The Star Wars series has nearly completed its theatrical run, but from the looks of LucasArts' current and future release lists, the saga will be lively on video game platforms for a long time to come. Take Star Wars Rogue Squadron III: Rebel Strike, the new sequel to Factor 5's graphics-intensive Rogue Leader, a Star Wars shooter that helped launch the GameCube two years ago. Like past Star Wars games, Rebel Strike does an impressive job of squeezing even more material and new scenarios out of a universe that's effectively based on just a few hours of film. The two previous Rogue Squadron games have already covered the interesting sequences from the movies pretty thoroughly, so Factor 5 has implemented a number of new mission parameters and gameplay components in an effort to keep things fresh. Returning fans may find themselves wishing that the developer had instead stuck to the things it clearly knows best, but on the whole, Rebel Strike is a very good game that's worthy of the Rogue Squadron name.
If you've played Rogue Leader, you'll already be familiar with the mission structure in Rebel Strike. Like Rogue Leader, the new game presents a linear progression of levels that loosely tracks the storylines of the original Star Wars movies. Actually, there's one difference: This time, there are two mission paths that diverge after you finish the first mission on Yavin IV. One path follows everyone's favorite Jedi apprentice, Luke Skywalker, and the other follows ace pilot Wedge Antilles. You're free to switch between the two characters' storylines at any time, though each path must be completed in order. Eventually, the two paths converge at the end of the game for the last two missions, which take place on the forest moon of Endor during the Rebellion's climactic final battle against the Empire. Most of the required missions in between the beginning and end are based on unique scenarios created for the game, though they're often set in locales taken from the expanded Star Wars universe of novels, card games, and so on. Finally, there's a minor attempt to integrate some of the settings and technology from the prequel films into the mix, though you'll glimpse these only fleetingly.
Rogue Leader limited you to flying vehicles, but Rebel Strike pulls out all the stops by throwing nearly every notable Star Wars-related mode of transportation at you for use in one mission or another. All of the fighters from the previous game--the X-Wing, the Y-Wing, and the snowspeeder, among others--return for more combat duty in Rebel Strike. As before, you've got the standard array of tools at your disposal during the action; the cockpit view, targeting computer, and radar display are identical to those seen in Rogue Leader. The fighters are joined by several familiar ground vehicles, such as the speeder bike seen in Return of the Jedi, the two-legged AT-ST walker, and, briefly, the mammoth four-legged AT-AT walker (in which you'll only get to fire the forward guns). Finally, and perhaps most notably, Rebel Strike's missions regularly allow you to climb out of your craft and hit the ground to engage in on-foot combat against Imperial forces. Factor 5 could have easily stuck with the existing vehicles and simply cranked out more missions, so it's commendable that the team made an effort to come up with a host of new gameplay types.
As you play Rebel Strike, though, you'll discover that the balance of quality between the tried-and-true gameplay and the new additions is unfortunately pretty uneven. The parts of the game that stick to airborne and space combat are quite solid and as much fun to play as similar missions were in Rogue Leader. There are even a few new ideas here and there to keep things interesting. One planetary mission, for instance, has you fighting AT-AT walkers in a speeder, but you don't have to use the clichéd maneuver that involves tripping them up with your tow cable if you don't want to. Instead, you can use the cable to pick up bombs from the ground and swing them into the walkers to destroy them more quickly. Another mission that takes place on and in the asteroids around the Episode II planet of Geonosis lets you pilot the Jedi starfighter from that movie, complete with the impressive sonic charges fans will remember from the dogfight scene with Obi-Wan Kenobi and Jango Fett (and yes, they make that cool sound). Of course, the old standbys like the X-Wing and B-Wing see a lot of action, and you'll even take control of an experimental TIE fighter, the TIE Hunter, in one of the later levels. The flight missions are easily Rebel Strike's bread and butter and will have you coming back for more even after you've finished them once.
As for the new stuff, this is where the unevenness comes in. The walker missions are generally fun and varied, which is good, since you'll be at the AT-ST's controls a surprising number of times. In addition to just shooting enemies, you'll get to perform a few other actions with the walker, like using a railway system as a means to take out foes or commanding Ewoks to trigger log rolls in the final mission to trip up other walkers. The speeder bike is pretty straightforward in the few missions that you can use it--you can pretty much only fly and fire straight ahead, but the Endor mission especially evokes a tremendous sense of speed.
Finally, there are the on-foot missions. This is, alas, where Rebel Strike really falters. Playing as Luke or Wedge on foot, you can duck, jump, roll, and lock onto enemy targets as you fire your blaster and plow ahead toward the goal. The aiming and targeting here are extremely clumsy--though the game will lock your aim to nearby enemies that you're facing, this often causes more problems than it solves. Sometimes your aim is stuck on a target that's too far away to hit or that's located safely behind a wall, and you can't move your crosshair to a new target without radically changing the direction you're running. Other times, the auto-targeting allows you to take out an entire squad of stormtroopers by simply remaining stationary and hammering on the A button, which is, of course, ridiculously easy. Lastly, there are a couple of late-game missions that require you to do some platforming, which is maddeningly frustrating since the jump mechanics have a stiff, awkward feel that makes proper landings difficult. Thankfully, these two missions are optional, and you can try them at your leisure without interrupting the flow of the main game. Factor 5 made a noble attempt at diversity by including these on-foot sequences in Rebel Strike, but given the results of this effort, it would have been preferable to have a few more higher-quality aerial combat missions instead.
