Version tested: DS
Considering the natural freedom of touch-screen control, it's surprising that there haven't been more flight-based games on the DS. It's been crying out for a Pilotwings since day one (Freedom Wings, the only real flight game released thus far for the system, hardly fills the void). A proper Star Fox, though - a gorgeous, unforgiving, explosive, on-rails and above all flight-based Star Fox, not this Adventures and Assault nonsense - would surely be the next-best thing. Memories of the quirky and delightful Lylat Wars have encouraged me to really look forward to Star Fox DS; of all the N64 ports that have mysteriously failed to materialise on the DS, Lylat Wars must surely be near the top of the world's Most Wanted list.
Unfortunately Star Fox Command is nothing like Lylat Wars. Well, almost nothing. It has all the same characters in it and is still a space shooter, but it's not on-rails and it has none of the personality. Somewhat appropriately, it begins by systematically assassinating all of the characters that have ever appeared in Star Fox games, sending them off to get married or become military commanders or form their own squadrons or, in the case of Adventures' Krystal (who for some bizarre reason has become a brazen hussy for Star Fox Command and frequently switches romantic allegiance), run off with a member of the infamous Star Wolf team, leaving Fox McCloud broken-hearted and alone. As the game runs its course, the Star Fox team is brought back together in the face of a common enemy, whose troops are threatening the Lylat System once again. Without wanting to ruin what little story there is, this enemy isn't very impressive, but next to Lylat Wars' creepily disembodied tyrant lurking at the end of a series of claustrophobic tunnels on a deserted planet, we doubt that any foe would seem all that awe-inspiring.
Anyway, that's enough talking about Lylat Wars. That's the last time it will be mentioned for at least a paragraph. Structurally, Command is more a strategy game than anything else. Each mission presents you with a map, upon which several enemy clusters and a few bases usually lurk, sometimes behind fog of war (easily dispersed with the stylus). The Great Fox mothership sits in a corner, and Fox and whichever allies he has accrued typically deploy there at the start of a mission. By drawing routes for the little spaceships you determine where they will end up at the end of each turn, and consequently which enemies they will engage. At the end of each turn there's a little battle sequence where you take control of the characters directly and fight off aggressors in an Arwing, collecting the 'cores' of key enemies as they are defeated. Typically, an area will be absolutely packed with various foes and it will be necessary to defeat only a certain number; shooting extra ships out of the air leads to bigger scores, but a little timer at the top of the screen is always counting down, usually necessitating a quick exit from any given battlefield as opposed to a full-blown clearout.
The battle sequences are undoubtedly the highlight. A triumphant glimpse of Star Fox games past, they are deft and action-packed and the touch-based control is perfectly intuitive. The balance between the restriction of the timer and the allure of higher scores, too, is excellent, with just the right element of risk and reward to encourage you to do more than the bare minimum in battle.
Unfortunately there are only three types of battle, which over five or six hours of single-player game really isn't enough; it quickly becomes boring. You're either shooting down a certain number of enemies, blowing up a base (which is exactly the same as shooting down a certain number of enemies, except you have to fly through some beacons at the end), or tracking a missile (which is exactly the same beacon-following exercise as blowing up a base, except without the excitement of shooting things up a bit as a precursor).
For the first few missions, Star Fox Command is exciting. But you quickly come to realise that every single mission is exactly the same, and throughout the game's short duration you're doing precisely the same thing again and again and again with different surroundings and different-looking enemies. These different locations are certainly pretty and retain Lylat Wars' quirky visual style, but the landscapes are all depressingly bland; they're nothing more than arenas. You won't be flying through waterfalls and columns here, or spinning under and over asteroids, or risking a narrow passage in pursuit of a power-up, or searching for deliciously subtle alternative routes through levels. You won't be targeting enemies in the middle of a chain either, as the superb multiplier system that made Lylat Wars such a difficult game to master has been abandoned entirely; points are now based simply on kills.
All of this makes Star Fox Command a bit of a shallow experience. This isn't helped by the awful dialogue that pops up between missions. Aside from the occasional transparent in-joke about the hateful Slippy the Toad , it's completely devoid of either imagination or subtlety. Perhaps subtlety is generally too much to ask of a videogame story, but the horrible, tortured, completely superficial romance between Fox and Krystal sets new standards of arbitrariness in game dialogue and the reunion scenes between Fox and his various old squad-mates lack any sense of significance whatsoever (they're all along the lines of "Hey Fox!" "Falco, you're late!" "Yeah, sorry!" "That's OK! ROB, Set course for Corneria."). The story might as well not be there, it seems so very shallow and irrelevant; like a casting call of Star Fox characters and nothing more. Once you've completed the game once, you gain the right to follow alternative routes in the story, but you'll only be doing so to see a few new (identical) missions - the story sadly provides no incentive whatsoever.
Viewed alongside Other Games Of Its Kind, Star Fox Command isn't bad at all. The combat itself is well handled and exciting at first, although it does become repetitive, and nothing about it is particularly frustrating or deficient. Placed in the context of the Star Fox series, however, it is profoundly disappointing. It lacks Lylat Wars' balleticism, subtle difficulty curve and queer beauty, and its dialogue and plot really are extraordinarily bad. If this wasn't stamped with the Star Fox brand, though, none of that would matter nearly as much (and besides, this is at least better than Star Fox Assault). Star Fox Command is not what most of us wanted Star Fox DS to be, but it is a competent if unvaried space combat game. And if that's all you want, I don't suppose you'd find it particularly offensive.
6 / 10