WARNING!! This review contains plot spoilers!!
You may remember that I covered some news about this game about three months ago. Back then it certainly looked promising, with the devs making bold statements that this would be “space combat reborn”, taking inspiration from classic flight sims like the X-Wing series, Wing Commander, Freelancer and so on. Strike Suit Zero (SSZ) was finally released on January 23rd and I immediately picked it up on Steam. It’s been a long time since I last saw a decent space flight sim and I was eager to jump straight into it. So does the game hold up to the promise of being space combat reborn? In a word… no.
This is not to say this is a bad game, it’s not, but it’s not a very good game either. It’s a distinctly average to mediocre game and whilst I did have some fun with it, there are several shortcomings or frustrations to be had along the way. But since the developers made the claim of space combat reborn, I will judge it by that standard. Lets start with what I did like about it.
SSZ is currently a single player only game. Born Ready Games have said that multiplayer may be added on later. The game is well presented visually, the ship designs are pretty neat, with some elements of western and Japanese design philosophies. There are some gorgeous (if overly gratuitous) space backgrounds to fly around in and the pew pew itself looks quite pretty, especially when you take a glance at the larger battles happening around you. Since Battlestar Galactica, I’ve always had a thing for flak guns and this game has some very pretty flak effects, though not on the epic scale of a Battlestar. The interface and HUD designs are not quite as slick or interesting though, but functional and gives you (for the most part) the information you need to know. The artwork during the intro movie and the final cutscene is reminiscent of Homeworld and the same is to be said of the engine trails coming from the various fighter craft in the game.
The flight mechanics are pretty decent and the game does a great job of teaching you how to fly and use your ship. That is until you transform into the titular Strike Suit – a giant Gundam Wing looking mechanoid, but I’ll cover this later. The combat itself can be fun and even exhilarating sometimes when you’re performing attack runs on capital ships, but is also often an exercise in frustration and irritation.
Lastly, the music. Created by Homeworld composer Paul Ruskay, you’ll immediately recognise his style and does remind me of Homeworld. However it’s not particularly varied with the same tracks often popping up over and over but it is good stuff.
SSZ features some impressive looking space backgrounds as well as being a very pleasant game to look at in general.
Sadly, this is where my most of my praise of the game comes to an end.
It’s a real shame, because SSZ has a lot of potential and some great conceptual ideas as to go with it, but Born Ready Games have failed to capitalise on this and as a result, have dropped the ball in my opinion. Possibly the most glaring issue for me was the plot and voice acting which, for me, broke any sense of immersion or interest in what was going on beyond my immediate objectives and proceeding to the next mission.
The plot itself is a pretty standard and clichéd affair. Earth receives a signal from deep space, which contains technical information on how to ‘fold’ space in order to cross vast distances in a short period. Over time, Earth colonises several worlds and attempts to find where the signal came from. But as time goes on, good old reliable human follies kick in and the colonies that Earth founded want independence and soon a war erupts between Earth and its colonies. Cue the entry of a super-powerful alien ‘Relic’ that has the power to wipe out anyone who stands in its way which, of course, falls into the hands of the bad guys.
Perhaps interestingly though, the bad guys this time are the Colonials. Often situations like this paint Earth as the bad guys because they want to retain control of their various colonies, and it often becomes a fight for independence from the evil tyranny of the Earth government. This time though, the Colonials take control of the alien Relic and proceed to decimate Earths fleet with it leaving only a handful of ships left to fight. Did I mention this Relic can destroy planets too? Of course it can!
As far as backstory goes, that’s as much as you get and the Colonials are never expanded on beyond establishing that they want independence from Earth and are prepared to kill everyone to get it. The bad guys are simple MacGuffins to move the plot along and get you to the next mission. There are no specific antagonists, no characters at all you ever associate with, no information about how they work, or what’s motivating them to commit genocide to destroy Earth beyond wanting their independence. You’ll only get some major exposition about the Relic, and the AI who helps you throughout the game, during the final mission and its entirely underwhelming.
The only decent thing about it is that the state of the Earth at the end of the game is largely dependent on your performance during the game – like Mass Effect 3’s galactic readiness determined how successful you’d be in saving (or destroying) the Earth. But you’re only given snippets of information about this at the end of each mission via some text and then the final cutscene reveals how well you did. I ended up saving the Earth but the resulting debris from the huge space battle ended up decimating the planet anyway so more of a pyrrhic victory than anything else. If you’re prepared to go through all the same missions again to get the varying endings, then the game will have some replay value for you. Otherwise I’d just save time and watch the inevitable youtube videos showing the different ending cutscenes.
