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Star Wars: Episode I, the Phantom Menace

Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic

Tie Fighter

Star Wars: Jedi Starfighter
Star Wars: Jedi Starfighter (Xbox)

LucasArts was always one of my favorites in terms of arcade-style flight simulation and dogfighting. I think I played Tie Fighter until there was a big friggin' rut in the disc and I had blisters on my fingertips. So what's the verdict on their latest rehash, starring new characters...?

Players: 1 - 2
Genre: Arcade / Action / Flight Sim
Length: 6 Hours

Extras: Analog Control, Vibration, Memory Unit

Developer: LucasArts
ESRB Rating: T

The shocker! Two in the pink, one in the stink!
Imagine one of these setting down in your back yard
There's the other ship you can fly... getting shot down.
You can go all split-screen with a buddy.

It's always been extremely "hit-or-miss" with LucasArts Entertainment's long running series of games based off of the Star Wars universe. On one hand, they've brought to life several extremely successful arcade-style flight simulators (topped by the legendary Tie Fighter), as well as the recent Knights of the Old Republic. On the other, they've stumbled and bumbled their way through countless platformers and shoot-em-ups, such as Episode One on the PlayStation and half a dozen old titles for the Super NES / NES Classic. In more recent years, even their greatest strength, the flight sims, have taken a nosedive with poor showings on the PSX, N64, PS2, GameCube and Xbox. So when I finally sat down to have a go at this one, it was with a fleeting hope to see more of what once was and less of what's most recently been. I distinctly remember when things were good, and it's becoming extremely hard to forget when they were bad.

I'll be honest with you; it was never my intent to purchase this game. I saw it was released, took it for another pale imitation of Lucas's lost glory and was more than ready to go on my way without ever setting down to give it a shot. It just happened that, around the same time that I was debating picking up an Xbox of my own, Best Buy was giving away copies with the system. Alongside the well-known inclusion of Jet Set Radio Future and Sega GT 2002 at the time, that was a deal breaker. After a year of PlayStation 2 solitude, I broke down and took home a Microsoft console, along with the three pack-in games. Now, nearly a year later, I've finally decided to dust off this green DVD case and give Starfighter its first chance.

The basic premise of this one is quite simple; you alternate playing the roles of Adi Gallia, a young Jedi Master and Nym, a typical gung-ho, brightly colored, tentacled alien pirate, as they battle to save the republic from the looming threat of the Trade Federation. Both fly easily recognizable ships, and each come fully equipped with their own set of unique special weapons and secondary firepower. While Adi can use the force to aid her in the battle by slowing down time, reinforcing shields or striking enemy ships with force lightning, Nym's vehicle carries a heavy load of blunt firepower. Adi's ship is faster and more maneuverable, but Nym's packs a much stronger punch.

I liked the idea of switching between the two vehicles, and especially fell in love with the use of force powers in a dogfight. It's an extremely cool idea, and it's done very well here. With the control pad underneath the left analog stick, you choose from four basic force powers; shield, lightning, reflex (which slows down time and allows you to triple the amount of shots your ship can fire) and shock wave, (which deals damage to any ship in the same remote area as yourself) then press and hold the "B" button. While holding the button, a small purple shimmer appears either around your ship or your target, depending on the force power, and then blinks white for a split second before fading away. By releasing "B" at the same time as the white flash of light, you effectively power-up your force-cast, striking half a dozen ships with lightning instead of one, doubling the range of your pulse wave or giving you a longer amount of time to utilize the slowdown of time itself. There's no limit to the range of these acts, so you can strike a nasty-looking pack of fighters with lightning before they've even spotted you or single-handedly take down a star destroyer thanks to inhumanly enhanced reflexes. By the time you reach the final stage, you should be able to tackle most of the enemy's fleet by yourself thanks to these unfair advantages.

In fact, the entirety of the controls themselves are very easy to learn and deceptively simple to master. It's nowhere near as complex and customizable as the keyboard-based system introduced in X-Wing and Tie Fighter, but it still accomplishes many of the same tasks without the necessity of another sixty buttons. The left analog stick controls the direction of your ship, and the right analog handles the roll, which is more of a luxury feature than anything else. In space you won't need to put this to use at all, except perhaps to dodge enemy fire, but when you're battling near the surface of a planet it's easy to get disoriented by your surroundings if everything isn't level. The left and right triggers handle the speed of your craft, with the left your brake and the right your speed boost. I miss the old ability to set my thrust to 40% or 60%, or to match the speed of my target and ride his ass until he's dead, but the lack of so many confusing buttons here is a trade-off I can live with. As I mentioned above, the "B" button handles your force powers or special weapons (if you're in control of Nym), and the "A" button is for standard laser fire. By pressing "X", you can take advantage of a sniper scope, which makes it much easier to pick off fighters in the distance, and saves a lot of time in the process. Pressing the Black button cycles through the available enemy targets, while a push of the "Y" button targets the enemy directly in front of your crosshairs. Holding the white button brings up a new menu of wingmate commands, which are then activated by pressing up, down, left or right on the directional pad. I'd have lost my mind if wingmate control were taken out of these games, so it's good to see it put to good use here.

The disc comes with a small set of training missions, which acceptably serve their purpose of acquainting new players with the ships' controls. By the time you reach the first real mission, maneuvering, targeting and annihilating enemy targets is almost second nature, and that's the sign of a great title.

