The computers I grew up with were always behind the times. Being the younger sibling, that meant instead of getting the oh-so-powerful P233, I was stuck with the P133 with the Turbo button.
On reflection, I’m happy things worked out that way. I could never really play Counter-Strike or any of the “cool” games until I saved up and bought my own system, but it meant I was forced to explore the PC’s extensive back catalogue.
There’s a lot of ground explored from the 1990s that had been wasting away until recently. The PC was the big dog then and studios had more freedom; most were still pitching games to publishers, rather than being brought in-house, as is the case now. Coupled with the FMV era and, for the most part, the absence of today’s incessant focus on multiplayer, and more risks were taken.
But the rise of the console and the move by publishers to own studios, contracting them to certain IPs, has seen many genres — those with more of a niche appeal, especially those built for a keyboard and a PC’s ever-growing processing power — fade into the darkness.
Strike Suit Zero is one of those games.
Until the roaring success of Kickstarter last year, and the millions of funds thrown at games like Elite: Dangerous and Star Citizen, space was a final frontier that major publishers felt was sufficiently explored on previous-gen hardware. That doesn’t make a lot of sense to me, considering how far things have come. My phone is more powerful than the computer I used to play StarCraft and Counter-Strike on 10 years ago. Twice as powerful, in fact.
So when Strike Suit Zero raised over US$180,000 — almost double its funding goal — it shouldn’t have been a surprise. Promises of mecha suits with the style of space combat straight from the days of Wing Commander and TIE Fighter? Hell yeah.
It’s almost a surprise they didn’t raise more, although gamers’ expectations have ballooned out of control a little. They don’t just want the stars, but the whole universe and the 40 million star systems within.
Once that sense of overgrown entitlement begins to fade, then you can properly start to enjoy Strike Suit Zero. And unless it’s absolutely impossible for you to compromise on the lack of a sprawling economy and a galaxy whose corners you’ll never explore, it’s hard to fathom how you won’t have fun.
The game is broken into 13 missions, each ranging between 15 and 25 minutes apiece, and chronicles the efforts of Earth’s rag-tag fleet as they attempt to stop the Colonials from blowing the earth apart Death Star-style with their brand new toy.
In terms of story, Wing Commander’s status as the king of epic space operas isn’t really under attack. There’s no sense of the conspiracy or grandiosity of a Freelancer either. It’s not Strike Suit Zero’s fault that it isn’t either of these things, mind you, and it certainly doesn’t market itself as such.
Freelancer is worth mentioning particularly for the similarities in the control scheme, since the combat mechanics are Strike Suit Zero’s bread and butter. The mouse is used for aiming and movement, although your reticle is restricted to about three-quarters of the screen. You’ll have to turn to target any ships venturing beyond that, a motion that feels like an old glove for anyone who cut their teeth on X-Wing vs TIE Fighter, Freespace and so on.
Choose the nearest target. Use afterburners to get a little closer. Shoot a couple of long-range missiles. Begin leading the target. Hit the burners to break up the volley of plasma fire hitting your shields – but save enough for an EMP blast. Switch to machine guns to wear down the shields, swap to plasma to weaken the hull.
Space combat is essentially a plan that plays out incredibly quickly. It’s never a demanding game mechanically, once you get accustomed to turning with the mouse and rolling with the A/D keys. What’s left is a series of decisions. Do you take out the fighters first? Should you steam on ahead and carpet bomb the frigate’s turrets? Should you save your missiles or complete your initial objectives quickly?
Occasionally you’ll make the wrong decision and be forced to restart from a checkpoint. Doing so adds a minute to your final time. Every kill or assist on anything from a cruiser to a wreckage earns points, as does the time it takes you to finish the mission.
Your score is then added to a global leaderboard. Despite the lack of detail, your score also impacts the game’s overall ending, so you’ll inevitably end up replaying missions anyway. Seeing details like accuracy or a player’s specific loadout would be a nice touch, although it’s not a deal-breaker by any means.
Certain objectives unlock upgrades that power up your craft throughout the 13 missions, but it’s not clear exactly how much impact they have. You’ll gain access to four ships fairly early on, including the stock fighter, bomber and the much more maneuverable interceptor-class ships. Each ship’s outfit can be modified before each mission, although combinations are less about strategic value and more about personal preference.
The real meat and gravy is the Strike Suit, a dual-class fighter that alternates between a Gundam Wing-inspired mecha suit and your bog-standard ship. Interestingly, Junji Okubo, who worked on Appleseed: Ex Machina and Steel Battalion, helped design ships for Strike Suit Zero. The maker of the soundtrack for the 3D space RTS Homeworld, Paul Ruskay, even put together the backing for SSZ.
I wish I could be more charitable about the sound, but the truth is that it only ever becomes noticeable at its most annoying. The voice-acting is a little bland for pilots supposedly fighting for their lives and the score generally gets drowned out by a thousand explosions. Most gamers will skip through the cut-scenes, chasing the fastest time possible, and every now and again the sound cuts out entirely, typically in the middle of a symphony of explosions.
Assuming Born Ready Games will patch the sound crackling – and given their plans for future campaigns and missions through DLC, it’s a reasonable assumption – most of your attention will be focused on the weaving and dodging capabilities of the Strike Suit, which is a blast to play with.
The suit’s primary characteristic is that it focuses on sideways movement instead of forward momentum, allowing you to circle-strafe around capital ships and major dogfights. There’s also a swarm-type projectile called the Circus missile with the amazingly useful and gorgeous ability to target multiple enemies several times. Need to take down a frigate fast? Barrage the sucker with 15 missiles in a single shot. Facing a swarm of interceptors? Give them all a little bit of love. Strangely though, your Circus missiles restock after each use, making the game a little easier than it should be.
A by-product of making the Strike Suit so versatile is that the missions become more interesting. Instead of hammering out workable attack paths through trial and error, you can survive off the bat with different strategies (although they may not be optimal in the slightest). You can gun down the interceptors first, if you like, or you can use your squadron as bait, make a beeline for the objective and then try and clear off the remaining stragglers with a few volleys of Circus missiles.
Even the segmented structure of the 13 missions are gamer-friendly. By spending less than half an hour on each mission you can play the game either over a few hours or simply have short sessions in between your real life commitments.
Some of the scenery is rather pleasing on the eye as well. The sunset tones of an eviscerated planet, the cool backdrop of a nebula; these things were fairly hard to screw-up even back in the late 1990s. Textures on the ships and stations are a little flat mind you, and the translucent engine trails would look plain in Freelancer, let alone a PC space sim released in 2013. That said, these are the kind of details you’ll only notice between cut-scenes or at the very start of a mission, not halfway through your 34th kill.
But the sheer vibrancy of Strike Suit Zero papers over the cracks, as does the wide-scale battles PC gamers have been sorely missing. With a whole set of new campaigns and stand-alone missions in future DLC packs, you could quite easily get your US$20 back on Strike Suit Zero. It’s not entirely refined, but it’d be hard to find someone who couldn’t have some fun here.
- Simplified interface and controls
- Big fights, big explosions
- Short missions make it great for time-strapped gamers
- Textures and voice-acting are a little flat
- Sound cuts out at times
Strike Suit Zero is is available on Green Man Gaming for $20 (get 20% off with the code GMG20-PJFEW-Y16HK before January 31st).