When Star Wars Starfighter was released for the PlayStation 2 earlier this year, Sony's flagship console was sorely lacking the library of games that it now boasts. At the time, it was one of the better-looking games in the Sony lineup and appealed to gamers by being the first Star Wars-themed game released for the console. LucasArts, hoping to extend Starfighter's success to the Microsoft Xbox, has now released a beefed-up port of the game. Sporting a number of new levels, graphical tweaks, and an improved multiplayer mode, Starfighter will give Xbox owners a chance to pilot a number of ships and take the roles of three reluctant heroes created specifically for the game.
Starfighter is a story-driven space sim that places gamers in the cockpits of different ships with their own unique look and feel. Many of the characters that exist in the Star Wars universe go hand in hand with their ships. While there were many X-Wing pilots in the classic movies, none embodied the sleek design more than Luke Skywalker, and the favorite Millennium Falcon is rarely mentioned without Han Solo being mentioned in tandem. The three heroes of Starfighter are no different, and the ships they pilot are designed with their traits in mind, or vice versa. Rhys Dallows, a young hotshot pilot, helms the aerodynamic Naboo fighter; the mercenary Vana Sage takes control of her Y-shaped high-speed fighter; and Nym, a rugged space pirate, commands his armored fighter-bomber combo. Each character and ship combo follows its own path and missions tailored to its strengths and weaknesses. Nym, for example, spends most of his missions taking out Trade Federation artillery and dropships, along with droid fighters and the like. Rhys' missions are geared toward the frantic space battles Star Wars fans have come to know and love, while Vana's missions lean toward seek and destroy.
Gamers who are familiar with the line of themed shooters previously released by LucasArts will be immediately familiar with the design of the game and will take to it in a short amount of time. Calling to mind such games as the Rogue Leader series, Starfighter is straightforward and doesn't stray from the formula set forth in these games. You can expect to spend a good amount of time blasting and bombing your way through a set number of missions (roughly 19 in the Xbox version, with the new additions) on your way to the inevitable battle with a large and seemingly indestructible foe, in this case, a federation command ship.
The game will sound immediately familiar to Star Wars fans or to anybody who's seen or heard the parts of the films from which the game draws its inspiration. Laser blasts, explosions, engine noise, and the tinny voices of the droid enemies are the same that were used in the Episode 1 film, and the soundtrack consists of John Williams' powerful score. The game even starts with the classic scrolling text and theme music that seem to have become a requirement for all forms of Star Wars entertainment.
Each pilot has the ability to command a small number of allies in some missions by sending them verbal orders. There are a set number of commands for each, which are easily accessible through the four basic directional controls on the D-pad. In several missions, for example, Nym flies with two or more wingmen, who wait for orders to attack or defend targets and can be quite useful. The problem with this is that there are only two or three lines of dialogue for these command sets, and they will get old rather quickly. Expect to hear Nym bark, "Attack my target" and "Defend my target" more than a few times in each mission.
In addition to the small complaint about redundant lines, the AI in each of these allies is somewhat thin. They will often swoop directly into your line of fire, and hitting them with a glancing laser blast will trigger another set of redundant comments and exclamations. As with the commands, expect to hear your allies yell "Whose side are you on?" a number of times before you get accustomed to keeping an eye out for wayward friends.
Another problem is the spotty collision detection. While it doesn't damage the gameplay too much, there are times when it can be confusing. When flying around the larger federation ships, you can lose your bearing and clip them. Sometimes you'll smack into a ship's hull and be knocked away; other times you'll fly right through it and find your screen blanketed with the tan coloring of its hull. This can also pose a problem in some missions where you'll find yourself destroying dropships and such. After exploding, they will break apart into large chunks that drift away, causing the same problem mentioned above.
The level design is strong, ranging from swirling space battles to ground defense. One thing that all levels have in common is the robust number of targets in each. You'll rarely find yourself flying aimlessly while looking for targets, as enemies are hardly in short supply. The frantic pacing of each mission rarely lets up, which is a good thing, since the main strength of the game lies in the battles. The story, while at times compelling, exists mostly to move the game along. Many of the levels are padded with decent-looking CG cinemas that will move you along to the next mission or next pilot.
Graphically, Starfighter is an improvement over the PlayStation 2 version. As mentioned, the game has been tweaked to take more advantage of the Xbox's graphical power. The dips in frame rate that existed in the PlayStation 2 version have all but been eradicated, and the game moves along at a much higher rate overall. The jaggy and aliased look has been softened as well but hasn't completely been done away with. The quality of the textures on the ships and terrain has been improved also, but this is not to say that there's no room for additional improvement. Some of the Federation ships are pretty bland to look at from a distance, and getting a good look at them up close will reveal some flat and washed-out colors. Lighting has also been addressed, but these changes are subtle. At the time of its release on the PlayStation 2, Starfighter was easily one of the better-looking games, but it's been a big year. Several high-profile games have been released since then, and their graphical prowess far exceeds the visuals contained in Starfighter. Given that the Xbox has more strength in this category than the PlayStation 2, Starfighter hardly pushes the console in this way.
The control of each ship is easy to get used to. The ships reflect their size and weight through this control, but all three are a bit more unwieldy than they need to be. Interestingly enough, you can pull off powerslides with all three, which makes it fairly easy to come around on an attacking target. The left and right triggers control thrust and braking, while the buttons on the controller's face are for primary and secondary firing and for target selection. The latter can take a while to get used to, as the radar is almost nonexistent, which means you have to press the black and white buttons at the top of the controller to flip through all of your enemy targets.
One of the final additions to the Xbox version is the improved multiplayer mode. There are five modes to choose from, including a head-to-head mode, capture the flag, tag, hunter, and detonator drop. Detonator drop pits two players against each other in an attempt to locate the weapon and fly it back to the opponent's base before time runs out; hunter is a cat-and-mouse game, where the mouse is a damaged droid ship that is trying to evade its opponent for a set amount of time; and tag has you trying to keep your enemy under a beam for ten seconds to score.
Star Wars Starfighter: Special Edition manages to maintain the charm of the Lucas films and also deliver an entertaining foray into the Star Wars universe. While this Xbox version has been improved, there's still plenty of room for more. The graphical tweaks are nothing to completely disregard, but on the other hand, they're nothing for Xbox owners to brag about either. The game fails to put the Xbox's power to full use, but the fun that was available in the PlayStation 2 version is still fully intact. For Star Wars fans who already own an Xbox, this game is worth a look, but if you only have a passing interest in Star Wars or space sims in general, you might want to give this game a rental first.