The story, unfortunately, isn't nearly as inventive nor as easy to follow as the weapons or control systems. Each level is preceded by a loading screen, which displays your early goals for the stage (sometimes new goals will be revealed as the mission progresses) and then, once that's loaded, an occasional live- or pre-rendered cutscene explaining your motivations. What story there is shoots by at such a blazing pace, it's nearly impossible to comprehend what's just happened before you're right in the thick of another fight. I gathered that the main enemy of the title is a character named Toth, who happens to be an underling of Count Dooku with great aspirations. He seems to be using illegal weapons to win important battles, but exactly why the weapons are so terrible and what he's really doing wrong are either never explained or handled in such a hurried fashion that I didn't even notice they'd been touched upon. At one point, I didn't understand that I was dogfighting with Jango Fett himself until the second or third time he killed me. Efforts were made to tie this title in with the events going on during Episode II, but you could blink and miss the connections. Samuel L. Jackson's character, Mace Windu, is directly involved with everything you do, but it's hard to tell when that's his voice you're hearing over the comm-link, because the voice actor they cast for his role sounds NOTHING like his movie counterpart. It's honestly as though they grabbed "generic black voice actor #347" one morning, pounded out a half hour of monologue and sent him home. Even when he laughs, it's emotionless and unsettling.

Another thing that bothered me about the way this game played was its straightforward series of goals. While one of the coolest things about Tie Fighter was its variety, Jedi Starfighter puts you in a new location, shakes up your odds a little bit and tells you to do one of two things; protect something or kill something. Gone are the reconnaissance missions that made the pace of the PC flight sims so strong. You'll never be asked to retreat from a battle after holding off enemy fighters long enough for backup to arrive. It's kill or be killed, every single time. You're going full speed from start to finish, and while I know that might appeal to some players, it didn't exactly win me over. I like a chance to enjoy the experience of what's around me without the threat of destruction hanging above my head at all times.

Another real clash of styles in this title is hidden in the pre-rendered cutscenes that appear three or four times from start to finish, usually to explain an important series of events. While the gameplay itself is quite realistic in appearance, with tightly-rendered ships, daunting scale and believable obstacles such as asteroids and hidden enemy bases on small moons, the characters in the important scenes are flamboyantly cartoony and unrealistic. The regal, pompous air exuded by the tall, green members of the Trade Federation in Episode I is rendered null and void when they flail their arms around, swivel their hips or throw their heads back in strange ways during casual dialog. It seems like the animators grew bored with what they were being asked to render and overcompensated on the body language. The cinema's textures, too, are simple to a fault, a poor match for the mechanical details that wrap each ship during battle.

Yet, despite my praise of the realistic nature of the in-game graphics, I must admit that even those were sub par at times. For the most part, your ship, wingmates, allies, enemies and obstacles are finely tuned and look very crisply detailed, a perfect match for the hardware potential of the Xbox itself. However the textures of the landscape, the asteroids, the buildings or the ocean are almost a complete 180. They're blurry and simple to the point of distraction, and really only serve to make the game look like a hurried mess that was thrown into distribution about a month before it was ready. Otherwise, everything looks very good; the HUD, the animated menus, the organization of information... I just can't seem to get past how ugly the landscapes were upon close inspection.

The audio, to its credit, is very well done from start to finish. Though the voice acting is pretty much universally terrible, the sound effects and music more than make up for it. Dolby Surround is supported only in the cut scenes, but I could've been fooled into believing it's implemented throughout. Laser fire is easy to trace, each different ship sounds crisp and distinct, and the original John Williams score works every bit as well here as it does on the big screen.

Finally, Starfighter carries with it a very large list of unlockable extras, which serve to improve the replay value substantially. By completing various hidden or bonus objectives in the single-player game, you unlock extra missions, (unrelated to the plot though they may be) concept and vehicle art galleries, strange videos and slideshows thrown together by the programmers in their spare time and, last but not least, almost a dozen extra ships which may be flown in completed single player missions. While I was excited to see that I had unlocked the notorious Tie Fighter early in my travels, I was absolutely blown away to see that not only was it a faithful reproduction in look and feel, but also in function. Each ship has a different perspective and heads-up-display, different strengths and weaknesses (Tie veterans will be proud to know the lasers still require a bit of charging after each attack, or they lose strength and change color) and slightly different handling from all the others. They obviously put a lot of effort into these ships, and it's very, very cool to see.

This is a title that had all the elements of a great game, in the same vein as its vaunted predecessors. It was overflowing with ingenuity, featuring unique new elements that made even the harshest battles exciting and entertaining, an enormous stage upon which to play, a steadily rising level of difficulty and several well-developed unlockable features. The gameplay is most certainly spot-on but the story, mood and motivations have got it all wrong. It's hard to get into a game like this, no matter how original the weaponry, if the story feels like an afterthought and each stage is just a new skin wrapped around the same old set of goals and requirements. It's the same thing that killed Midway's old arcade standby, Rampage, as I was growing up. It's a great concept, it's easy to understand and it's fun to play for a while. But it eventually reaches a point where the player realizes this is all there is to it, the excitement begins to drain away and the title loses its edge. I was heavily into this game for the first couple hours, and then grew lukewarm to it as I drew near completion. The extra features help add a little spice to it, but on the large it's a perfect example of what could have been. I wish they'd taken another couple months on this, finished it up properly and concentrated more on adding a couple peaks and valleys to the missions themselves.

On a scale of 1 to 10, where 1 is poor and 10 is amazing...
Overall Score: 7.1


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