The even bigger problem is the good guys are bland, boring characters that I can’t remember. The voice acting is really poor, with serious events or epic disasters announced with all the emotion and gusto of an announcement at a train station warning you to ‘mind the gap’. Only one character came close to representing some sort of emotion and character to him but he only shows up in 2-3 missions and then gets killed. The only other ‘notable’ character is the presence of an AI (called Control, later revealed as an alien consciousness tied to the Relic) who’s blended with a female human scientist, but the actress delivers her lines with a similar, flat monotone of disinterest. Karan S’Jet she is not. If you remember her from Homeworld, her dialogue was tranquil and peaceful, yet still tinged with emotion at the right moments and she made a memorable character since she was the Mothership in a way that is central to your plight.
Why is it that AI’s who integrate their consciousness with humans (or vice versa) end up in young women anyway?
I’m going to reference Homeworld again here, remember when in the third mission your fleet returns to the Kharak system, Barbers Adagio for Strings playing, the voice acting was great. It wasn’t melodramatic or over the top but instead very restrained and subtle. The actors did a good job of conveying the simple shock of their home being destroyed. The occasional tremble in the voices was subtle but effective. SSZ doesn’t offer any of that at all, and since the start of the game opens with the destruction of most of the Earth fleet (off screen), the news is received as if it’s just another day at the office. And that really annoyed me.
This is how you do it.
But this isn’t about Homeworld, so let us continue with SSZ.
Moving on to the combat mechanics, as mentioned earlier, it can be both fun and exhilarating as well as frustrating and annoying and the missions often swap between these feelings. There are 13 missions in total to play throughout the campaign, and each one should take about 15-25 minutes to complete giving you about 5-7 hours of gameplay. The mission structures themselves are bland and are simple ‘kill x amount of fighters’, ‘destroy x number of turrets’ or ‘defend x ship’ objectives before you can proceed to the next phase. Apart from the last mission, which has you flying inside the superstructure of the alien Relic (aka Return of the Jedi but not nearly as exciting or interesting), the rest are pretty much the same old story with some minor variations in ships you end up flying. There was nothing that I found innovative or particularly interesting nor did I particularly care about what was going on. The good thing is if you fail a mission, you don’t have to restart the entire thing if you passed certain checkpoints. I also like that capital ships have subsystems that you can take out to minimize the threat it poses to you, but this is fairly a standard mechanic in most space sims to have some form of subsystem targeting to make it easier to deal with capitals in general.
Both friendly and enemy AI are nothing to write home about, which gives rise to the problem that your friendly capital ships are useless at defending themselves and friendly fighters are almost as useless in shooting stuff down. Many missions will come down to you having to try and stop waves of torpedoes or fighters going after your mission critical capitals. It’s the almost complete reverse of Battlestar Diaspora where the AI was so good at defending itself, you didn’t even need to do anything but watch most of the time. The lack of a minimap or some sort of radar display, beyond simple red indicators on your HUD if targets are off screen, doesn’t help matters in determining where the various threats are and its near impossible to see where enemy fire is coming from when you get hit. I also found the complete lack of any kind of AI squad or wingman commands particularly glaring, so you can’t order your wingmen to protect you or attack your target etc.
And then there’s the titular Strike Suit itself, which is what the games marketing fusses about the most. I have to give credit for the concept of it. Born Ready Games can at least can take pride in knowing they did come up with something not done before for a space game, to my knowledge. Its a very useful feature of the game, but it’s just not brilliantly executed is the problem. You won’t get to use it until the third mission and you can only employ the Strike mode when you build up enough ‘FLUX’ which is acquired by simply blowing things up. Until then your ship acts like a normal fighter craft. When you engage the Strike Suit, the ship transforms and suddenly so do the flight mechanics. You have limited forward movement with the big advantage coming from strafing around targets. Along with this, you get a huge firepower boost and can start spewing missiles like some sort of demigod. Given you have limited FLUX, you’re encouraged to strategically use the Strike mode only as you need it. Often you’ll need it as the game ramps up the sheer amount of crap being thrown at you or your friendlies and only the Strike Suit has enough firepower to stop it.
