How are there so few space sims anymore?
It seems like the easiest and most awesome kind of game to make. You just make a pretty skybox (spacebox?) Make a ship for the player, make a similar ship with AI controlling it that you copy-paste a whole bunch and bam! You got a game. Well, this is the too-empty-for-too-long niche that Strike Suit Zero tries to fill, and it throws in a kickass anime-style robot for good measure. Is it the space sim masterpiece so many gamers have been waiting for? Not quite, but it’s still worth a go.
You play as Adam… I’m sure he has a last name but it’s escaping me. I’m gonna assume it’s Adam Jensen from Deus Ex because it’s a lot more interesting than anything the game does with him. Seriously, when it comes to silent protagonists, there are blank slates which can still have some personality like Link or Gordon Freeman and then there are complete non-entities like Strike Suit Zero’s. You never even SEE him! It wouldn’t be half as bad if there weren’t a perfectly good partner on almost every mission who could have filled the character void. Seriously, what was the problem with her? You’re crowdfunded, so don’t give me that “publishers didn’t want a female protagonist” crap.
There isn’t much to the plot as a whole to begin with. Oh, the game tries to set up a pretty backdrop in its introduction, but it boils down to that earth is gonna get blown up by a big death star-type thing and you join the fleet to stop it. (Interestingly, this is the second sci-fi indie game in a few months in which the rebels are actually the bad guys, the first being Faster Than Light.)
Anyway, the game starts off more or less like Baby’s First Wing Commander. You begin with a basic fighter that has your usual lasers and missiles. Fortunately, even basic dogfights can be very satisfying and there’s just enough depth to it; for example, machine guns are effective for wearing down enemy shields, but lasers do more damage to the actual hull. You also have a nice variety of weapons that expands as you progress. It’s not until an hour in that you get the titular “Strike Suit” and THAT’S when things get really fun. Transforming the strike suit is like being that jerk in first grade recess who kept making up stupid rules to help him whenever you had imaginary Power Rangers or Dragonball fights. You’re all like “I can move in any direction! I get a bazillion missiles! I’m so fast I can just dodge your targeting systems!” And then the enemy goes crying back to its capital ship. Of course, the transformation isn’t free, you have to keep destroying enemies to build up “flux” and then the transformation only lasts for a few seconds unless you keep that destruction up. But that makes it all the more thrilling when you reactivate it and become a swift angel of sexy laser death to your enemies for a brief time.
The game’s targeting system can be a BIT of a hassle. It’s nice having a button for locking onto both the nearest target, and the target closest to your crosshair, but then fighting the big ships creates issues. Your ship is really only equipped to handle other fighters and mid-sized transports and frigates; when you fight a bigger ship, you can only really destroy the turrets. When you destroy a turret, the game is more likely to target the ship itself next than another turret, and during the precious seconds you have when you’re transformed, it’s a huge pain to manually target another turret. I can press a button to make it target fighters, frigates or capital ships by default. Why not turrets?
When the game is just having normal dogfights, it’s a blast. Unfortunately, those become less and less common. The game’s biggest drawback is probably the mission structure, which almost always tasks you with protecting a capital ship. If there wasn’t going to be much variety, I wish it had been too much just blowing up ships not too many escort missions. Once a minute, you have to drop what you’re focused on and make sure there aren’t any torpedoes heading your ship’s way. The second-to-last mission in particular is pure, unadulterated escort hell designed for anybody who ever complained about Ashley in Resident Evil 4. It’s like you're babysitting somebody’s three-million-ton toddler around an open fire.
Come to think of it, where do those damn torpedoes even come from? They just kind of spawn in front of in front of the big ships and they're twice the size of any fighters. Why can't I just blow up the torpedo launchers and save everyone some trouble?
Well, I think the game may be kind of a jerk, actually.
Beyond the core mechanics, it isn’t that concerned about the player actually having fun. The plot barely exists yet tries to be stone-faced serious, so advancing the story isn’t much of a reward. And then, even if you WIN, it won’t let you have a good time. Every mission is followed by a debriefing where, unless you did fantastically, it will tell you that the colonists are somehow stronger after your victory. And it doesn’t have to do with meeting bonus objectives either, it’s just based on an arbitrary score value. And then it gives you a crap ending because of it! To make the Wing Commander comparison again, that game’s story went in different directions depending on your level of success, but you were given clear-cut objectives. If you blew up an enemy carrier, it didn’t matter if you did it in five minutes or ten. C’mon Strike Suit Zero, just tell me I saved the world. You’re just being passive aggressive at this point. “Well, yeah, you blew up an enemy fleet single-handedly, but… uh… it took you six minutes instead of five! So, uh… Earth blows up anyway!”
As for the story, the lacking plot and almost non-existent protagonist combined with the serious tone end up dragging the game down somewhat. There is a semi-decent plot twist at the end, but it’s one of those “What? The person I’ve been talking with through speaker has not been completely honest with me?” twists. It's a shame since a lighter tone and a bit more personality could of made this the next Vanquish. On the other side of the coin, the stage was set for a more serious sci-fi drama, but with no main character and faceless antagonists, it rendered that idea pretty much impossible. It doesn't make the game BAD, but it feels like a serious missed opportunity.
I also have to bring up that the game may actually look TOO good. I know it’ll be different for everybody because it’s a PC game, but I like to think I have a decent machine. For instance, I can run Skyrim on high settings without too much difficulty, though not with the prettiest framerate. Yet, even when I turn graphical settings all the way down, SSZ could get VERY choppy, and in a real-time action game that’s pretty damning. So, buyer beware with that. (I ended up playing most of it on another computer. Long story.)
As for the more objective visual criticisms, sometimes you can barely see enemy ships against the background. Occasionally you have to stop and look for a second to figure out if you’re looking at space or an enemy capital ship. And with flak exploding all up in your face, you’ll have to leave it a mystery and pull out, get completely disoriented and check again once your shields come back. There’s a reason sci-fi ships tend to be so brightly colored. Maybe the Empire would have won in Star Wars if they had just painted their ships murky gray.
Strike Suit Zero is still a fun game. It has a winning concept, but could have done with a different approach to… well, everything besides the actual combat. To be fair, most of my problems don't become serious until the last half, maybe even the last third of the game. A better story, more fun writing, and less escort missions could have made it an indie classic. As it stands, it’s still a very good experience, but one I have an easier time recommending during Steam sales. The game DOES have enough content to justify the $20 price point, clocking in around ten hours, but expect some frustration in the latter four. There's good replay value too, partially because you unlock new ships and weapons, but more on account of the game being a jackass for the slightest imperfections, and you wanna get those damn platinum medals and shove them straight up its... space... butt. Trust me, if my actual computer ran it well, I'd have played through the whole thing again by now.
At the end of the day though, you’re blowing crap up in space with a giant robot. If that’s not fun, I don’t know what is.