The Star Fox series veered off in a strange direction with the 2002 release of Star Fox Adventures. The game took Fox away from his outer-space shooting roots and put him in an action adventure setting. While it may have seemed like a weird decision back then, the final product turned out well. But for its next trick, Nintendo has teamed up with Namco, who has developed Star Fox: Assault, a straightforward shooter that attempts to return to the classic Star Fox form. The game has its heart in the right place and provides some entertaining moments, but Assault doesn't quite measure up to the pedigree of its namesake.
Those who have played any previous Star Fox game should know what to expect from Assault's setup. Corneria is once again in peril, and you, as Fox McCloud, must take your ragtag bunch of furry, feathery, and warty animal comrades on a mission to save the day. Early on, it seems as though Assault is simply out to rehash the old "armies of the evil Andross" premise seen in most of the other Star Fox games, but the plot quickly shifts to a new alien threat, courtesy of a race called the aparoids, who are like a cross between the nasty bug aliens from Starship Troopers and Star Trek's assimilation-happy Borg. Despite the new threat, not a lot has changed. You'll still find yourself blasting away at lots of enemy ships and bosses and trading quips with your fellow pilots, and you'll encounter some familiar faces and places (like the rival Star Wolf team and Star Fox Adventures' planet Sauria) along the way.
While Assault's plot is mostly irrelevant, it still sets the stage nicely for the multiple combat missions you'll be engaging in throughout the story mode. You won't care about the plight of the Cornerian fleet, but you'll enjoy blasting their enemies into space dust--at least, you will when you're behind the controls of your trusty Arwing. The airborne combat in Assault is straight out of Star Fox 64. It's the same style of on-rails shooting where you find yourself moving along a flight plan and encountering all sorts of crazy enemy fighters, tanks, robots, and hulking bosses. Apart from a few weapon upgrades and some nifty little maneuvers you can pull off to avoid enemy fire, like loops and spins, it's all about hammering on the A button and blasting anything that gets in your way. There are plenty of enemies onscreen to shoot, your Arwing controls well, and the space battles look exceptionally nice. The Star Fox games have always managed to turn simplistic aerial combat into a fun and addictive experience, and this entry is no exception.
It's when Assault takes the battle to the ground that things get tripped up. In each ground mission, you'll find yourself in control of Fox McCloud from a third-person perspective. You'll be armed with a simple blaster and charged with blowing up a series of targets spread throughout the stage you occupy. You'll find some weapon upgrades, like machine guns and rocket launchers, and like in the aerial battles, you'll encounter all forms of grunt enemies and bosses. Unfortunately, these sections aren't that fun. The biggest problem is that Fox himself doesn't handle well. He moves quickly enough, but simple actions like turning him around to aim at an enemy or trying to maintain any sort of aim lock are entirely too frustrating. Also, the designs of the ground levels are tedious and will periodically cause you to accidentally do something dumb, like fall multiple stories down after a particularly lengthy and arduous climb.
One neat aspect of the ground missions is that you aren't relegated to controlling Fox on foot. In fact, you can often access a tank and even your trusty Arwing on the fly. Most times, you won't find the Arwing useful during these sections, save for when you have to rescue your mostly useless comrade pilots from being shot down and retiring from the mission (and believe us when we say this happens a lot), but the tank tends be quite handy when lots of enemies try to gang up on you. Sadly, it's even more taxing to control than Fox on foot, and the shooting mechanics of the tank aren't satisfying at all. So, while the tank may be useful in certain situations, it isn't particularly fun.
Perhaps the biggest issue in Star Fox: Assault is that the overall package doesn't have much lasting content. You can blow through the story mode in a scant five to six hours, depending on the difficulty level, though there is incentive to go back and play each individual mission over again to attain higher scores and earn special medals. If you recall Star Fox 64, half the fun of that game was to go back time and time again and try to increase your score and obtain medals, though that game wasn't encumbered by Assault's underwhelming ground-based combat, and at least it had some branching paths you could take to vary the experience. Still, even if the ground missions aren't spectacular, and there aren't any branching mission paths to take, you're bound to find yourself going back to each mission, trying to get those ever-elusive medals--at least, you will with the aerial missions.
There's also a fairly forgettable survival mode, as well as a multiplayer component that doesn't quite cut it. Multiplayer consists of team-based, two-versus-two matches or deathmatch combat for two to four players. You can select from some basic arenas or from some of the stages in the story mode and set tanks or Arwings to be available during a match. While the action is fast-paced, that's about all it really has going for it. It's difficult to keep track of where players are on a map, and like in the single-player game, the ground-based combat just isn't good. It's all about the Arwings, and even they can't sustain the multiplayer beyond a few sessions. You would think that with the multiplayer potential a game like this would have, something more enjoyable would have found its way into the final product. Yet somehow this mode just comes across as uninspired and lackluster.
Even though Assault's gameplay doesn't do anything new, it sure does look good doing it. The game's visual engine takes the core visual design of Star Fox 64 and ramps it up nicely for the current console generation. We already mentioned the crazy space battles, filled with huge warships floating by as you dart around taking on enemy fighters, but the planetary environments look nice too, especially the ones where you're piloting an Arwing. The on-foot portions of the game aren't as pleasing to look at, mainly because you'll get a little too up close and personal with the somewhat muddy textures, but even so, these levels do have their charm. Star Fox: Assault also performs well, even with tons of action onscreen. The frame rate almost never drops, and the camera is rarely a pain, except in certain on-foot portions of the game; tight spaces tend to make it a little buggy, but that's the worst you can say about it.
The audio in the game doesn't stand out. The music seems like rerecorded tracks from Star Fox 64, and the sound effects seem equally familiar. In addition, the voice acting is just about as ham-fisted and goofy as you would probably expect. And while none of the sound sticks out in any way, that's not necessarily a criticism. In fact, the audio experience in the game is quite satisfactory and just does what it needs to do without ever getting in the way.
Star Fox: Assault has its moments, though it often feels like a missed opportunity. While Namco can hardly be blamed for not wanting to remake Star Fox 64, it's where Assault deviates from its space-shooting roots that it begins to fly off the rails. The ground-based missions aren't terrible, but they aren't as good as the highly entertaining aerial missions, and they do happen to make up half the game. Overall, Star Fox: Assault is a game worth playing. It may have its blemishes, but it can also be a lot of fun, and you'll likely enjoy what it has to offer.