Review

Star Raiders Review (PS3)

Becoming an astronaut is every geek's childhood dream, along with collecting every Pokémon and forming a lasting relationship with another human being. As I sit alone at my desk while the legendary beasts of Johto laugh at my pathetic attempts to catch them, it falls to Star Raiders to try and fulfil one of those dreams.

What do astronauts actually do, anyway? I know they fly into space and everything, but presumably they have some other jobs when they're up there. Much as I'd like to think they spend their time playing space table tennis, eating space food and taking hilariously awkward visits to the zero gravity toilet, their day to day activities are probably best captured by the banality of Star Raiders.

 
I’m going to struggle to say something clever for these…

Let's go back to that zero gravity toilet for a second: imagine its lid flies open and everything gets covered, slowly but surely, in an unstoppable flow of space sewage. That's what playing Star Raiders feels like: its terrible nature gradually spreads through your consciousness until the stench makes you unable to concentrate on anything except leaving the vicinity.

It starts off badly with an excruciating ‘tutorial’ mission, a convoluted memory test where you’re forced to recall arcane Xbox controller schematics. It is 2011: show me how to play the game; don't force me to read pages of microscopic text. On my 40" television the text is smaller than the letters on my iPad’s virtual keyboard, making it painful to read the mission briefings. Even more painful than squinting to read the briefings is digesting the bland word soup contained within.

To be honest, at this point I was tempted to give up and tell the Strategy Informer overlords I'd developed review-thwarting tendinitis. Then Star Raiders laid down the gauntlet, tarnishing my gamer profile with a trivial five-point achievement for shooting down a few measly Zylons (not Cylons, copyright fans). It had provoked me with the challenge of completing it, and I intended to respond. This meant war. Star war.

I am gobsmacked that such a crude game could exist in this day and age. Everything about it is aesthetically vulgar, from the lurid green highlights around enemies to the rancid pause menu. How can a pause menu even be ugly? All the while, you're goaded into muting the television with dance music that traditionally substitutes for a soundtrack in fifteen-year-old PC shareware shooters. At least those games had a touch of amateur charm. Even something as basic as navigating a menu is crippled by asinine design that permeates every aspect of Star Raiders.

If you thought selecting a mission was difficult, just wait until you start playing the game. Up and down movements on your controller alter the pitch of your raider, but left and right control the roll of the craft. You are a glorified vibrator, zigzagging through the stars, completely failing to satisfy with every thrust. I don’t care if this is an accurate simulation of space flight: if Bungie can get it right in a twenty minute digression during Halo Reach, then we should expect more from a ten hour game with nothing but space dogfighting.

 
These screenshots look the same because every mission plays the same

Your fighter has three different forms- flight, assault and turret- each as effective at battling the Zylons as an unvarnished chestnut. As you alternate between the three forms, your view controls jump from one analogue stick to the other. It’s as if someone came up with a list of terrible video game clichés and bad design decisions, then giddily checked their way down said list as each were added to Star Raiders. Flight mode is fast but has the worst weapons, while in turret form you’re as slow as space molasses, so you’ll spend most of your time in assault mode drifting between large Zylon frigates in search of their exposed generators. These feel more like a surgical operation as you crawl your way along the ship, popping fluorescent boils until it collapses in a leaky pus explosion. It’s just a shame there's already a game called Starlancer.

Eventually your weapons systems run out of energy and you must return to a floating obelisk to recharge. None of this is any fun, by the way. It's quicker to die than flee and recharge, since you're merely punished with a five second wait before flying back into the fray fully-charged. With few exceptions, it's impossible to lose. As a result, there’s no point in attaining any level of proficiency as a pilot. It makes the game feel completely unrewarding, which isn’t helped by the dull weapon upgrades you can unlock at the shop. Ultimate weapons are accompanied by wonderfully descriptive names like 'Raptor Missile, aka The Raptor' and 'Phalanx Gun, aka the Phalanx'. I’m surprised that they didn’t go one step further and call your pilot ‘Joe McCool, aka Mr Cool’.

Throughout the course of the game, it randomly interjects the 'action' with cringe worthy cut scenes on the Human-Zylon War. Why would I care about these people? They are literal two-dimensional cut outs who never interact with the player; you'll never even see another friendly ship besides your own and the cruiser on which it is stationed. If the cut scenes were to be believed your wingmen were whizzing around the whole time, covering your ass in death-defying feats of bravery. Didn’t you notice? If the game's story is "There are aliens, and we must murder these aliens" then let's dispense the pathetic attempts to construct something meaningful with such flimsy scaffolding and get on with the murdering already.

Murdering these aliens is dull, repetitive work. There is little to no variation between missions: most are a simple deep space shootout, whether it’s facing waves of fighters or commencing ‘Operation Knitting Needle and Boiling Water’ against larger cruisers. There are a couple of later stages that are mildly interesting: one has you dramatically assaulting a space elevator above a rust-coloured planet, while the final stage sees you weaving through narrow tunnels to drop a bomb in the core of a star. Your progress through the latter is hampered by the awful controls, creating the only real challenge of the game, albeit an artificial and controller-throwingly frustrating one.

 
Watch out for those festering space boils, Joe!

This is the point in the review where you’ll normally read something like “Star Raiders had the potential to be great, but somehow it doesn’t quite succeed”. I’m not going to write that, because it isn’t true. It never had the potential to be great: it was awful from conception and was created without any thought towards what might constitute entertainment. It comes as little surprise to find that it is the latest in a series of rubbish Atari cash ins following Yar’s Revenge and Haunted House. Let’s hope they don’t make more.

Star Raiders is doggerel: derivative, insubstantial tripe that fails to entertain on any level while simultaneously tarnishing the legacy of a classic Atari 800 game. I can't remember the last time I have played something so objectively bad, and Atari should be ashamed that they are actually receiving money for this.

Top Game Moment: Escaping a collapsing star at the finale, knowing I’d never have to play it again.

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