When the doors of E3 opened this year, Eurogamer made several bee-lines, and one of the first was in the direction of Factor 5's Rogue Squadron III: Rebel Strike. Like most of the staff (with the exception of Rob), I was a big fan of Rogue Leader, lapping up the delightful mixture of familiar movie-based sections and challenging new scenarios like a thirsty dog on a hot day. And as one of the most popular third party launch titles in any console's history, it's probably safe to say I'm not alone in this.
Following the Leader
As you would expect, Rebel Strike is careful not to betray its core audience, with an array of medal-hunting missions that take you through various aspects of The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi. The sections we saw in the E3 demo focused mainly on Yavin 4, Hoth and Endor, with a side of Imperial base routing. There were familiar 'defend transport' objectives, mixed in with some of the speeder, walker and third person action sections we've seen in recent trailers.
The flight sections will surprise virtually nobody. Factor 5 has of course thrown in massive squadrons of TIE Fighters, bombers, landers and transports to upset the balance, managing to put the final levels of Rogue Leader to shame with the unit count, and by the looks of it the framerate isn't suffering too much - even in split-screen multiplayer (co-operative and versus), which worked surprisingly well, sacrificing only a small amount of detail, and drew plenty of attention. We are excited about is the co-operative multiplayer, which, according to the game's producers, will let you play through the entirety of Rogue Leader. They just sort of threw it in as a bonus. As you do.
The graphics in Rebel Strike are on a par with Rogue Leader and even manage to exceed its efforts in some areas - the shimmering rivers on Yavin 4 and forested sections are particularly lovely, and going head to head with a TIE, pounding it to smithereens and exiting through its fiery aftermath is as satisfying as it always has been. More of everything seems to be the theme. But although this Rogue Leader-mimicking gameplay and its familiar flight objectives are very good, the developers clearly felt that Rebel Strike needed more variety to sell, and so it has introduced various other sections to break up the constant flow of aerial death-dealing. And at this stage they don't all live up to the series' otherwise lofty standards.
We want a shrubbery!
The first section everyone (including myself) went for was the speeder section from Return of the Jedi - one of the most obvious sections of the original trilogy for programmers to emulate. The speeder zooms along at quite a pace, and you can gain a momentary boost (accompanied by the 'vroom' sound effect) by tugging on the right trigger, whilst strafing it left and right with the analogue stick and firing lasers with A. This section really tests your reactions, as you juggle the task of shooting down rival speeders (which often buffet you from the side) and dodging the scenery, and rather ingeniously Factor 5 has thrown in both third and first-person views. It's actually quite difficult, but once you're some way into the level, the threat of losing a life and starting over has your heart pounding like nobody's business. If you think of Road Rash meets Xtreme-G Racing then you're on the right track.
Whilst we're on Endor, Factor 5 has also managed to spin out Chewie and the Ewoks' Imperial walker theft into an entire level, which sees the hairy fellow (sadly not with his legs sticking out of the roof hatch) taking on other, oblivious walkers until the call comes in ("we've got a rogue walker, take him out!") and suddenly the Stormtroopers swarming around your feet and a couple of handfuls of spindly-legged Imperial hardware units turn on you in unison. But unfortunately the control mechanism isn't really precise enough. You move around here by holding the right trigger and steering with the analogue stick, and the walker's slow turning speed means that you regularly end up stomping into floral cul-de-sacs and massive great trees. By the time you reach the Imperial base where Han and Leia are holed up with the droids, you've had about enough of walkers.
On the other hand, it looks really terrific. One of the great things about this generation of hardware is the scope to render proper vegetation, and Rebel Strike does it with aplomb. The forests of Endor are as bushy as they are in Return of the Jedi, with huge, towering trees and more shrubbery than two garden centres and a Monty Python film put together, and the number of Stormtroopers and Ewoks buzzing around is quite something. And far from being moving scenery, the Ewoks actually help you out from time to time, toppling walkers by rolling logs beneath their feet and drawing fire from Stormtroopers.
Third person blooper?
