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Star Fox Zero has many parts and little time for any of them

Fox McCloud has daddy issues. We know this because not five minutes of game time goes by without someone mentioning James McCloud, the missing dad who gave his life so that the people (well, animals) of the universe could be safe from the menace of the evil scientist Andross. Only, he didn’t do so great a job, because Andross is back in Star Fox Zero, the sixth game in the series and the first to be developed for the Wii U.

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Maybe that’s why Fox is so troubled. His father sacrificed his life in vain, and now it’s the son’s job to pick up where the old man left off. With the help of his loyal team members (Falco Lombardi, Peppy Hare, and Slippy Toad, the same group that’s been around the whole series, doing pretty much what they always do: gripe and get in your way), Fox has to save the good guys from the bad guys and follow in his father’s footsteps. Or maybe he’s supposed to be redeeming the legacy of his father’s failure. Or who knows, maybe there’s some sort of Hamlet scenario going on—that sounds like fun. The execution is so slipshod, this could arguably be about anything.

The narrative isn’t the point, of course, but the nonsensical excuse for a plot that Star Fox Zero unloads on its players is symptomatic of the game’s clumsy efforts to pull off 16 different things at once without doing any one of them justice. Every time you rescue the idiotic rabbit in combat, Peppy (the older, more mature talking animal of the group) tells you your father would be proud, and at first, it’s a mildly cute reminder that Fox is supposedly more than just the anonymous ship you control. But after hearing the comment a dozen times or more, the words lose what little meaning they might’ve had. It’s not character development; it’s just a cliché presented without context in hopes that repetition will offer the illusion of depth.

The actual space battling has more going on, but only slightly. It, too, suffers from the curious presumption that the mere presentation of an idea is enough to give that idea meaning. Star Fox has struggled for years to transcend the “on-rails shooter with awesome-for-the-time graphics” limitations of its original release, and this latest attempt represents a new low. Cohesion has been lost in a baffling and increasingly infuriating need to present players with a constant stream of fresh new vehicles with which to struggle.

And struggle they likely will. The Arwing ships remain the core of the experience, and they control the best of the game’s multiple vehicles. There’s a speed and fluidity to movement that remains thrilling, and the trick of using the Wii U gamepad as a kind of aiming stylus is, if not intuitive, than at least not as awkward as it initially seems. But accurate flying becomes a nuisance during the “free-range” segments that supposedly offer more freedom, resulting in a lot of repeated U-turns and missed targets. Levels requiring precise accuracy don’t mesh well with the ship’s constant forward motion, and what should be the adrenaline rush of combat quickly sours under the weight of endless backtracking.

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At least the ships feel fundamentally sound, fast, and responsive. Other segments force players to transform out of their precious Arwings and take over a variety of alternative vehicles with different controls and play styles. There’s an on-the-ground robot that offers access to corridors; a gyrocopter for precision flying; even a tank for ground assaults.

In theory, this should add greater depth, but the result is a game that never settles into any mode long enough to allow its players to get comfortable. The main menu offers training missions for those who want more time to hone their skills, but that’s no substitute for a bad design that presents tools without giving room to explore what those tools are capable of. Worse, nothing here seems to fit in the same game. There’s an unconventionality to the gyrocopters’ slow, patient movements, but it’s hard to reconcile that novelty with the rapid-fire assault of other sections, and not once does Zero make much effort to try.

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The result is more a loose collection of segments than anything approaching a complete experience. It’s a tech demo for equipment long past its prime. Longtime fans will find some occasional pleasures, as all the old touchstones—rings, warp zones, a robotic voice saying “Good luck”—at least offer an illusion of continuity. But the illusion only goes so far. With no rise and fall to the experience, and no growing intensity outside of a handful of irritating difficulty spikes, Zero resembles a racing game with a limited series of tracks to choose from, a forced and utterly unconvincing story, and not much else. Even a short racing game gives you something fun to drive.

Packaged along with Star Fox Zero is Star Fox Guard, an arcade strategy game that, branding aside, has next to nothing to do with the main series. Players attempt to protect a mining facility from the depredations of goofy, violent robots. Instead of piloting ships, you fight back by selecting camera angles and firing lasers. It’s a clever and zippy mix of planning, reflexes, and patience, albeit one with a very limited focus, and the touch controls and limited movement options would feel right at home on a tablet or smart phone. That isn’t a criticism, exactly, but its inclusion here fits in neatly with a troubling lack of consistent vision. If there was a way to combine the discipline of Guard with the ambition of Zero, that might be a game worth remembering.

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