A quick note: I played the original, non-Director’s Cut version without any DLC.
Here I expected some arcadey mech game where I flew around dropping cluster bombs, which is sort of what I got, at least in the titular craft’s Strike Mode. Combat was a little slower than I expected, as I had full control over my direction of flight and often had to use it to seek out targets and to boost away from the action for a minute while my shields recharged, as a lot of attacks were simply unavoidable. This wasn’t exactly ideal, as the game’s main draw is the fast-paced dogfighting, and the freedom of movement doesn’t really come with the freedom to explore space outside of missions, and in fact it’s pretty easy to fly out of bounds and instantly fail a mission. There’s certainly room to maneuver, but when you’re talking about spaceflight, pretty much any boundaries feel too small. Making player ships automatically turn around when they were almost out-of-bounds would have been nicer than instant failure.
But it’s a really fun game, most of the time. I was improving my techniques right up to the end of the campaign, which felt satisfying: learning the best times to switch modes on the Strike Suit to avoid fire, maneuver, and to gather energy for attacks; the quickest ways to shoot down fighters; when to focus fire while locking on with the Y button (great against torpedoes at close range) and when to wave the control stick around while launching an “Itano Circus” instead. I liked playing with the different weapon loadouts and ships, although in the end I felt that the Strike Suit itself was overpowered to the point that using anything else would be a handicap.
Graphically the game seemed dated and underwhelming. The UI and environmental art were really nice, but the ship models were flat, sparse, simulator-esque. The ship explosions weren’t much better, and I didn’t much care for the Tron light-cycle effects trailing the ships, though as a visual aid they really helped to get behind an enemy in a dogfight. I wouldn’t even bring up the graphics, but in a simple game of destruction, style and spectacle are a big part of finding satisfaction. I guess they only had like a couple hundred thousand dollars, though–not $76 million or anything–and there are limits to what that’ll get you. The game proves that there’s life in the genre, but doesn’t really stand at the summit of it.
The gameplay doesn’t change much from level to level, and while the story passes muster, no matter what the excuse is for being in an area, you’re going to be attacking a squadron of fighters, bombing small structures on capital ships, and occasionally diverting to blow up some torpedoes. This isn’t too big of a deal, and a bigger problem than the lack of variety is that the survival techniques–the EMP countermeasures and the Strike Suit missile dodges–don’t really go far enough. The trick to staying alive is to stay outside the range of a lot of ships, because there’s not really any avoiding a regular hail of gunfire. The Strike Suit can mitigate this by constantly strafing, but that only goes so far, and it would have been more fun if combat was designed to be more aggressive, for instance if players could regain some health by destroying targets, and were attacked more with telegraphed and avoidable beam weapons rather than storms of intense fire.
Checkpointing could have sometimes been done a little more intelligently, as in one case where I was attempting to complete the challenge for a stage and more than once I had to return to a point where the player just drifts around for two minutes while characters repeat the same conversation I heard the first time around, waiting for enemy ships to spawn in. I never took more than 4 attempts to get anything done, turning down the difficulty to Easy when redoing a couple missions for the more annoying challenge unlocks I’d missed, but the repetition and wait phases would have only become a bigger problem if I really sucked at the game or refused to play on anything but the highest difficulty, especially given how long some of the stages last (some nearing half an hour). It’s because of this that I didn’t bother going for gold/platinum medals, and just watched the good ending on youtube.