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Star Fox Zero channels everything bad about Wii U game design

Bad motion controls and boring missions kill Star Fox Zero's fun

Star Fox Zero is something of a reimagining/reboot of the series, as it takes story elements from the original SNES game and mixes it with events and ideas from each subsequent title — including a few bits that seem directly borrowed from the unreleased Star Fox 2. It stars the titular pilot, Fox McCloud, and his animal friends as they battle the evil Andross and his efforts to take over the galaxy.

There are things that I don't hate about Star Fox Zero. It's not a terrible-looking game, and it evokes the simplified, polygonal origins of the series in a way that makes sense. It's clear and easy to read, and the talking heads that have always featured prominently in previous games have been lovingly recreated in the most anachronistic way by new series stewards PlatinumGames — Platinum even included the badly digitized "good luck" sound bite from the original game before each mission begins. In the beginning, it's charming in its own way.

That charm doesn't last, however. Star Fox Zero feels like every muddled, unsuccessful experiment with the Wii U was stuffed into a single game. By default, aiming in this mostly on-rails shooter is handled via motion controls, though unlike in some other Wii U titles, you can't use a Wii Remote and Nunchuk peripheral. This means aiming with the GamePad, which would be bad enough on its own. But there are also extended, often arbitrary seeming sequences where camera control on your television is taken away, locking the view to a fixed position, at which point Star Fox Zero forces you to use the screen on the GamePad to play the game from a constricted "cockpit view."

Did I mention that some mission-critical audio is only available through the GamePad's speakers?

While in cockpit view, you'll still need to fly your Arwing like normal, which requires both analog sticks on the GamePad. In effect, Star Fox Zero often wants you to manage the equivalent of three analog sticks to play the game, which is ridiculous — the game isn't doing anything other space combat games haven't achieved using fewer inputs, and more effectively than Platinum manages here to boot.

Star Fox Zero suggests that you can disable motion controls, but that isn't actually the case. They can be disabled during default Arwing combat, but there are numerous points where motion controls are the only available aiming option. This includes during ground-based segments using the walker, helicopter or tank vehicles. And to add insult to injury, even when some motion controls are disabled, your in-game companions will drone on and on about using them for greater accuracy.

Did I mention that some mission-critical audio is only available through the GamePad's speakers?

I've made it through a little more than half of the game, and thus far, Star Fox Zero isn't just a collection of mechanical problems. Levels are extremely simple, lacking any real sense of spectacle or, well, adventure. Combat moves in fits and starts, and levels are very short, often ending just as they find any sense of rhythm or satisfaction.

It's not that Star Fox Zero is hard, really. It's often bizarrely easy, until it suddenly isn't, in part because twitch shooting or action is so dependent on motion control with the GamePad. It is, to be blunt, a miserable experience, and the idea of playing more fills me with the kind of deep, existential dread I can't really justify. The game itself actually seems fairly short, but it has the standard Platinum complement of challenges within each mission, collectibles to find, and more to pad out its length. There's also a co-op mode that allows two players to share control of an Arwing, before, I assume, they commit intense physical violence against each other.

In many ways, Star Fox Zero actually feels like a launch title for the Wii U console, full of half-fleshed-out ideas that don't quite stick. But the Wii U has been out for almost four years now, and I can't help but wonder what happened.

This isn't a review of Star Fox Zero. Save for very rare, extreme circumstances, Polygon reviews require that a game be completed, or at least a good-faith effort be made to complete it.

I am not playing any more Star Fox Zero.