The Strike Suit in action…
However I found the Strike mode itself a little cumbersome and difficult to use effectively. You’re also a lot more vulnerable to enemy fire and I often found my shields were gone within seconds when trying to circle strafe enemy capital ships. If I strafed too quickly, I ended up outside effective firing ranges for my guns whilst wasting valuable FLUX. My two biggest causes of death was either getting hit by a torpedo I got in the way of or getting blown up by a capital ship in Strike mode. I found the best method was to go into Strike mode, lay on the damage quickly to what I needed, then switch back to Fighter mode and burn away before I took serious damage.
To be fair, I was using my X52 Joystick to play my way through the game. Some have said a keyboard/mouse control is better and more accurate and maybe I’d have better luck with the Strike mode if I used it. But I’m someone who likes an excuse to whip out my overly expensive joystick/throttle hardware. It could be though that I’m just a poor pilot and could not control the ship more effectively.
My more minor complaints involve the upgrade and weapon systems offered in SSZ. They feel like they’ve been added in more as an afterthought than an integrated part of your gameplay. Each mission has several screens you need to go through, only one of which really offers you a chance to do any kind of modifications to your ship and thats just the weapons loadout. The weapons themselves (the ones I managed to unlock anyway) are relatively bland, with only the swarm missiles really giving me any satisfaction in their use. The other issue is the game offers no indication of what could be unlocked in the future nor any kind of statistics on the weapons firepower or energy requirements etc. Weapons are unlocked based on your performance at the end of each mission so it could be there are additional weapons I’ve not seen which are far more impressive, but I have no way of knowing without playing the game with gold medals in all the missions. No thank you.
The upgrades system requires no interaction from you at all and that’s disappointing. The only way to get these upgrades, such as increases in shield or armour effectiveness, is to perform a certain objective within each mission. For example, flying a bomber craft in one mission, you must shoot down 10 enemy fighters to unlock the next upgrade. This strikes me as an arbitrary and irritating way of doing things rather than through experience points you earn as is with weapon unlocks. Additionally, like the weapon unlocks, there is no information at all on the effectiveness of these upgrades. You’re just given a visual that indicates the next unlock available and there are graphs displaying the relative strength of each aspect of the ship you fly (strength, performance, energy etc), but it has no actual statistics to offer on just how beneficial the upgrade is. As a result, you have no idea exactly what the upgrades will actually do for you and to me that makes the graphs meaningless.
Stability wise, the game at least seems to have performed very well here. I encountered an almost completely bug/crash free experience until the last mission where it said I had basically saved the Earth (sort of) and got a cutscene, then immediately afterwards I was taken to the mission failure screen saying the Colonials had won and used the Relic to destroy Earth. Oh well. There was one little gem in the hardware settings called which allows multiple monitors to be used. Basically if you have more than one monitor, you can turn this on and it turns your additional monitors into one giant spanned screen so you can pretend that you actually have a much larger, single monitor. I couldn’t get this to work though and is the only real technical bug I encountered.
The fact the game seems extremely stable (for me anyway) is a welcome one though since all too many games are released these days with large numbers of game breaking bugs or crashes, or simply being unfinished whilst publicly saying it was ready to be released.
It’s a real shame Born Ready Games have in my opinion missed the mark here. I think SSZ could have hugely benefited from some more development time to flesh out the plot a lot better, make the missions more interesting and hire a decent director for the voice acting. I know these things cost money to do, but then they did use Kickstarter to help fund the finishing of the game, why not simply have attempted to ask for more than they did in order to flesh it out better? SSZ has potential to be a much better game than it is and perhaps over time, with some DLC’s, it will become a better game. The price you pay for what you get is at least fairly reasonable but I think would’ve been better for £9.99. SSZ went on sale at a discounted £11.99 on Steam, but is now £14.99. I think a multiplayer component would have worked pretty well to offset its single player failure, but if the devs do decide to add it in, I will revisit the game in the hopes of some improvement and better replay value.
I really wanted to like SSZ more than I do, but I just don’t and as such is my first gaming disappointment of the year. That’s not to say I didn’t have any fun, I don’t regret buying the game. It was entertaining enough that I wanted to play through the whole thing. If you’re a serious space sim junky like myself, then you will probably get something out of it but casual players though may find it too frustrating. I’m sorry Born Ready Games, but you’re going to have to do more than this before you can claim its space combat reborn.
Finally, I’ve embedded a FRAPS recording I took of myself playing the game during its 4th mission to demonstrate its gameplay so you can see for yourself how it looks and feels. The footage has no commentary.