Console conversions don’t fare too well on PC, especially with licensed games, but maybe Star Wars: Starfighter can succeed in bringing back old-school space action fun?
(USA 2002, developer: LucasArts (defunct), publishers: LucasArts (defunct)/Disney)/Nintendo, platforms: PC, PS2, Xbox)
Naboo starfighter pilot Rhys Dallows, mercenary Vana Sage and Feeorin pirate Nym join forces during the battle of Naboo.
Three stories, many missions
The Star Wars saga has always been good at running various storylines side by side and then connecting them at the end, so it’s nice to see something similar in an arcade-like action game. It’s surprising that the story takes place during the timeline of Episode I: The Phantom Menace, the weakest movie in the space opera universe, without actually retelling events and using characters that most fans are familiar with. This obviously gives the player freedom to identify with three new faces and have a story with unexpected twists and turns. Unfortunately what sounds intriguing in theory isn’t so great in practice.
The reason why the plot and character development isn’t as exciting as it could be is because the three pilots are as forgettable as the main story. One learns a bit about each of them, but as soon as one feels attached to one, the story already jumps to the next, while the way how they finally meet and fight together, feels very contrived. One shouldn’t expect anything epic or essential for the original Star Wars movies, because despite offering short cameos of the young Anakin Skywalker or Queen Amidala, the pilot trio’s journey is unremarkable. It’s telling that the main villain one fights at the end doesn’t even have a name.
Space and planetary action
The mission design varies from good to acceptable quality, while suffering from repetitiveness and frustration, too. The space battles are a lot of uncomplicated, fast and furious blasting fun, except for a very frustrating final mission that shares the problems of the ground-based levels: clunky controls when navigating closed spaces and an unfair number of enemies or one enemy that can maneuvre better and faster than the player. Only by coming to a complete stop is it possible to target certain enemies, as the flight speed is too fast, otherwise resulting in constant crashes against walls or formations of rock. This is too bad, because the light space combat mechanics are surprisingly easy to learn. Unlike simulation games like X-Wing or TIE Fighter, one doesn’t have to remember all sorts of key inputs. This doesn’t mean that it’s a pure arcade game, as it’s also possible to switch between targets and give wing men orders via button presses. Granted, the A.I. isn’t the best, but the system is the closest a console game could be to the PC space combat simulations.
Replaying missions also comes with merits in the form of additional levels if one completes bonus objectives. Receiving bronze, silver, and gold certainly motivates the completionist gamer, but some bonus objectives are still pretty hard to achieve, even with the three difficulty settings. While the missions themselves don’t change much from the standard destroy-all-enemies, defend-a-station, or escort-a-ship template, they’re often quite dynamic, with various unexpected objective changes and intermission cutscenes. It’s true that the overall repetitive mission design is something even the classic LucasArts space sims suffered from, but it becomes apparent that some goals are very difficult to achieve because of the aforementioned control and speed problems.
Looks and sounds in space
For a game, especially a console title that was ported to the PC, over 15 years old, Starfighter still looks rather nice, with some cool explosion, lighting, and even water reflection effects, while the various enemy craft animations are fluid and convincing despite the comic look. However, everything set in space fares much better than what’s happening on the ground or in a space station, with textures looking less detailed and fights less exciting. The same holds true for the character models in cut-scenes that won’t win any beauty prizes, either. Sound effects and especially the Star Wars music add much to the cinematic atmosphere, with only the voice acting being a bit disappointing.
Not a classic, but a fun if bumpy ride
Star Wars: Starfighter isn’t a perfect game to capture the excitement of the movies due to its forgettable cast and plot, but it’s certainly a very fun arcade action alternative to the computer flight sims of old. Even if the mission design isn’t without its flaws and the fast ships aren’t always easy to navigate through certain segments, blasting enemies in space and, to a certain degree, on planets is still mindless fun with a presentation that hasn’t aged as badly as other titles. Maybe it’s not the best Star Wars game in the galaxy, but compared to other licensed titles, it remains an enjoyable entry that makes the best of what the first Star Wars prequel movie started.
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