Platforms: PC, XBLA (Reviewed)
Developer: Incinerator Studios
Atari continue the tradition of remaking games none of us wanted remade with Star Raiders, a “fresh new take on the seminal classic” that was released on the Atari 800 over thirty years ago. Atari's blurb states that players will “explore the galaxy”, engage in “epic dogfights”, and “utilize galactic warps that let you set your own path to liberation” in their modern reimagining of Doug Neubaur's highly influential title.
Unfortunately, none of these things are true.
Things get off to a bad start with a hammy opening cutscene that introduces us to a heavily clichéd cast of Star Raider pilots. Through the use of below-par voice acting and poorly rendered static images, we learn that the 'Zylons' have broken some treaty or other and declared war on the human race. Our merry band of stereotypes, armed with typically 'futuristic' names like “Jewel” and “Ruiz”, must save the galaxy from blah blah blah. The sheer pomposity of it would be forgiveable, were it not for the rest of the tacked-on plot, which takes itself far too seriously and adds absolutely nothing to the experience.
Soon afterwards, you're thrown into the action as the first few levels introduce you to the game's combat mechanics. Star Raiders' unique selling point is that your ship can switch quickly between three different 'states' at any time during the mission, allowing you to effectively adapt to any situation the Zylons throw at you, be it dogfighting, bombing an enemy target, or just straight up annihilating anything in your path. It's a nice idea on paper, but one which fails to really expand the way the game is played. I found myself completely ignoring the “Turret Mode”, which turns your ship into an extremely overpowered but incredibly short-sighted death machine in favour of the other, more practical modes, something Atari clearly tried to address by adding an achievement that rewards you for making use of the redundant state. Moreover, having to switch to “Assault Mode” every time you want to reach a respectable speed quickly grows tiresome.
After neutralising a number of easy targets you regroup with your flagship 'Solaris', where you can outfit your ship with new upgrades, bought with 'salvage credits' collected from defeated Zylon ships. The more expensive weapons have a slight edge, but are only really necessary if you want to kill things that little bit faster. There isn't as such a difficulty curve to speak of, the only punishment for death being a three second respawn timer. Later on you also unlock the ability to buy robotic co-pilots, which add bonuses to your ship, increasing shield effectiveness or weapon efficiency depending on which inanimate companion you plump for but again, it seems unnecessary.
“Exploring the galaxy” with the use of “galactic warps” essentially boils down to a mission select screen, where you have the option of continuing on to your next mission or, hold your excitement, skipping that one and choosing the next. As far as I can tell, this is the extent to which Atari will let you “set your own path to liberation”, and it turns out that it's not much of a choice at all. See, the biggest issue I have with Star Raiders is that ninety percent of the missions see you carrying out the same two or three objectives in order to complete them. Sometimes you'll be charged with eliminating a specified number of Zylon fighters, sometimes you'll be asked to dispatch a Zylon cruiser, and that's about it.
After three full zones I was ready to set down my controller and do something more worthwhile. Slog through the repetition though, and you'll be rewarded with a handful of missions that try to mix up the formula. One such assignment has you destroying fuel containers on an impressively vast space elevator, the only time you're treated to a backdrop that isn't black space and muddy brown planets, depicting instead a pleasantly colourful planetary atmosphere. Another orders you to explore a tunnel network for an artefact that will aid you in your quest to eliminate the Zylon threat, though this is marred by the fact that a destructible wall, cunningly disguised as a non-destructively wall blocks your path. It took a full twenty minutes of aimless wandering before I thought to open fire on the rock. Perhaps that shows my incompetence as a player, but we're here to analyse the game, not the gamer, so we'll go ahead and skip over that.
Star Raiders does feature both a map and in-game mission markers, and both are absolutely hopeless. The map displays a wealth of differently coloured dots that represent enemy craft, enemy targets, friendly refill stations, and an array of miscellaneous objects of 'interest', but not once did I find myself aided by the information. The on-screen objective pointer will tell you which way you should be facing, but the object of your desire is usually buried deep within a metallic structure, and as such is only reachable through the use of your own initiative.
If repetition and an unusable guidance interface make for a miserable time during the initial acts, they make the last level one of the most frustrating affairs I've had in gaming this generation. Without giving too much away, though I doubt many will stick around long enough to see the finale, the final mission has you navigating a maze of obstacle-filled ventilation shafts just long enough to disorient you, only to inform you that upon completing your objectives, you are to race back through the labyrinth with nothing but your memory of its layout to guide you. Oh, and there's a time limit which, if left unfulfilled, will throw you back to the very start of the mission again. It's another baffling design decision in a long line of poor judgements.
Star Raiders is not an absolutely hopeless outing for Atari, and despite the broken combat, the redundant map, and the useless storytelling I did on occasion find myself having fun. Screaming through narrow spaces while pursuing a target will always be exhilarating and, once you've maxed out your weapon upgrades, effortlessly destroying wave after wave of Zylon fighter is a blast, but so few and far between are the moments that show true promise, once you've switched off your machine, chances are you'll never boot it up for Star Raiders again.
- Solid, if simplistic combat
- More complex missions show real promise
- Maps are vast, and on occasion quite pretty
- Hugely repetitive gameplay
- Story needlessly tacked on
- Shows no real ambition to be anything more than mediocre
The Short Version: Atari deliver another cynical cash-in on a beloved retro franchise. Star Raiders is not devoid of merit, but promising mechanics are quickly destroyed by heavy repetition.