If there’s one forgotten genre which I regularly dream of being brought back, it’s the space combat simulator. For a time titles such as Wing Commander and X-Wing were very popular, but even more than that they were genuinely enjoyable games. One of the earliest games in this genre was the Atari game Star Raiders. As with Yars’ Revenge, Star Raiders is making it’s comeback with a new, modernised downloadable version.
If you read our review of the recent Yars’ Revenge, you’ll remember that it wasn’t viewed very favourably. Whilst having much more to offer, Star Raiders unfortunately follows the same path and offers a bland, flawed experience. The annoying thing however is that there are the tiniest of glimpses of potential present which, if developed further, could have left a game which scratched that space combat itch just a little bit. Instead all it leaves is a nasty taste in the mouth.
As you start the game, you’re offered a comic book style introduction which attempts to introduce the characters involved and set the scene for the ensuing battles to come. There is no explanation of who you really are, who you are fighting and indeed why you are fighting a war in the first place. Mission text between missions indicates that you are fighting the Zylons and you are taken through a set of tutorial missions. Whilst the general gameplay concepts are explained, there are several things which are unexplained which leaves it a bit bewildering when you’re dumped straight into a mission without a full understanding of how to play.
Essentially your ship has three modes of combat. For dog fighting scenarios, the attack mode is best, offering speed and suitable weaponry for taking out fast moving targets. Assault mode is a slower moving mode that allows strafing and is best used when taking on larger ships. Finally the turret mode offers the slowest movement of all and is a defensive form. The problem is however that there is no real explanation as to when you should use each mode and therefore trial and error is the order of the day here. You ship is also equipped with counter measures, but again there is no explanation at all as to how to utilise these.
The missions begin as very generic, offering dog fights and escort missions which are not interesting in the slightest. After a few missions you’ll start to take on bigger ships such as cruisers and its here where the pace of the combat slows to a crawl. The idea is that the assault mode is used to systematically take out the gun emplacements and soft spots on the large ship, until all have been destroyed and the ship explodes. To destroy one will take anywhere from a couple of minutes to ten minutes depending on various factors such as who else is attacking you and the size of the ship. And when every other mission features the larger ships, sometimes several in the same mission, the experience becomes incredibly dull.
In fact the biggest problem with Star Raiders is the pacing and that it takes a dozen or so missions before the more exciting mission types become available. One such level which tasks you with assaulting a giant meteor was a bit more interesting for example, but most players would have turned the game off well before they reached this point in the game.
Additionally the controls in place are somewhat bizarre to anyone who has played this type of game before. In attack mode, which is the most common mode (there is a lot of dog fighting), up and down works as you might expect, but left and right tilts the ship instead of turning the ship which makes chasing down enemy ships all that harder. The control scheme is further compounded when it becomes clear that each of the three modes have different control setups and again, no explanation is present to inform you how to use them effectively. Indeed it wasn’t until several hours in that I stumbled across a Zelda-style lock and strafe system which did help considerably in taking out those darn cruisers.
I can’t help but thinking that design decisions have severely affected Star Raiders. Had the game been paced properly, the controls ironed out, a better tutorial in place, more frequent cut scenes… well you get the point. It ultimately falls down on pretty much every aspect and does little to reinvigorate the genre. I guess I’ll go back to praying they reboot the Wing Commander series .