When it was released on the Nintendo 64 in 1998, the original Rogue Squadron hooked players with its engaging gameplay and slick graphics. Factor 5 and LucasArts mined the classic movie trilogy and managed to create one of the most immersive Star Wars titles on a home console to date, setting a new standard for Star Wars games in the process. However, the bar for Star Wars games has been raised again by Rogue Squadron's GameCube sequel, the developer's first effort on Nintendo's new console. Rogue Leader: Rogue Squadron II improves upon its predecessor and serves up one of the best showcases for Nintendo's new system and an equally impressive game.
Like its predecessor, Rogue Leader draws on the original Star Wars trilogy for its story. This time, you'll find yourself in two different flight suits as you take control of both Luke Skywalker and Wedge Antilles over the course of the game. The various missions you'll embark on weave in and out of the trilogy and expand on incidents hinted at in the films. For example, you'll participate in missions such as protecting a rebel transports moving alliance forces from Yavin to Hoth and commandeering supplies for the Rebel Fleet's attack on the Death Star. The game's narrative is much more tightly focused than the one in Rogue Squadron and Factor 5's last N64 game, Battle for Naboo, which was similar in style to Rogue Squadron. The tighter narrative complements the missions and makes for an extremely cohesive and satisfying experience, as every mission flows very naturally into the next. Toss in negligible load times, and you have a game that simply won't let you go.
Players familiar with Rogue Squadron on the N64 will feel right at home with Rogue Leader's gameplay and control layout. Rogue Leader follows Rogue Squadron's mission-based gameplay and medal system exactly. You'll select a mission from the briefing room and find yourself in the cockpit of one of several Star Wars craft from the game. X-Wings, Y-Wings, Snowspeeders, A-Wings, B-Wings, and even the Millennium Falcon are yours to fly. In addition, it's possible to switch to other familiar ships, like a Twin Pod Cloud Car, during missions. Intrepid players may even find others or unlock ways to play as more craft.
You'll be introduced to each of the 10 missions' individual requirements at the start of a level, and at the end of a mission, you may be awarded a gold, silver, or bronze medal depending on how you performed during the mission. In addition to being shiny and looking cool, medals provide points that you can use to unlock bonus missions within the game. While bronze medals are relatively easy to earn, gold medals definitely take some work to achieve. As you work your way through the game, you'll find that you can replay missions with other ships, which is a big help in earning medals. The game's AI can be quite brutal and adaptive during a fight, forcing you to stay on your toes to stay alive. The control is the same as Rogue Squadron's but has been improved, working very well with the GameCube controller. You'll steer your craft with the analog stick and use the L and R triggers to brake and accelerate. You'll be able to rotate your craft by holding down the Z-button. The D-pad is used to call up and issue commands to your wingmen. The A-button fires your main weapon and the B-button fires your craft's secondary weapon. The X-button shifts to a cockpit view. You can use the C-stick to look around your ship during flight. The Y-button calls up a slick new enhancement to the control scheme: your targeting computer. Basically an onscreen overlay that highlights mission critical targets in yellow, the targeting computer is a welcome improvement.
The most welcome improvement, however, would have to be the game's look and sound. Making use of nearly every bell and whistle that the GameCube hardware has to offer, Rogue Leader is a jaw-droppingly gorgeous game. All craft in the game feature extremely generous polygon counts that are enhanced by special effects such as bump mapping, self-shadowing, and high-resolution textures. The ship models are a fan's dream, featuring incredible attention to detail, from the trademark weathering on the craft to the sick amount of detail on display when you switch to cockpit view and use the C-stick to look around. It's even possible to make out details on ground troops when flying low during the battle on Hoth.
The game's environments also display equally detailed and polygon-rich modeling and some slick uses of special effects. Incredibly clean textures, bump mapping, volumetric fog, and great lighting "sell" the experience very capably. Liberal use of locations and frame-by-frame re-creations of scenes and locations from the movies will please fans of the series. In addition, the game makes use of the GameCube's internal clock--adjusting the time of day during certain missions. While the GC handles all the eye candy on display fairly well, there are times when the game's 60 fps frame rate isn't quite as constant as it could be. Fortunately, the drops in frame rate don't really hinder gameplay much at all. To really appreciate how beautiful Rogue Squadron really is, though, you'll have to make some investments: namely a GameCube component cable. No matter how beautiful the game looks on a normal television, there's simply no substitute for the beauty to be seen with the GC running through a component cable in progressive scan mode. Standard RCA jacks and the game's interlaced video mode are nice, but you'll want to make some investments for a true showcase.
The last component of Rogue Squadron that bears mention, although by now it's a given, is the game's sound. Having worked on the GC's sound system, Factor 5 has managed to do some slick sound work in RL. Owners of Dolby Surround Pro Logic II receivers will be pleased to hear the game's slick surround sound support and be sucked into the game that much more. Every blaster shot, chirp, and squeak in the game is as authentic as it gets. In addition, Factor 5 actually rustled up actor Denis Lawson, who played Wedge in the movies, to provide in-game voice. During the game, the soundtrack alternates between known pieces of music from the films, as well as original music from the game, adapting and blending on the fly.
While all of Rogue Leader's components are strong on their own, they display a great amount of polish and end up making RL far more than the sum of its parts. While the game seems a bit short at first, you'll find that earning the various medals, uncovering the power-ups for the various craft, discovering the game's special features, and unlocking the bonus levels will keep you hooked. Thanks to tight graphics and immersive gameplay, Rogue Leader: Rogue Squadron easily stands as the most impressive launch title for the GameCube. GameCube owners in search of a showcase for their new system owe it to themselves to pick up a copy.