Developers: Born Ready Games
Someone told me that they were going to make a game that combined the tightly-focused intergalactic dogfighting that Wing Commander made famous, the narrative twists and turns that TIE Fighter espoused, and the epic fleet battles that Freespace called home. By 'someone' I of course mean 'a group of developers on Kickstarter'; a group of developers at Born Ready Games.
And my reaction was to pretty much tell them, in the manner of an internet trendsetter whose name escapes all of us, to be quiet and have some of my cash.
Strike Suit Zero is a game that pays homage to those great pillars of space combat titles that seemed to dominate back in the Nineties. It's not a game about exploration or freelancing, it'll leave that to the likes of Chris Roberts and David Braben, thankyouverymuch; but neither is it merely a reflection of the past. Born Ready have made a concerted effort to build upon the core elements of their favourite franchises from yesteryear, whilst also ensuring that their effort carries its own weight and boasts its own identity.
The most obvious manner in which this has been conducted sits right there in the title: the Strike Suit itself. "It's more than just a cosmetic device," Chris Redden, SSZ's lead designer tells me. "Junji [Okubo]'s creations are all mechanically functional, they look and act the way that they might in real life, and the mecha mode allows us to play around with gameplay styles to create something that feels truly empowering."
When flying a regular ship, or piloting the Strike Suit craft in its fighter mode, things are relatively straightforward - you steer, pitch, and yaw much like you would in any flight game. But when the mech comes out to play - unfurling in a beautiful manner that you kind of just want to slow down and watch over and over again - the handling model shifts to accommodate something akin to a slick, weightless third-person shooter in zero gravity. It feels a little like Vanquish, truth be told, and though your forward velocity is lessened, it immediately makes an impact in close quarters as you're suddenly able to turn in much tighter circles, tracking enemies with consummate ease.
"We wanted to come up with an answer to that 'jousting' that can sap a lot of time in other flight combat games," Redden explains. "You'll do a fly-by and maybe get a few shots in, then arc round and come back for another pass. We wanted to cut that time down, and give the player the tools to engage again immediately. Now, instead of doing long sweeping passes on a target, you can activate the Strike Suit, turn, track, and destroy. Of course, it helps that your firepower is increased too."
He's not kidding. Dozens of blue tendrils issue forth from the mech as it spits missiles out in a cascade of explosive power. The machine gun fire-rate reduces ships to dust in a second or two. I'm air-dashing all over the place to evade oncoming missiles, before spinning back into the regular ship mode and punching the afterburners to escape the fray momentarily when things get a little too hot and I need to recharge my shields. I get a little cocky when it comes to taking on a frigate, and its clusters of mounted turrets make mincemeat of me (the low shields/armour warning could be a little bigger and louder to be honest), but I don't care. I'm beaming from ear to ear an I'm ready to go again.
Strike Suit deployment is somewhat limited by a charging bar that can be boosted by aggressive flying, meaning that, with a little bit of ace shooting, you can chain those charges together. It might seem a little odd at first, the notion of restricting what I'll almost certainly end up colloquially terming The Bringer of Rain in amongst my power-crazed cackling, but the logic is sound: if you could transform any time you wanted, it wouldn't feel special.
Strike Suit Zero handles well enough on a gamepad and it's clear to see that much has been done to try and whittle down the 30-button interfaces of the past to something a little more universally friendly. But, unlike a number of dogfighting titles we've seen in recent years, there are no hotkeys to execute a swift loop, nor a double-tap to trigger a barrel roll. In fact, all animated evasive manoeuvres seem to have been left on the cutting room floor. "We wanted players to be in control at all times," says Redden. "You can still send your craft into a spin, and the Strike Suit's booster dashing allows for a certain amount of quick lateral evasion, but we thought it best to let you fly it the way that you want. You can still lower the speed, brake hard and execute tight turns and loops if you want to, but you have to learn how and when to do that yourself, and we didn't want to take that experience out of players' hands.
"It makes it much more satisfying when you make it out by the skin of your teeth," he says, smiling. I know exactly what he means.
But I find myself having slight trouble with the gamepad, unable to wring the amount of control and accuracy I desire from the default settings. It's a minor gripe, but the ship feels ever so slightly sluggish in my hands and although I know that this is my first hands-on with the game, I'm not entirely sure that it's because I suck. It's a worry that's soon banished after we plug in a Logitech Extreme 3D Pro Joystick, the same model that's being given away as part of the Omega Pilot reward tiers and above on the Kickstarter. Suddenly the precision flying seems to come more naturally, I'm kicking ass and taking names, flipping in and out of mecha mode with abandon, barrel rolling out of enemy fire, air dashing around less nimble enemies, and punishing them with streams of missile bursts.
Strie Suit Zero comes with the punchy tag announcing the game as 'Space Combat Reborn', and I ask Redden why he thinks space sims and celestial combat fell out of favour.
"I get asked this quite a lot," he replies. "I kind of feel like [the Nineties] was an era where consoles were very much on the rise. So there was a real battle for shelf space: so what sold big was what got that shelf space. And I don't so much think that space sim fans went away, but rather they got overtaken, that there just weren't as many space sim fans as Medal of Honor fans or COD fans. But now PC gaming is coming, or rather has been coming, back in a big way, and methods of distribution have become more varied, it's easier to get those space games out there to the people who want them."
For Born Ready, the Kickstarter campaign has been an affirmation of that: indicating that there's an audience who've been patiently biding their time, waiting for stars to align and allow the space genre to not just re-emerge, but advance. We've seen the likes of Galaxy on Fire and its excellent sequel take advantage of mobile platforms and the freedom their(relatively) upstart distribution services offer. DrMistry's Space Pirates From Tomorrow proved that XBLIG could yield some utter gems, if only Microsoft bothered to push it a little more.
But you can look at a screenshot for SSZ and instantly know which game it comes from. The vibrant colour palette - eschewing realism for something more idiosyncratic - does a great job of feeding you information instantly: friends, foes, priority targets, things to avoid. It's a stunningly beautiful game in its simplicity, using fizzing blues, reds, oranges, and purples to bring space to life. Some might complain that the trails left by ship engines and missile tails are unrealistic, that the explosions have no bearing on real life. But when you're dancing amongst the stars in a ship that can transform into a giant robot, dispatching adversaries in spectacular fashion, we rather think you'll manage to suspend your pedantic disbelief in favour of fun.
Thanks to Born Ready Games for letting us come round and have a play. We'll have our full, giant interview with Chris Redden up onsite later this week, and a further, in-depth, hands-on preview for you soon.