About five minutes after I was told I was to review the Xbox Live Arcade version of the game Star Raiders, I had completely forgotten the title of the game. Looking back, the bland, unmemorable title quite accurately describes the time I spent with this game.
After a little research, I discovered that Star Raiders is a remake of the 1979 Atari game of the same name. The original was considered a classic, and was one of the pioneers of space combat video games. Naturally, like all classic arcade games, Star Raiders has come back, remade for a new generation of gamers, available on Xbox Live, Steam and the PlayStation Network.
In Star Raiders, you play as a young hotshot space Cadet tasked with defending humanity from the threat of the supposedly evil Zylons. Gameplay comes in the form of space combat, where you can control an upgradable, transforming star fighter, usually charged with wiping out the enemy or defending an objective. These missions are laid out and accessed through a galaxy map, allowing players to undertake the assignments in whatever order they please.
Save for a few nasty design flaws, the actual gameplay is fun, if forgettable. The unique element of Star Raiders is that the player ship can transform into three (semi) distinct forms that have their own uses: the stationary but powerful “turret mode”, the well rounded “assault mode” and the fast yet awkward “attack mode”. The game does a poor job at guiding you through this, so you will have to scramble around to figure out the controls and basic gameplay elements. Once you realize the strengths and weaknesses of each form, gameplay can become quite satisfying and enjoyable, but such moments tend to be lost in between flashes of frustration.
The big problem is the controls. The button layout for the immobile turret mode is fine and functional, and the controls for assault mode are somewhat similar to the space ship in Halo: Reach. When it comes to attack mode however, the game becomes next to unplayable. The previous forms used the right analog stick to control the pitch and rotation of the spaceship – it is essentially the “look” stick, while the left stick controls ship movement and thrust. For some reason, however, attack mode uses the left stick for look controls, while acceleration is controlled by the A button, leaving the other analog stick completely useless.
This is strange and clumsy for numerous reasons, as the previous ship forms use the right stick for pitch and rotation, suddenly switching from using the right stick to look around to using the left stick is jarring and confusing. Additionally, using the right stick is pretty much the standard for controlling the player camera, so when the left stick is tasked for such controls, it feels clunky and unfamiliar. I’m not saying that players won’t be able to adapt or become accustomed to this strange layout, I just find it odd that the control scheme essentially inverts itself in this once instance. While players can choose their ship form on the fly, attack mode is the only one of the three that’s effective at travelling long distances quickly, making it (and its awful controls) impossible to avoid.
When I wasn’t busy wrestling with the controls, I managed to actually enjoy myself in certain doses, as quickly transforming my ship to adapt to the situation was quite fun when it worked. Even the parts of the gameplay that do work, however, start to wear down, as the missions become more and more repetitive. Most missions comprise of “kill X enemies” or “kill X enemies within X minutes”. There is the occasional defense mission, but even those were completed by eliminating all of the enemies. You can only do the same thing so much before the gameplay becomes a chore.
Graphically, the game is… okay. While competent enough for an arcade game, the full 3D graphics are forgettable at best, much like the rest of the game. Many of the environments were often dark (it is space, after all), making it quite difficult to see and identify enemy ships. The user interface is similarly dark, with eye-strainingly small text to boot. The player ship can be upgraded as currency is collected, which is a fun little addition, but the cumbersome interface makes that more work than it should be.
In the end, Star Raiders is as forgettable and unoriginal as its name. If it weren’t for a few absolutely horrendous control layouts, the game would be a somewhat entertaining, but still forgettable diversion. However, the repetitive mission structure and frustrating controls diminish whatever goodwill players will hold towards the game, making it hard for me to recommend the experience.
Star Raiders was released on May 11th, 2011 for Xbox 360 and PC. Review is based on the Xbox 360 version.