A New Hope
First thing's first - Starfighter has had quite a billing, and it lives up to it. Based on a storyline that runs parallel to The Phantom Menace, it draws on the adventures of three new characters, pilots Rhys Dallows, Vana Sage and Nym. Thanks to the freedom afforded to the development team at Lucasarts, Starfighter proves itself as one of the most satisfying console titles ever to come out of the company's doors. Borrowing elements of previous titles like X-Wing / TIE Fighter and gelling them together with The Phantom Menace assets has allowed Lucasarts to craft quite an adventure. The most important part of Starfighter though is its controls. Complex, yet responsive, they take only a few short missions to really get to grips with. Everything on the Dual Shock 2 controller has a function, making the craft highly manoeuvrable, whatever the situation. The classic cyclic targeting system is handled by the triangle button, allowing you to pick ships up all over the clock, while the square button allows you to target whatever appears nearest the centre of your screen. The addition of a zoom mode is invaluable, allowing you to focus in closely on far-off vessels. Why this wasn't in games like Freespace 2 is beyond us - it totally eliminates the tedium of firing randomly at pixels in the distance. Until someone can offer us a better way of doing this, we say all power to Lucasarts.
You control any of three craft, each with slightly different movement attributes to one another, as well as exclusive arsenals. Rhys' Starfighter is the basic Naboo fighter, with laser cannons and proton torpedoes. As Anakin Skywalker discovered in the film, it's also the nippiest of the bunch. Vana's ship, the Guardian Mantis visually has more in common with Boba Fett's ship from The Empire Strikes Back than anything from The Phantom Menace, but can turn on a sixpence in the heat of the action, and benefits from guided nano missiles and Ion-enabled sensor tags to complement them. Finally, Nym's Havoc is the slowest and clumsiest of the ships, requiring a cool head to operate, but is packed out with weapons, including dual triple-laser cannons, energy bombs and a Plasma Scourge. Each of the ships is gorgeous with high levels of texture detail. The enemy ship are also refreshingly designed - the whole game is very attractive in general. It really demonstrates what can be done with the PlayStation 2 hardware. Special effects are explosive, with rippling water and overpowering Naboo architecture, in-keeping with the breathtaking CG scenes in the film. The framerate drops occasionally in heavy action, but this is confined more to the built-up ground-based scenarios than outer space. I never once found it a noticeable annoyance either, even if it is quite easy to spot.
The single player game has 14 missions, split between ground and space levels, ala the film. The missions aren't all that imaginative - there's nothing as provocative as, for instance, the AT-AT walker section at the start of The Empire Strikes Back, but the level design is usually fun, and certainly challenging, even if it limits itself to capture and hold, seek and destroy and just plain defensive missions. Something that the developers have done that previous Star Wars titles didn't always manage is to build up the sensation of being part of a war, and not just Doomguy in space. The sense of scale coupled with the challenge makes it very intense at times. I really got caught up in the whole Star Wars universe whilst playing it. The soundtrack certainly helps, with a classic John Williams score borrowed and modified slightly from the film, complementing some intense action. The electric mood of the game is emphasized by every imaginable explosion and laser fire sound effect. The atmosphere is just so, and must have been one of the more trying aspects of the game's development.
The only issue that really had us scratching our heads in actual fact was the game's length. Unlike some other Star Wars titles, your actions have absolutely no carry-on effect on anything later in the game. Starfighter is totally linear. I actually managed to beat the single player story mode (which I have deliberately tried not to reveal too much about) in just over 10 hours, leaving me with the choice of playing it over again or messing around with the various multiplayer features I had unlocked during my time. In Starfighter's defence though, I explored both of those options thoroughly. Playing the game over and over again was, as I justified to my editor, the best way for me to discover whether it had any real life to it. Similarly, pulling in punters from the street and forcibly restraining them for the duration of lengthy multiplayer bouts was just the best way. Two-player missions are included, as well as X-Wing Versus TIE Fighter-style head-to-heads and latterly, capture the flag. These have to be unlocked before you can get to them, but they add so much to the game it's worth persevering. Capture the Flag is quite tricky, but (especially with Vana's craft) immensely good fun. The head-to-heads can also be entertaining if you have an opponent of similar skill level. What is unquestionable is that Starfighter has scope above and beyond itself. It's a remarkable achievement.
The developers of Starfighter must have been acutely aware of The Phantom Menace's pitfalls, and have marginalized them. This game takes elements of popular Star Wars titles like Rogue Squadron and X-Wing Alliance and melds them into a brilliant adventure using the best parts of Episode 1. I have no hesitation in recommending this game to anybody, including ardent Star Wars fans who like their universe to be just so. If only the film had been this good.