Developer: Born Ready Games
It feels like an eternity since we last hurtled into the wild black yonder, engines screaming, ionised death howling through the void. The once-great space sim has found little love this generation, with few developers willing to take a punt and fewer still delivering a title of any note. We've long lamented this sad state of affairs and championed those rare studios who take us back into the zero-G danger zone.
So when the Guildford-based Born Ready Games promised to revitalise the genre with "Space Combat Reborn," it was like a dream come true.
Strike Suit Zero is their rage against the dying of the light: a fast-paced space shooter starring a wonderful transforming mecha fighter designed by Appleseed's Junji Okobo. Sporting gorgeously stylish visual flair, a soundtrack from Homeworld's Paul Ruskay and an emphasis on immediately engaging visceral combat, this brave new contender seemed destined to give the genre a shot of adrenaline straight into its faintly-beating heart. We, like many other space sim aficionados and Kickstarter backers, were so ready. Born ready. It's a shame, then, that the finished product hasn't quite lived up to its lofty mission statement.
Before we go any further, we need to discuss a matter of full disclosure. I backed Strike Suit Zero's Kickstarter campaign, and this is the first time I've reviewed a title that I also personally helped to crowd-fund. Whether that matters is entirely up to you, so hopefully we're both going into this review with our eyes open.
Strike Suit Zero certainly starts out as a very traditional arcade space sim. Thrust into a Galactic war between the United Nations Of Earth and a dastardly colonial rebel faction, faceless pilot Adams straps into a small range of familiar fighters and bombers throughout thirteen lengthy missions. The insipid plot sadly ends up being a forgettable aside, delivered by bland stock characters churning out cliched dialogue (imagine talking heads acting out an amateur dramatic performance of Project Sylpheed's storyline), but most of us are here for the gameplay rather than the exposition.
You know what to expect: swarms of enemy fighters buzz about like furious gnats, requiring you to keep tight control on your velocity and weapon energy while getting on their six. Looming capital ships bristle with armaments, many of which can be surgically stripped away, leaving them impotently floating in space. Allied ships need escorting through hostile territory, proving practically useless despite their immense size and devastating firepower. It's immediately familiar fare, perhaps over-familiar if you've recently played the likes of Sol Exodus or Project Sylpheed, but the gorgeous new neon-tinged aesthetics and exquisite sound design (from Ruskay's haunting soundtrack to the thrum of engines and the thwack-BOOM of projectiles) make the action pulse-poundingly visceral. Strike Suit Zero looks and sounds beautiful, feeding back into a fast and furious gameplay experience.
As an arcade space sim, Strike Suit Zero eschews a keyboard full of commands to focus on the bare essentials: two types of cannon, two flavours of powerful missile, velocity, targeting and a missile-vexing EMP burst. Everything you need to bring the rain. Controlling your fighter feels natural and responsive using a mouse and keyboard (especially now that a recent patch has added mouse inversion), or better yet a quality flight stick if you want the most immersive experience possible. However, the default gamepad control scheme is bafflingly counter-intuitive, suffering from bizarre button placement and a layout that resembles literally no other simulator on the market. Full rebinding is recommended if a bit of a faff, so I've included my personal customised setup below this review in case you find it useful.
Partway through the third mission, Adams is gifted a unique transforming fighter: the titular Strike Suit. It's a versatile beast, capable of shifting between an agile fighter and a wonderful, lavishly-designed mecha that will leave Zone Of The Enders fans convulsing in uncontrollable fits of orgasmic ecstasy. Despite an entirely new set of controls to learn and twitchy sensitivity to overcome, practising this alternate mode allows you to strafe around targets while thumping out insane volleys of homing missiles, Bangai-O style. It's wonderful. Absolutely, truly wonderful.
And thoroughly wasted. It breaks my heart to say it, but Born Ready Games appears to be embarrassed by their eponymous war machine. The fact that it's just one of a choice of four optional fighters, some of which you're forced into in certain missions, was a bad sign in and of itself. Critically, there are no gameplay sections or set pieces designed to use the Strike Suit mechanics in interesting ways, rather, it feels like Born Ready Games developed a derivative and conventional space sim before hurriedly adding a mech at the very last minute. The generic 'cookie cutter' campaign could have been ripped from any space sim you've ever played, except that one ship can turn into a robot for a few seconds at a time. If you can be bothered.