The other major addition to Rebel Strike is the third person element, in which players control Luke, as he raids an Imperial base with a couple of other rebels, routing Stormtroopers and officers before exiting through a smouldering hanger, and also as he pegs it around the snowy plains of Hoth taking on AT-ATs. However, these sections really didn't do much for anybody who actually played them on the show floor, thanks to a mixture of poor analogue movement, shoddy camerawork and rubbish AI.
As with the rest of the game, the base section looks stunning. Luke is clearly Mark Hamill, and beautifully detailed from his head to his rebellion-issue combat boots, and the interiors of the base are taken straight out of the films, with all sorts of ducts, valves, pipes and busy-looking scenery, spacemap-endowed glass panels to shatter and consoles for Stormtroopers to roll over, but none of this can mask the shoddy gameplay.
For a start, the E3 demo has Luke Skywalker handling like a yacht, only managing to work up a running pace by moving rapidly from side to side. Holding forward on the stick produces the sort of half-hearted jogging that would have your old PE teacher screaming blue murder. Then there's the camera, which strictly faces forward and waits outside doorways, refuses to look round corners until you've taken a laser blast in the chest, or moves through rooms above and behind you, such that enemies actually fall behind your field of vision and you have to run back into the camera, shooting almost blind with only the radar's vague guestimation to help you. If there's a bit of scenery between you and a Stormtrooper it can take quite a bit of trial and error before the autotargetting actually picks him up.
Fortunately for the player, the Stormtrooper AI is lousy at the moment - they get stuck behind scenery, run away from you firing in the wrong direction and generally put up about as much of a fight as they did against Luke and co. in the movies, but being able to walk through these sections is a bit of a letdown given the series' usual difficulty curve. The fact that there isn't an animation for lobbing a thermal detonator yet doesn't help. Watching a small blob of black shoot out from Luke's waist and then explode in a crowd of enemies does about as much for the ensemble as Princess Leia's Danish pastry hairstyle.
The third person Battle of Hoth section isn't a great deal better. It picks up from the end of the cinematic where Luke crashes quite literally at the foot of an AT-AT, and consists of the usual yacht-based movement and then a slightly more entertaining bit of AT-AT sabotage. As Luke scrambles beneath the elephantine walking tank, a C prompt appears, and twiddling the little yellow stick sends Luke's grapple line soaring into its undercarriage, allowing him to winch himself up and create an opening with his lightsaber. Then the game shifts into a first person view and the player has to line up an aiming reticule to deposit a thermal charge inside the belly of the beast before leaping clear. However as we sometimes felt with Rogue Leader, the subsequent animation for the toppling AT-AT is somewhat lacking. It just sort of stumbles and doesn't even explode.
Following that you're faced with a maddeningly arduous zigzag toward a waiting tauntaun (think llama), which lies beyond a group of artificially incompetent Stormtroopers. You then head off towards a sentry gun, shoot some Stormtroopers and walkers with it and head back into the skies to guard the fleeing transports.
And it's here that you're reminded of what Rogue Squadron does best: massive aerial battles with literally hundreds of enemy fighters to engage. It's a real challenge to defend the transports, and it's this sort of cinematic sci-fi extravaganza we'll be happy to pay our money for. It's so big that when you fly through the cloud cover the game has to seamlessly loud another sky map full of TIE Fighters. We're just hoping that the new walker and third person sections are either touched up considerably between now and the game's release, or that they take a back seat to this sort of juicy space battle.
At the end of a long, long battle in a galaxy pretty far away from the likes of you, it's clear to us that Rebel Strike is the son's father in many ways, and it falls to the dark side from time to time. Then again, despite many crimes against gaming, we'll never stop going back to Star Wars. Despite the tragic shortcomings of games like Shadows Of The Empire and latter day abominations Obi-Wan and Bounty Hunter, the franchise has always been capable of enthralling us, from the first time we took down some rebel scum in TIE Fighter to the Millennium Falcon's headlong dash into the heart of a Death Star in Rogue Leader itself - and that's what we expect from Rebel Strike on the whole. But it's certainly true that for every Dark Forces there's a Jedi Knight II, and for every Rogue Leader there's a Rebel Assault - and based on this year's E3 demo, that's something Rebel Strike is perhaps destined to underline.