It always bothers me that this genre ends up being called a “space combat simulator”. Okay, “space” is a given. And “combat” is impossible to argue. But sim? These games do anything but sim. A game where you shoot slow-moving orbs of energy at fighters that must continually generate thrust to remain at max speed and that detonate in audible explosions when you reduce their hull integrity to zero is not a simulation of the sorts of things that can happen in space. Fun, sure. But that’s not a sim.
While claiming any title to be the “best” is usually grounds for a flamewar, this genre is small enough that I think I can point to the Freespace series as the high-water mark. The original was actually titled Descent: Freespace. Publisher Interplay wanted the game to have better name recognition, so they tacked on the name of their popular, unique, and totally unrelated first-person indoor spaceship shooter. I mean, both games have you piloting ships in zero gravity. That makes them kind of related, right? Like if Valve had named their zombie game: Half-Life: Outbreak because both games have you play as a person with a gun.
Freespace was tremendous. So good that it stepped out of the shadow of Descent, and has arguably outlived it in the minds of the gaming public. Freespace 2 is said to be even better, although I managed to miss it. It’s still on my list to play eventually. But it’s hard to play games from fourteen years ago when there’s so much new stuff to play. For example: Strike Suit Zero.
Strike Suit Zero was developed by indie team Born Ready Games. If you’ve ever played Freespace, X–Wing, Wing Commander, Tie Fighter, or any of the other Space Combat Unsimulators, then this is just what you’d expect: You’re given a single-pilot craft and sent on missions where you escort stuff, scout stuff, bomb stuff, guard stuff, or scan stuff. But no matter what your mission is, you’ll be doing a lot of dogfighting. Always dogfighting.
The hook with this game is that you pilot a Strike Suit, a fighter that can occasionally transform into a thing with arms and legs and skates around in space shootin’ ships Gundam style. (Not to be confused with, well… you know.) The Strike Suit can only be activated when you kill enough stuff, and firing your weapons causes it to lose power until it reverts back into a fighter and begins flying around again. Like I said: Not a simulation.
One thing I’ve always loved about these kinds of games is the way they’re content to let you be a regular pilot. Okay, you might have a ridiculous kill count and you end up flying all the most crucial missions, but you’re just another member of a squad. You’re not the chosen one, the prince, or the superhuman. The strike suit kind of undercuts this by making you the only person who has access to this exotic super-ship.
I had fun with Strike Suit Zero until I got frustrated and ditched the game on mission 9. I might give that mission a post of its own, but the short of it is that I was asked to do a little too much without enough justification and suddenly I was stuck, I wasn’t having fun, and I didn’t care what happened next. It’s a shame when a game has one bad part that can derail your enjoyment. In a movie you can just go passive and wait for it to stop sucking. But if a game raises the bar on how much work you need to put into it and at the same begins lowering the payout in enjoyment, then it’s no longer an entertainment product – it’s a chore.
Even if this mission had been easy, it was still absurd and undercut the notion that I was a lone fighter taking part in a larger conflict.
The Strike Suit is an interesting idea. The visuals are glorious. The voice acting is surprisingly good for an indie title. I recommend the game to fans of the genre, if only because we don’t get these things very often. I can vouch for the quality of everything up to mission 8. After that, you’re on your own.
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