Dean Cleans Off His Steam List - Strike Suit Zero
Time for another genre that I haven't been much exposed to - the spaceflight sim. I know that when I was young and had an NES and not much else that other kids had fancy PCs with Wing Commander and X-Wing and other first-person games with black backgrounds. Strike Suit Zero appears to be designed on the concept that we haven't had many of those games lately and deserve a new one. Long hours at work stopped me from playing this one as much as I'd have liked, but here's a story.
At the beginning of the second mission, my small fleet of spaceships picks up a distress signal from a nearby carrier. I found it surrounded by a few easily dispatched fighters. Then a couple of larger ships show up, called "corvettes," which fire slow torpedos at the distressed ship. While my allies continued chasing enemy fighters, I was tasked with shooting down the torpedos before moving on to the corvettes. This was my first fight with medium-sized targets, and it was rather fun to figure out how to fight them while keeping myself alive through their heavy weaponry.
We then went to recon a nearby area, sparking the interest of a large enemy fleet. The distressed carrier warps in to help us fight, but it is now under attack by an enemy frigate. As the last scene of the mission opens, I am looking at this frigate, two corvettes flying in the background somewhere, a large wave of torpedos headed towards your carrier, and a swarm of enemy fighters providing support. My superior officer, an I-earned-this-position woman with the conversational skills of Slippy the Toad, tells me to intercept the torpedos and scratch the two corvettes. Curtain opens.
So I fly to the torpedos and fire on them before they hit the carrier. Thing is, I'm twice as far from the carrier than the torpedos are when the scene opens, so it's very difficult for me and my training-wheels pilot's license to catch up to them. Half of them explode on the target before I can get shots off. Finishing that, the frigate and corvettes launch a new wave of torpedos, and it gets insanely difficult to stop every wave from hitting. I fail to keep the carrier alive on several attempts before realizing I can't just play defense.
I then try to just go after the corvettes. The issue there is that I can't find the stupid things - there's no HUD map or anything that would show me which enemy units are nearby. Hitting the auto-target button causes me to focus on the closest important object - which is always a torpedo, since those things are taken as immediate danger. I do finally locate the corvettes, but I fail on several attempts as waves of unimpeded torpedos wreck the carrier. You would think my allies would hit the torpedos while I'm focusing on the main targets, but they're all chasing after enemy fighters like cats in spacesuits swimming after an intergalactic laser pointer. This makes me think I should kill the enemy fighters and get my team back on topic. No such luck - my homing missiles still aren't fast enough to beat the torpedo clock.
I eventually figure out that the corvettes start the scene right under the nose of the frigate. There's only one avenue to success - fly directly to the corvettes and unload an entire missile bay's worth of ordinance on them, destroying them before a second wave of torpedos can be launched. This fight happens in the same vicinity of the frigate, so I'm the only guy in target range of several flying fortress laser turrets, on top of already being targeted by the corvettes. Victory is only the result of repeated teeth-grinding attempts.
After finally getting the routine down, I'm told to buzz the frigate and take down its frag turrets so that my carrier can return fire. This is actually really fun, finally getting to fly down the side of a large vessel while surgically taking out a few key points. However, I still appear to be the only idiot on this run, so I'm the target of most return fire, and the torpedo clock is still ticking. When the torpedos destroy my carrier again, I'm sent back to a checkpoint before where the corvettes were destroyed and have to get my pattern down again.
This was the second mission of the game. Did I mention I don't have a lot of flight sim experience? This was the second mission of the game for a guy that didn't have a lot of flight experience. The emotion I was feeling was something akin to playing Super Meat Boy in space - that feeling of wanting to invent new swear words for constant failure.
I then hit the third mission, where I was given a brand new anime mecha ship and a brief lecture on its controls, then told to quickly remember all of that since I wouldn't get to see it again - the checkpoint for the next section wouldn't reset me far enough to re-read the manual, so I would have to restart the entire mission for another look. This leads to 57 deaths of which-button-do-I-effing-push-to-do-something-arrrgh-the-effing-torpedos-win-again.
The fourth mission leads me into a nebula where aiming technology doesn't work, and there's a fun romp of killing fighters and corvettes without the aid of homing missiles. Then the final section tasks me with destroying the beam cannons on a heavy frigate before it destroys my carrier. The clock is short enough that stopping to shoot at anything other than the main targets means my mothership is destroyed. This is like going to Wedge Antilles and asking, "Hey there, dear chap, would you mind flying over to that large space station all by your lonesome and blowing it up? …Actually, there are THREE exhaust ports. We'll need a solid on all of them. …No, the rest of your squad is having tea right now. They can't really be arsed to cover you. I did mention there are TWO death stars, yes? Anyhow, there's about 15 seconds before our moonbase comes into their firing range and we're all destroyed. Do be along quickly now, won't you? There's a good fellow."
That's about the point I turned in my badge.
Honestly, there's a clear level of quality and joy in this game. I didn't want to stop playing - I wanted to keep retrying the stage for the satisfaction of finally beating that sumbitch. There's the beauty of the galactic backdrops, the frantic emotion that comes with being surrounded by laserfire, the hint of anime in the ethos. It's all very lovely for a small-studio game. But where other difficult games leave me feeling like each death gets me a little bit closer to the goal, this one left me feeling like I had no idea where the eff I was going. What's more, sometimes the dramatic tension is completely lost when you're asked to just go shoot down a wave of dumb torpedos.
The target audience for Strike Suit Zero is the people who have played this type of game before, the people who grew up with an inverted y-axis flight stick in one hand and a Gundam action figurine in the other. The heavily fortified stages (and the even tougher challenges for replaying the missions) give the impression that we didn't want experienced pilots to beat this game right away and get bored with it, and the game's solid design aspects should make it even more desirable to that group. Everyone else might be turned off by the huge jumps in difficulty and lack of hand-holding through the early stages. Although, I've got two other games on my backlog already and am trying to keep moving on. The more devoted gamer might have more patience for picking up the basics and learning to deal with the tough parts. I seem to recall a lot of early computer games being like that anyway...