After a couple of mixed-reaction games on the Gamecube, the Star Fox team returns on the Nintendo DS with Star Fox Command-- a game that largely returns to the franchise's roots as a ship-based shooter-- and that will bring cheers from many fans of the series. While there are certainly some unique twists with this game that set it apart from its predecessors, such as the touch-screen flight control and a minor focus on strategy, game developer Q Games does a great job of resurrecting a franchise in flux.
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The story begins with the Star Fox team having been splintered after the defeat of Emperor Andross, with the team members going their separate ways. As the game progresses, the team gradually reunites to fight a common enemy: the Anglar Empire. Unlike past games in the series, each team member has his (or her) own customized Arwing fighter, with its own strengths and weaknesses. Many points in the game have different choices to make along the storyline, and these points can only be unlocked and seen by playing through the game multiple times. There are nine endings in total to be seen, so replay value is higher than normal for a game of this nature.
Once you get into the game, there are two stages of gameplay that players will experience. The strategy stage of Star Fox Command has one objective, and that's to keep your capital ship-- the Great Fox-- from being attacked and destroyed by incoming enemies. On the playfield, players will notice incoming fighter sorties, enemy bases, incoming missiles, and various power-up items. To ensure the safety of the Great Fox, players will have to guide fighters on intercept paths to enemies by tracing a flight path with the stylus. The strategy element isn't obtrusive to the flow of the game, but tracing crucial intercept paths through small asteroids can be frustrating.
The second, and most enjoyable, stage of Star Fox Command's gameplay is the action phase. These stages hearken back to Star Fox 64 in terms of how they look and feel. While there sometimes doesn't seem to be any rhyme or reason to the enemy design, each area has a progressively more numerous amount of targets to blast. The objective of the action stages is to acquire a set amount of enemy "cores", which can be obtained by shooting down specific enemies. The stage ends when all of the cores have been collected. In order to obtain these cores, though, it's not always as cut-and-dried as simply shooting down certain enemies. Some stages challenge players to destroy a mothership. Other stages require players to fly through "beacons" in order to catch up to and shoot down missiles that are headed for the Great Fox.
Unlike past Star Fox games, controlling your Arwing is done completely via the stylus. This makes for precision turning and is pretty easy to pick up and master. With a few stylus strokes, you can climb, descend, bank, brake, boost, and even barrel roll. You can detonate bombs by dragging and dropping them onto enemy blips shown on your radar. Pressing any button on the DS fires your laser, while holding any button down will activate lock-on fire (for Arwings that have such a feature). This is also easy to control, although the rate of rapid fire doesn't always seem to be what it could be, and aiming-- even with the stylus-- seems to be an inexact science. Leading your laser fire is a touch more difficult than it should be. It's also worth noting that once your Arwing begins a barrel roll, it sometimes stays in the roll until its boost meter runs out. That's a minor flaw, but can make it tough when you need to avoid or divert incoming fire and cannot barrel roll because your boost meter is recharging.
Visually, Star Fox Command is about on-par with Star Fox 64. Since each playfield is limited in scope, the need for fogging is eliminated. The polygons move at about 30 frames per second, which is common for games of this ilk, and there really isn't much slowdown to speak of. There are minor issues with clipping and there are even times when your Arwing will fly right through an enemy, but this really doesn't detract from the overall experience. The cutscenes are static, but the art is pretty well done and the character design is decent.
In terms of sound, Star Fox Command is a mixed bag. The musical score is very reminiscent of Star Fox 64. There are even some reprisals of previous tracks from Star Fox games, which is a nice touch. While the music doesn't sound as full through the handheld's speakers, it's still above average for what we've heard from other DS games. The in-game speech that has been a staple of the last few games has been replaced by gibberish that was last heard in the first Star Fox game, back in 1993 on the SNES. In an interesting twist, Star Fox Command lets you record your own voice and then the game uses that voice as a base for unique-sounding gibberish. It's understandable that storage on a DS game card is smaller than that of a Nintendo 64 cartridge or a Gamecube optical disc, but we've seen impressive sound compression before on the DS, such as the case with Tony Hawk's American Sk8Land.
Overall, Star Fox Command is a nice return to the Star Fox games that really put the franchise on the map. There are some quirks here and there, but there's a fair amount of replayability to be had and this review doesn't even touch on the multiplayer and Wi-Fi functionality aspects of the game. The game is certainly worth playing, even if you're not a fan of the series. It's not perfect, but is a positive sign that Fox McCloud is back with a vengeance. That's bad news for the bad guys, but great news for us.