2011: A SPACE TRAVESTY
Although the foundations had been laid for space gaming's return to prominence (Star Citizen and Elite Dangerous were both in early development), 2011 was a fairly bleak year for the genre. Early on, for example, it was announced that Mass Effect 3 would be delayed into 2012. Then Eve Online went into meltdown in the wake of its wasteful Incarna release. Simultaneously, Atari engaged in an act of self-sabotage by trying to reboot Star Raiders, one of its most revered franchises.
Not that I played it at the time, of course. I was vaguely aware that Atari was attempting to reanimate some of its old IPs (as it is wont to do every few years), but I was too wrapped up in Eve's summer-long troubles to notice Star Raiders had made its abortive appearance. By the time I was able to check out the heir apparent to one of the most influential games of all time, the crown had sunk into the swamp. Instead, I furtively wishlisted it in case it magically improved or was heavily discounted and there was little else to play - which at the end of 2011 seemed like a distinct possibility.
Happily, in 2012, everything changed. Chris Roberts and David Braben were back at their respective helms, riding a wave of crowd-funded space game projects, making it easy to ignore the submerged disaster of Atari's reboot. Until, that is, Star Raiders would bob to the surface like a turd that won't flush every time a Steam sale came around. Thus it was inevitable that I would relent to my curiosity; as happened just recently when I traded £1.74 for the right to play a game I had a sneaking suspicion would have no redeeming qualities whatsoever.
The good news is that Star Raiders isn't wholly terrible. The best thing about it are the visuals. They're not good, but in the context of when and where the game was released, I can report that the generic spacecraft aren't overly offensive. However, there is so much brown rock smeared against the blackness of space that the rare moments when the game almost looks attractive - such as around a rare planet - are forgotten about when you find yourself clattering into scenery you can't properly make out. Of course, the explosions and weapons fire add some much-needed illumination, but not nearly enough to get the screen pulsing, or indeed the blood pumping.
As acceptable as the game appears at standard resolution, however, the visuals are pegged back by poor UI scaling, which makes the HUD all-but useless in most combat situations. The tiny radar panel, crosshair elements and text flashes are especially hard to make out. Drop things down to the lowest resolution, however (I opted for 640x480), and Star Raiders looks and plays much better, more like a second-rate Colony Wars. If you can convince yourself it's a forgotten PSX relic circa 1995, you might be able to trade some faux nostalgia for fun!
Unfortunately, that's where the faint praise ends. The narrative cut-scenes, which combine uninterested voice-overs with lousy hand-drawn art, are an abomination. Frankly, they look like they were dashed out in a day, livened up with a few unintentionally comical animations and voiced by a passing delivery guy who signed the whole thing off. It has all the interest and depth of something a seven-year-old would come up with, minus the enthusiasm.
The thing with the story isn't that it's plainly terrible, it's that someone thought it necessary to create one in the first place. One of the most notable things about the original Star Raiders was that it was a nascent open-world affair, where you chose your destination on the Galatic Map based on your ability to deal with whatever threat might be in that sector at the time of your arrival. The reboot instead limits you to picking from a selection of missions, based on where you are in the storyline. It shows you a map, sure, but there's no real freedom to take on overwhelming odds at your own risk and pace. Your course, more or less, is laid in from the start.
The fundamental problem with New Star Raiders is that barely even attempts an impression of Classic Star Raiders, let alone pulls it off. Aside from the name, all we get that's reminiscent of the classic game is a vaguely familiar star map and radar panel. The all-important gameplay bears no resemblance to the original whatsoever. The tactical scope you had to travel the map in the original game - revelatory back in 1979 - is limited by a linear mission structure imposed by the pointless narrative, while the space combat elements are just plain lousy in the most fundamental way.
Take the ability to transform between three separate ship modes: a turret mode, which allows for heavier weapons but restricts movement, an attack mode, where you skip about in your fighter, and an assault mode that is somewhere between the two. It's an interesting idea, sure, but the implementation is poor. Aside from the tutorial doing an abysmal job of telling you when to change mode, the control scheme for each is hopelessly primitive. And you'll need to adapt the controls because they are awful. The game is borderline unplayable with a mouse and keyboard. Mouse sensitivity is all over the place, ship rotation is abrupt and lateral movement is so sluggish it may as well not exist. Things are a little better with a controller, movement is still inconsistent and jerky and lacks all finesse, but at least it isn't fundamentally broken.
Even if the controls were logical and tight, it wouldn't be enough. The Zylon pilots follow rote AI patterns and are easily dispensed with, especially at range. The bigger ships, bizarrely, are taken out by destroying generators that protrude along the sides like radioactive pickle jars and are even less of a challenge. Sure, you'll face overwhelming numbers of frigates and turrets, but with the maps being abundant with collectable resources, you can upgrade your ship in no time. Then, even when you lose your ship, there is no apparent cost or limit to your respawning, taking away what small challenge there was in the first place. The tedium is exacerbated by a mission progression that does little more than increase the kill quota.
Probably the best thing about Star Raiders is that when you uninstall it, you get 949MB back, which is enough space to install the original 8kb game more than 118,000 times. If you're unfamiliar with that genre-defining classic, perhaps because it's more than 40 years old, I would suggest trying it out before seeking out this travesty of a follow-up. As dated as the original Star Raiders is, it's by far the better game, one that, crucially, deserved better than to be associated with such a cynical, low-grade attempt to capitalise on a once-great name.
If you have Star Raiders in a wishlist, I urge you to do what I couldn't and remove it before another Steam sale causes it to resurface and tempt you into buying it. This is one turd of a space game needs to stay submerged.
SUMMARY: Developed by #IncineratorGames and released by #Atari, #StarRaiders is a #singleplayer game set in #interplanetary#deepspace. It features a short #campiagn, #missions, #shipupgrades and erratic #third-person #shipcombat. Being a dire #reboot of an 8bit classic, #1star is being generous.
PLAYED: #PC version, #released2011)