It's been the best part of a decade since we last received an original title in the Star Fox series, a time only briefly broken up by the release of the admittedly excellent Star Fox 64 3D. It feels like this entry could be make or break for these anthropomorphic adventures in space, so can Star Fox Zero meet the lofty expectations governed by its predecessors?
First and foremost, let's talk controls as they seem to be the biggest hurdle a lot of people are afraid of clearing. You pilot your vehicle with the physical controls and move your aiming reticule by moving the GamePad in a similar manner to Splatoon. You can set it so that these motion controls are only active when you're firing your weapon if keeping track of where it is sounds too much like hard work, but in all honesty we got the controls down in the space of about thirty minutes. We certainly wouldn't call ourselves experts and on occasion we still find ourselves not shooting exactly where we want to, but any new control scheme takes time to adapt to. The nub of the matter is that the controls aren't bad, just different, while features such as '3D sound' - utilising the controllers speakers - are undoubtedly fun.
Having the freedom to be able to shoot far outside of what is visible on the screen, using these motion controls, is well worth the extra time spent becoming accustomed to their stylings. This screen-bound limitation becomes very apparent in co-op, wherein one player shoots using the motion controls and the other flies with a second controller. The second player can still shoot using a standard laser that cannot be upgraded, and the feel when taking this role is extremely reminiscent of older games in the series, but suddenly being stripped of the freedom the GamePad provides with its motion-sensitive instruments really brings home just how much more is possible with this new control scheme.
Speaking of different controls, there are three different vehicles, each with two modes that you can use in the main game, namely the Arwing and its Walker mode, the Gyrowing and its Direct-i robot, and the Landmaster and its Gravmaster. A vast majority of missions will seat you in the cockpit of the Arwing, but the other vehicles do offer a nice amount of variety and different ways to play, far more so than previous titles. The Walker is especially enjoyable as you're able to transform any time, landing on giant missles, enemy vessels, and a plethora of other surfaces largely without limitation, even if it's wonderfully impractical.
Even when missions are Arwing-centric, there's a very welcome spectrum of variety to be seen. Some missions take place almost exclusively in All-Range Mode, some are more traditional, some require you to infiltrate enemy vessels Star Fox 2-style; the list goes on. The lessons from previous Star Fox games have clearly been learned and various elements that perhaps didn't work as well have been appropriately left out, resulting in an orgy of the very cream of the series' mechanics.
It's also unsurprisingly the prettiest Star Fox game to date; surfaces are gloriously shiny, explosions are bountiful, everything runs at 1080p and has a mostly stable 60fps of performance. We did notice some slowdown in certain areas, usually when a lot of enemies are destroyed simultaneously by an explosion close to the screen, but it's not clear if this is the hardware struggling or a design choice, but we suspect the former given that it's having to pump out two separate screens simultaneously. There's also no sign of anti-aliasing in true Nintendo style, but given the speed of the action and the intensity of the combat this is overlooked very quickly.
That's another thing we should talk about as well, the game's difficulty - we wonder whether PlatinumGames has had a hand in some of the tougher moments. Whilst nearly a year of Splatoon may have prepared us more than most, it's still not a title most people will breeze through without much thought. It's certainly not cruel and the omission of wing damage does make this easier than some previous efforts. Thankfully for those with more of a thirst for the unthinkably cruel, there are five medals hidden within each mission, many of which require the appropriately obtuse objectives for which the series has become famous. Finding all of these is far more difficult than the Green Stars in Super Mario 3D World, for example, and you can spend countless runs on a single level unable to find one elusive medal. Combining this with the high-score element that has rung true throughout Star Fox since the beginning, the Retro Arwing and the Black Arwing, and you've got a whole host of ways to bring up the difficulty if you so desire.
amiibo functionality should be enough to please both sides of the toy-to-life argument; Fox unlocks the retro Arwing from the SNES original, complete with unique features such as a lack of lock-on for any difficulty junkies, and Falco unlocks the Black Arwing, a glass cannon in the Star Fox universe that deals more damage, can lock onto two enemies at once, but only has a third of the shield strength. Both add to the appeal for skilful players.
In short Star Fox Zero appears to be the Star Fox game we've all been wanting since Star Fox 64, and whilst it's guilty of re-treading old ground that's one of the charms of it. Hearing Falco exclaim his preference for aviation brings us right back to sitting in front of our CRTs in the late nineties, but the polish and genuinely clever ideas help finally drag the series kicking and screaming into the HD era. Star Fox fans: follow your instincts and have some faith in this one.