Worse, you're never empowered to any great extent despite owning the only Strike Suit in existence. In stark contrast to games like Zone Of The Enders or Battle Engine Aquila, you're always made to feel like just another fighter, just another tiny cog in an enormous machine, constantly tasked with defending ships more important than yours and butting heads against the same old objectives we've seen in every other space game, ever. You're rarely free to make your own choices or affect dynamic battles on your terms, instead railroaded by simplistic instructions and tightly compartmentalised missions. Perhaps fixated on balance issues, Born Ready Games also makes you a sitting duck in mech mode; fragile and practically doomed to immediate destruction if you stay transformed for more than a handful of seconds.
When you first get the Strike Suit, your only real objective is to guard a much bigger and more valuable ship for a few minutes, swatting torpedoes down like some sort of enormous robotic childminder. The very next mission disables your missiles - the Strike Suit's major unique gameplay feature - because who f*cking knows. Is the mech getting in the way of your pre-designed space sim, Born Ready Games? Strike Suit Zero's title is practically false advertising, considering how little most players will use Okobo's lovely bipedal weapons platform and how little it really affects the game at large.
Without its wonderful white elephant or anything remotely new to distract us, Strike Suit Zero's flaws start to pile up fast. Mission design proves inconsistent, consisting of rigidly segmented sub-stages bookended by cutscenes. Each section is either disappointingly short or far too long, sometimes forcing you out of raging battles with yet another video or not giving you a well-deserved checkpoint when you need it most. There's also an embarrassment of escort missions to slog through, forcing your Strike Suit into nanny duty at regular intervals. Is it too much to ask that a massive capital ship, all guns and armour, could take care of itself for five minutes? Less sitting and more striking, would have been appreciated.
Nonexistent AI and wingman commands makes these escort objectives doubly aggravating. Your fellow U.N.E. pilots are brainless drones, and without the ability to designate priority targets, you'll frequently see the game over screen because you're flying alongside gibbering dolts. I suppose that being the least useless could be considered empowering. If you're an idiot.
Niggles abound. Collision and impact physics are hilariously basic. There's no radar, rendering some of the bigger battles confusing, and no cockpit detail in first person view. You can't restock ammo mid-mission, even though your carrier is usually a handful of kilometres away. Major difficulty spikes often rear their ugly head, but personally, I found this to be rather compelling in a masochistic bullet hell kind of way. I'd rather bash by head against a few levels rather than blow through them all with ease, only to discover that replayability is basically limited to an optional sub-objective in each stage.
Ironically, these issues aren't new to the genre. They've been around since the very first space sims. They come with the territory. It's testament to just how conventional and derivative Strike Suit Zero turned out to be, and how little it ended up pushing the envelope.
Strike Suit Zero's accessible and visceral gameplay experience is still an impressive effort from a small indie studio, and justifies its price to fans of the genre. But, for now, the search for "space combat reborn" will have to continue. Your move, Chris Roberts.
- Visceral, engaging, action-packed arcade gameplay
- Looks and sounds utterly gorgeous
- Okobo's transforming Strike Suit is versatile and dead sexy...
- ... but tragically under-used by a derivative and gutlessly generic 'cookie cutter' campaign
- Inconsistent level design, set pieces and checkpointing
- Frustrating challenge curve, far too many escort objectives
- Numerous niggling flaws, not limited to poor AI and minor missing features
The Short Version: More rehashed than reborn, Strike Suit Zero heartbreakingly sidelines its titular war machine in favour of an overly familiar and conventional arcade space sim experience. Though solid and visceral in the main, numerous niggling flaws, questionable mission design and frustrating difficulty spikes make it difficult to recommend to all but existing genre fans.
On Gamepad Controls: I'd personally suggest that you spend some time remapping thrust and roll to the right thumbstick, leaving the left to handle pitch and yaw. That way, you'll have analogue control over your fighter's velocity, while making it much easier to accelerate, roll and yaw simultaneously (the latter being much more relevant to a space vessel, since they're free from traditional aerodynamics and don't have to roll in order to turn). Better yet, the valuable left trigger and bumper will be freed up for more aggressive pursuits. Just try it and see if you like it. - Jonathan