifted straight from the movie. While you wont quite mistake the game for the movie, Starfighter does a great job of bringing the Star Wars universe to life; far better, in fact, than any console game before it.
Adding to the allure of the game is the exceptional precision and intuitive simplicity by which the craft are controlled. Ive always felt that, in a good shooter, the fundamental controls of the craft should require little practice to become comfortable with. Starfighters layout utilizes every button on the controller, yet mastering the functions of the craft never seemed to be a daunting task. Rather, the brief training mission at the beginning of the game was more than adequate to allow me to acclimate to the controls. The various spacecraft (you control three throughout the game, but more can be unlocked by completing the bonus objectives) are designed slightly differently, but all of them move quickly and responsively. The only challenge is adjusting to the strengths and weaknesses of each craft—and thats exactly the way it should be.
While Starfighter succeeds in delivering accessible gameplay and superb technical elements, it ultimately lacks personality. The characters whom the game revolves around are rather uninspired: the overconfident young male rookie; the older, jaded-but-wise female; and the surly, cruel, but ultimately endearing alien pirate. The plot seems to be in place merely to move the game from one level to the next; the characters already generic personalities are never explored with any depth. The missions themselves, though they play wonderfully, are only minimally evolutionary. There is little variation; defend or attack, it doesnt matter—players will ultimately find the game to be a button-masher. Since the games objectives are completely sequential, there is little need for any sort of strategy. The computer simply tells you where and when to shoot, and you start pounding the fire button. There are certainly huge numbers of enemies onscreen, which alone enhances the suspense, but Starfighter rarely feels chaotic (as one would expect a dangerous space battle to be). Instead, it feels very mechanical. It may be a finely tuned machine, but it is nonetheless a machine.
Starfighter is also surprisingly short on features. There are a measly fourteen missions in the game, most of which are only mildly challenging; a dedicated gamer could likely plow through them over a long afternoon. There are some extra missions that can be unlocked by completing the bonus objectives, but I often found that the bonus objectives were more trouble than they were worth. They usually consist of speeding through the levels while destroying a certain number of specific enemies, and completing all of them is often exasperating.
Starfighter seems to be a case of what has become an increasingly bothersome phenomenon on the PlayStation 2: an above-average game that takes a far greater leap in its technical presentation than in its gameplay. It is faster, flashier, and generally better than Rogue Squadron and Battle For Naboo, but there is little else to distinguish it from those games. It seems that Starfighter ultimately sells the PlayStation 2 short; on a system with such vast design possibilities, gamers are subjected to only a modestly improved version of previously successful games. Nevertheless, it is a fast-moving and generally enjoyable game—one that successfully immerses players in the Star Wars universe. If developers had only chosen to explore new, more creative gaming possibilities, Starfighter could have been a name that players will remember.