By Nathan Grayson on January 24th, 2013 at 11:00 am.
What would you do if some malevolent genie offered you the choice between either a) a rip-roaring, physics-defying spaceship, or b) a star-destroying giant robot? I would cry. Born Ready, though, presumably encountered that exact situation and decided to create an alternate reality in which they got both. In Strike Suit Zero, you play as a ship that transforms into a giant robot. Take that, evil genie. But is it the dream come true it sounds like it should be? And can it carry an entire arcade space shooter on its cannon-coated shoulders? Here’s wot I think.
Midway through Strike Suit Zero, I found myself incredibly confused. I was screaming through the stars, dancing between neon blue light tangles that could’ve been the hair of some deceased angel. Me, though? I was a mechanical Viking god. Any time I shifted into Strike Suit mode, the galaxy trembled. My missiles overtook the black like crackling lightning, chains of explosions the thunder following in their wake. Stars and suns be damned; I shined brightest.
So then, why didn’t I feel like a total badass? Why – to be honest – were my eyelids starting to droop as I sat nestled in my attractive, exceedingly grown-up-friendly gamerly pillow fort?
That’s when I heard a voice. It was monotone. Business-like. Just like all the others. “Let’s take down that cruiser, then,” it muttered, radio static clinging like bored spittle to its words. “You’ll want to start with the flak cannons, just like usual.”
Just like usual. Because, in spite of an Epic Mission To Save Earth From Certain Doom, that’s what this had devolved into. My objective list then coughed out the exact number of flak cannons I’d need to dispose of to continue, and that’s when it hit me: I was playing an arcade space shooter with the mission design of a middle-of-the-road MMO. Go here, kill X number of these. While doing so, you can also destroy X number of this other enemy/object. Etc, etc, etc. Oh, but hey, at least Strike Suit Zero has escort missions.
OK, I’m being a bit mean. Let me step back and explain what Strike Suit Zero gets right, so as to punctuate my sorrow at the soaring shooter’s languid, often infuriating lows. See, it begins as a fairly standard – though undeniably stylish – arcade space to-do, but after a couple hours of uneventful opening missions, the Strike Suit joins the fray. Part-light-speed-leaping fighter jet, part-Transformer, it can nigh-instantaneously morph into a giant robot after dealing enough damage and putting some fuel in its Flux meter.
It’s in these moments – especially later in the game, when things have a tendency to become almost unfairly difficult – that the early, not particularly interesting bits get put in perspective. Where once a couple particularly dogged dogfighters could give me trouble, Strike Suit mode turns the tables and then hurls them into a black hole. Suddenly, 20 or more ships barely even register as a blip on the radar. One screen-filling death blender of missiles later, they’re just a charred downpour of space confetti.
It’s those moments of overtly anime-influenced empowerment that really make Strike Suit Zero. I’m special. I’m almighty. Bow before for me, for I am King of Space.
But it’s almost like developer Born Ready didn’t understand that. Or rather, if they did, they had no idea how to mold the rest of their systems around it. So instead of joystick-straining, edge-of-your-cockpit, similarly innuendo-laden battles for the ages, you get “kill 15 of X” chores atop utterly out-of-your-control escort missions. Both enemy and friendly AI’s rudimentary at best, so there’s no real threat that emerges from moment-to-moment combat. Rather, failure tends to arise from escort targets’ (usually massive capital ships) complete inability to defend themselves.
So, on one hand, I had this intoxicating, almost sensual connection with this amazing machine, but on the other, many of my actions felt entirely futile and constrained. Control was illusory. The end result was super frustrating – especially when dodgy checkpoints sent me hurtling back through both space and time to some tedious objective set I blazed through 20 minutes ago. Empowerment went right out the window – and into the infinite void of space where its eyeballs pop out of its head and it dies of explosive decompression.
Some of this could have been remedied if it were possible to give orders to other ships in my squadron, but sadly, no such option exists. Instead, friendly fighters just kind of flit around aimlessly in the background, occasionally even colliding head-on with your Strike Suit in a bizarrely bumper-car-like fashion. I suppose its a bit fitting, in its own way: I’m piloting a giant robot, and the other ships are utterly mechanical – piloted by smaller, incredibly dumb robots.
Other pieces of the puzzle don’t fit together particularly well either. Strike Suit mode, for instance, turns you from untouchable electric star cheetah to nigh-immobile mecha-sloth, and that leaves you incredibly vulnerable to attack. On paper, it’s nice to have the option to steady my aim and just tee off, but in practice, it meant all nearby weapons immediately opened fire on me, popping my shields in mere seconds. Again, though, so long as I morphed back into a fighter and rocketed away, I was never in any real danger. But that pattern created this monotonous rhythm of chipping away at bigger baddies while smaller ones, in turn, chipped away at me. So I’d leave, come back, leave, come back, and so on and so on until everyone died.
Meanwhile, hunting down the giant gnat-ball of annoyances that frequently buzzed around me was a largely futile pursuit due to a haphazard aiming system and no real indication – aside from what I could see with my own two eyes – of where exactly damage was coming from. Basically, I had to put Strike Suit mode’s missile barrage on clean-up duty. Otherwise, a rolling mass of enemy pea shooters would eventually be the death of me.
It should also be noted that, initially, the review version of Strike Suit Zero was barely even playable. Born Ready, however, chalked it up to a Steam update error, and – given that I’ve since had a smooth experience from start-to-finish – that appears to be all it was. So stability, at least, isn’t an issue here. At least, not anymore.
Unfortunately, Strike Suit Zero still largely fails to function as a game, and that’s arguably a far more egregious sin in the long run. Occasionally, it’ll suddenly produce these gleaming diamonds of pure glee from all the rough – like, oh man, amazing near-suicidal bombing runs on frigates that result in glorious, victorious explosions just when you think death is imminent, and you feel like you’re Luke Skywalker blowing up the goddamn Death Star – but they’re sandwiched between so much frustration. Honestly, it almost pains me to dislike the majority of Strike Suit Zero as much as I do. I adore what it’s attempting. I love the feeling of perfect, lightning-fast control it can create. Ultimately, though, the reality of Strike Suit Zero fails to match its own sky-high ambitions, and – for the most part – it just ends up being business as usual.