In Rogue Leader, the linear story missions made up only part of what the game had to offer--you could also collect bronze, silver, and gold medals by performing exceptionally in the missions and then use these medals to unlock bonus missions and other trinkets. Factor 5 has taken this idea and run with it in Rebel Strike--there are a ton of missions to unlock that are based on the more-exciting scenes from the films. You can play stages based on such sequences as the rescue of Princess Leia from the Death Star, the escape from Echo Base on Hoth (bringing Rebel Strike's tally of Hoth missions to a whopping two), the escape from Cloud City, and the attack on the Super Star Destroyer Executor during the Battle of Endor. These missions allow you to pilot a number of new ships, such as the Millennium Falcon, and you can unlock these ships for use in selected missions from the main campaign. If that weren't enough, you can unlock three very old arcade games from Star Wars' past--the vector shooters based on Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back and the sprite-based Return of the Jedi game are all included for your nostalgic pleasure. You'll have to replay the core missions an awful lot to unlock everything Rebel Strike has to offer, as obtaining the coveted gold medal in each mission demands near-perfect performance, but the new missions and other extras are compelling enough that you'll certainly feel gratified once you've obtained them.
As if the bonus missions and arcade games weren't enough, Factor 5 must have been determined to make Rebel Strike the ultimate value-added package. To that end, the game contains a cooperative two-player version of Rogue Leader in its entirety. You can't play through Rogue Leader by yourself, so it's not exactly like you're getting the entire game for free, but it's still pretty cool to play through the fairly lengthy campaign with a friend. And if you thought Rogue Leader would be much easier with two human players at the controls, the difficulty has been rebalanced to make sure both of you will have your hands full at all times. A few aesthetic tweaks have been introduced too, such as some voice changes and graphical improvements. Though you'll need a second person to play it, this bonus version of Rogue Leader is a huge piece of extra game content that can't be discounted when weighing the value of the Rebel Strike package.
A respectable multiplayer mode rounds out the list of extras in Rebel Strike. Though it's unfortunately only for two players, the competitive options include a standard dogfight mode, a rampage mode that has you competing to see who can blow the most stuff up, a capture-and-hold mode where you vie with your opponent for the possession of bases, and a special mode where each map has a specific objective. The multiplayer is amusing, though it would be a lot more so if it worked with four players, and it'll provide some decent entertainment after you've seen everything that the other modes have to offer.
When the GameCube was released about two years ago, Rogue Leader was the game everyone used to show off the new system's capabilities. Given this legacy, Rebel Strike has a lot to live up to in the graphics department, and for the most part it measures up. There's a huge assortment of settings in the game, from Hoth to Tatooine and plenty of planets in between, and with a couple of somewhat bland exceptions they look very rich, colorful, and detailed. The flight levels are quite vast, and the up-close backdrops you'll see in the on-foot sequences are also nicely done. All of the game's vehicle models are extremely well rendered, though the character models in the ground levels sometimes leave a bit to be desired in the modeling and animation departments. The frame rate is generally quite smooth, but it's not always at the hallowed 60 frames per second that some players might be expecting. Even the two-player Rogue Leader mode runs smoothly for the most part, though it can bog down depending on the level. And, of course, progressive scan support will enhance the experience for HDTV owners by providing a more stable image with less flickering than its interlaced counterpart.
As you'd expect, Rebel Strike's audio presentation is also good. Since Factor 5 is working with an enormous and established library of sound effects, everything from blaster fire to the Millennium Falcon's engines sounds just like it should. The voice acting isn't so consistent, though--while there's an excellent Darth Vader soundalike at work here, for instance, you won't mistake the Han Solo coming out of your television speakers for Harrison Ford. Finally, and amazingly, a large percentage of the music in Rebel Strike is not lifted from the scores of the original trilogy (though a good bit of it is). Alas, the original material isn't quite up to the level of quality you'll find in the films' music, although it's nice simply to hear something different in a Star Wars game for a change.
When you break down the facts, Rogue Squadron III: Rebel Strike is a solid package that's overflowing with gameplay and plenty of geek appeal for the Star Wars fan. Perhaps the value of some of its components is questionable, and there's a segment of the audience that's probably just tired of Star Wars games by now, but for the most part Rebel Strike offers an entertaining gameplay experience with an exceptional amount of replay value. Jaded gamers may be wondering how much longer LucasArts can continue to mine the Star Wars franchise for solid gameplay ideas, and if Rebel Strike is any indication, the answer is: At least a little bit longer.