Atari’s Star Raiders is a 3D space combat remake of their 1979 8-bit title of the same name. Cited as the inspiration for a great many better-known titles that followed – including the ubiquitous Elite – Star Raiders is generally considered to have been ahead of its time in terms of scope and execution. What a shame, then, that this remake by Incinerator Studios feels so sloppy, uninspired and generally behind the times.
You play a man by the name of Talon (seriously) who, despite being a flight cadet at the time the game begins, is called upon to single-handedly face down a relentless swarm of Cylons – sorry, ZYLONS – as they threaten to destroy humanity, or something. The gameplay is reasonably solid, offering you a transforming ship complete with numerous weapon and system upgrades that are paid for using ‘salvage credits’ accrued as you destroy enemies and mine asteroids in space.
Unfortunately, it doesn’t take very long to realise that the game is both heavily flawed and extremely repetitive. The heralded “choose your own path” feature offers a grid map with scant actual choice, and you’re regularly forced to pick filler missions consisting of a one-line briefing followed by a cheerless “fly here, kill this many bad guys and fly home” refrain before you’re allowed to move on with the plot. The weapon upgrades are perfunctory and can all be bought early on, assuming you’re willing to fly around collecting asteroids for a bit. Even if you’re not, the mission rewards and kill bonuses will let you fully upgrade whatever your favoured weapons are and soon you’re simply accumulating credits and wondering if you should hold onto them or splash out on upgrading that weapon you hate in case it magically becomes worth using.
This brings me neatly onto the subject of the multi-form spaceship. In the tutorial missions you are introduced to each form and its strengths and weaknesses. There’s ‘Attack’ mode, which gives you speed and manoeuvrability for “epic dogfights” at a cost of weaker shields and low energy supply; ‘Assault Mode’ turns you into a slower, but more precise mecha-like craft that can dodge cannon fire while raining missiles down on enemy flagships; and finally there’s ‘Turret’ mode, which sacrifices nearly all your movement in order to deploy the heaviest weapons and strongest defences. Sounds great, right? In practice, not so much. Attack mode will be used almost exclusively to fly from one place to another due to its speed, Assault mode is where you’ll spend most of your time, since the enemies helpfully circling around you are easily picked off without any need for dogfighting, and Turret mode’s enhanced weaponry is nice, but really not enough of an upgrade from Assault mode to want to spend any great length of time as a sluggish wad of metal in space. Overall, they needn’t have bothered with the third mode in the absence of any real opportunities to use it.
Dying in Star Raiders seems arbitrary; there is no real feeling of threat to be found, since death is punishable only by a short respawn timer. This might affect you if you’re on a particularly tight mission deadline, but I found most timed missions could be completed easily within the restraints. Far more irritating is the weapon and shield energy system. When you fire a weapon, your energy depletes – how fast depends on the type of weapon. As this energy runs out, you will need to recharge at one of many stationary satellites that can typically be found within spitting distance at any given moment, even in enemy territory. I found through trial and error that the only way to recharge your shield – besides intentionally killing yourself – is to recharge your weapon energy, fly away from the satellite and then fly back, and on the second pass your shields are recharged. Improperly-explained gameplay mechanics like this are part and parcel of why playing Star Raiders is such an unrewarding experience.
For short pick-up-and-play blasts, Star Raiders is actually quite fun. The graphics aren’t bad, but being a space sim there aren’t many occasions where you get to enjoy them. Overall, the game’s bad points far outweigh the good, and the experience as a whole feels quite amateurish. The generic, mankind-vs-evil-faceless-aliens plot can be forgiven; so, too, can the cheesy AV segments voiced by a Bruce Campbell sound-alike to introduce certain key missions. But for a game backed by Atari, based on something they tout as a classic, you would have thought a little more pride would have gone into the presentation. Instead, the writing is atrocious and some of the between-game visuals look like something an A-Level student might have cobbled together the night before. If you’re a fan of the genre and have the patience to get past the repetition and occasionally imbecilic AI, you might enjoy this. Personally, I found myself thankful that in space, nobody could hear me scream.
MLG Rating: 4/10
Platform: Xbox 360/PS3/PC Release Date: 11/05/11
Disclosure: Midlife Gamer were provided with a digital copy of Star Raiders for review purposes by the promoter. The title was reviewed over the course of one week on a Xbox 360. For more information on what our scores mean, plus details of our reviews policy, click here.