The sexy Eurasian space sim
Good golly this game is gorgeous. It’s common for space sims to offer eye candy, sure – zero-g combat set against the majestic expanse of the universe demands it – but Strike Suit Zero is something else. It’s as if FreeSpace 2 slipped into a slinky red dress. And then transformed into a giant robot.
The style on offer here is very much East meets West, a mixture of anime mecha combat with dry sci-fi military side of Wing Commander (without space cats). The result is an accomplished artistic fusion; wholly consistent and never anything less than breathtaking. The battles are just as readable, too: enemies glow red and friendlies glow blue; light cycle-style fighter trails streak through the combat space. There’s a fantastic variation in the high-resolution backdrops; from cracked planets, to ice fields, to brilliant nebulae. You just want to cruise around and take in the view.
But there’s no time for that, because those red-trailed fighters put you under constant assault. There’s little time to breathe in Strike Suit Zero, betraying its fast-paced, arcade nature early on. This isn’t so much a space simulation as a virtual light show. FreeSpace 2 seems to have traded in a few IQ points for that slinky red dress.
In doing so, Strike Suit Zero delivers easily the most satisfying mouse control the space combat genre has seen. Some clever tweaking of deadzones, combined with a varying degree of auto-aim per weapon, moves the focus from precision to positioning. Basic interactions between weapon types and enemies’ shields and armour make for a thoroughly satisfying dog fighting loop.
At least, when you’re the ship who’s behind. Simplified controls mean a complete lack of shield or energy management, so when you’re being shot at, there’s little else to do but hope you can absorb the brunt of the attack whilst afterburning away. This applies just as much to fighter combat as capital ship strafing runs. You’re left with little option but to do as much damage to the cruiser’s destructible weapons as possible, then zip away and wait for your shield to recharge. This quickly becomes repetitive.
THE CRAFT CAN TRANSFORM INTO A STANDING ROBOT FORM
An attempt to remedy this is seen in the titular Strike Suit; the experimental craft you’ll spend much of the game piloting. After destroying enough enemies and filling up a ‘flux’ meter, the craft can transform into a standing robot form (making it extremely vulnerable to all kinds of attack), auto-target anything in the vicinity and unleash a hailstorm of seeker missiles.
The flux this transformation relies on is an economy, built up through destroying enemies and expended with every missile launch or firing of its primary cannons. Though it’s tempting to hold the right mouse button and target everything ten times until the flux meter runs out, there’s a skill to managing this transformation as every target destroyed whilst in flux mode actually regenerates the flux itself. Resourceful players will maintain the super-powered form for sixty seconds rather than six.
Missions have clearly been designed around this power flow, with the destruction of powerful beam cannons and flak turrets on enemy capital ships a regular objective. It’s much faster, and easier, to accomplish this in Strike Suit mode, but the flow-on effect of this is the endless respawning of enemy fighters. Since their own destruction is the basis of the flux economy, the mission design is never comfortable leaving you in a state where you’re unable to build up enough flux to complete your carrier strafing runs. And these fighters won’t stop spawning until you complete your objective, after which a cutscene interrupts and you’ll warp to the next bounded area of pretty-looking space.
It falls apart when the fighters themselves become a threat, or the objectives become vague enough that they border upon deceptive. One mission tasked us with protecting a wing of bombers whilst they torpedoed an enemy carrier. This required us to shoot down the endlessly spawning fighters that were swatting down the bombers and their payloads. After repeated failures, we found it was simply easier, and faster, to destroy the carrier ourselves – thus protecting the bombers because the cutscene bumped us into the next area.
It gets even worse when you’re required to protect your own capital ships against multiple threats. With enemy corvettes, cruiser beam cannons and bomber wings all wailing on your own carrier, there’s just too much to deal with at once – and it is all up to you, given friendly fighters are mostly there to add some flashy effects. Later missions feel like they run on autopilot, with you left to pinpoint what the actual objective is that will kick the scripting in that advances to the next stage of the firefight – rather than organically engage with targets.
LATER MISSIONS FEEL LIKE THEY RUN ON AUTOPILOT
It works to create one hell of a spectacle, but it’s not worth the disingenuous sense of agency nor the frustrating trial and error. And it’s disheartening to see, because – as the first of the new wave of Kickstarted space sims – Strike Suit Zero had the chance to provide a fast, fresh take on typically deadpan dog fighting. To an extent, it succeeds. The flux economy works fantastically. It’s the best-looking space sim on PC. But the failure of its mission design means space-Nuevo has experienced a shaky launch.