Flying around in circles has never been this much fun.
For the newest entry in a series that has fallen on hard times lately, Star Fox Command is not an attempt to recapture the old magic, but rather a bold new game that mixes some nostalgia and core concepts with many new features. Maybe that's why it works so well, even though we old Star Fox fans may still pine for a fresh set of on-rails shooter levels.
Command's biggest new feature is right there in the name: strategy. Each mission is made up of several brief encounters which are initiated by placing your ships in the path of enemy squadrons on the map screen. The touch screen lets you draw convoluted paths through friendly bases and bonus items on your way to the enemy. Adding pressure and, well, strategy to the strategy elements are the limited number of turns, ever-present time limit, and enemy missiles that ignore no-fly zones and cannot be shot down by the Great Fox, your vulnerable base ship. The early maps are pitifully easy, but this feature eventually becomes quite challenging. Often, routes must be carefully drawn and re-drawn to stretch them out far enough so that you can take out all of the enemy bases and missiles in a limited number of turns. The strategy feature is brilliantly executed and turns out to be much more captivating than expected.
Now for some not-so-welcome news: every flying stage in the game, save for one excellent boss battle, takes place in a fully three-dimensional airspace with enemies swarming in all directions. These "all-range" environments were officially introduced in Star Fox 64 and were generally less interesting than the tightly designed, edge-of-your-seat, linear "on-rails" levels that defined the first Star Fox game as a shooter, not a flight sim. But, for the most part,, the all-range levels in Command are bigger and more interesting than those in previous Star Fox games. The varying planet topology rarely matters, but there is still a ton of variety thanks to the massive number of enemy types. There are several different enemy models for each of the game's dozen or so planets, and you may take a few battles or even multiple missions before you'll see everything a planet has to offer. The different enemies are not mere pallet swaps ,but rather distinct creatures and ships of widely varying flight patterns, attack types, and degrees of aggressiveness. When you're playing through the game for the fourth or fifth time and still see new enemies, that's impressive, and it's a major factor in the replay value.
You'll want to play the game numerous times because of the branching story paths. All of the Star Fox games (strike that: all of the GOOD ones) have had multiple paths, but Command eliminates the obscure gameplay requirements and instead asks you to choose the story direction at certain points in the game. The storylines themselves are written well enough but get rather melodramatic, and likely only the most frighteningly hardcore Star Fox fans will get into the plot details. Each choice determines which planet you'll visit next and what mission will be played there, ultimately earning one of the nine endings. It's a bit frustrating in that you can't really tell which path will lead to a desirable ending, but this structure does make it easy to try all the paths, if you just have the patience to keep replaying. Fortunately, even when you have to replay a mission (like the very first one, which occurs before the first branching point), it changes and gets much more challenging each time you beat the game. The strategy map will throw more fog of war, more no-fly zones, and a lot more enemies at you, and that high level of tension is part of the game's appeal. So while the game may seem easy at first, subsequent runs will prove otherwise.
The mandatory touch screen controls for Command actually work very well. The screen acts as the ship's yoke and throttle, while lasers are activated by any face or shoulder button. This setup is much more comfortable than the one needed for games like Metroid Prime: Hunters, because you can easily support the DS with your secondary hand and mash away at the button or D-pad direction of your liking. The rolling maneuver is extremely important in Command, as it both deflects enemy shots and attracts nearby items. The game tells you to scratch side-to-side for this move, but I found it easier to draw a quick circle or ellipse, which feels more natural and still activates the screen locations needed to start the roll. Loops and U-turns have tap icons, while bombs are dragged onto the touch screen map for pin-point decimation. It's a very cool application of this vintage weapon, but it makes some battles way too easy by letting you take out every single enemy at once with a well placed explosive.
Star Fox has never had a strong focus on multiplayer, and while Command continues to offer only basic dogfighting, the introduction of online play means more people are likely to try out this mode. You can't select a ship, choose a level, or set any other options,, so this feature is even more simplistic than the online features in Mario Kart DS and Tetris DS. Nevertheless, it is frantic and usually fun, as players are spawned at the edges of a large environment with power-ups piled into the middle. The initial mad dash for upgrades quickly establishes dominance and rivalry. Drag-and-drop bombs can take out even expert players, but it takes speed and cunning to fly in and collect the spoils, floating stars that determine the winner of the match. Random matching will fill a game quickly, but many players choose to drop out before all three battles of a match are complete. What's worse is that the match ends for everyone if even a single player drops out. Stick to playing with friends and you should have a good time, although the simple design probably won't keep you coming back for months on end. The game also allows for six-player local wireless play from only one game card, which is always a great feature.
This may not sound like a great compliment, but Star Fox Command is easily the best game in its series since Star Fox 64. In fact, it's better than SF64 in some ways, and it also steps into new territory with the strategy elements. Supposedly, Miyamoto asked developer Q-Games to concentrate on all-range missions and get the most out of that type of gameplay. I'd say they succeeded completely in that regard. Let's just hope his next request is for a crazy new on-rails shooter edition of Star Fox.