Like Chivalry: Medieval Warfare and FTL before it, Strike Suit Zero is title to have benefited from a successful Kickstarter campaign. It’s one of a handful of Kickstarted titles hoping to bring back the glory days of space combat sims (which most would consider to be the mid-to-late 90s, encompassing X-Wing to Freespace 2), and if the game stays on course for an early 2013 release it should benefit from being one of the first out of the docks.
The focus here is on borderline-arcade style combat; this is not a title aiming for the open-space ambitions of Elite or Star Citizen, but instead a sequential, mission based affair. Tactical considerations are present though, in the form of weapon energy gauges, limited missile numbers and effective juggling of your main craft’s two default states (Pursuit and Strike). This craft (the titular Strike Suit) is able to transform from a regular fighter-style vessel into a more static, mech-like body capable of spamming multiple missile strikes and delivering high damage across a number of targets.
In the preview code supplied by Born Ready Games it was possible to sample seven of the opening nine missions in the game, offering a sense for how levels will be structured and how the Strike Suit (as well as other in-game craft) controls. Judging the quality of other aspects in this preview is a trickier proposition, as almost all of the voice-acting was placeholder material and certain in-mission assets (ship models and soforth) are said to be temporary as well. Difficulty balance (in this code there were no specific difficulty options, just the missions themselves) is also still in the process of being finalised.
As a result it was easy to get a sense of what the Strike Suit Zero narrative is aiming to achieve, but harder to form a clear idea how compelling it will be in its final form. It’s a tale of Earth’s ongoing war with its former colonial planets (for once you play as the empire of Earth, rather than the rebellious colonies) and the latter’s acquisition of a powerful device capable of destroying entire planets. That might sound like a rather one-sided fight, but around mission three you learn that Earth has been conducting some dubious military hardware experiments of its own and are presented with the keys to the lovely Strike Suit.
Missions are structured around a series of evolving objectives, communicated to you as audio orders from whomever happens to be the most senior military member present at the time. You might, for example, begin by targeting enemy fighters who are harassing a set of Earth freighters, only for the situation to escalate to the point where you’re taking down beam turrets on sizeable enemy frigates while dodging flack cannon fire and hostile interceptor craft.
As is often the style in these games, the larger capital ships have individual points (such as turrets) that can be targeted on their hulls. In Strike Suit Zero these points provide excellent opportunities for multiple missile attacks, but this in turn means first building up ‘flux,’ the limited resource which drains whenever you pop out of Pursuit and into Strike mode. Flux recharges on its own, but ramps up more quickly when you destroy enemy ships or pieces of wreckage. As a consequence, a fair few of the preview missions were centered around the strategy of quickly picking off a few smaller craft to build up flux in order to launch specific attacks on capital class ships.
While the placeholder voice acting didn’t exactly get me super motivated for the conflicts ahead, Paul Ruskay’s (Homeworld) compositions proved much more successful. For Strike Suit Zero, Ruskay has collaborated with Japanese vocalist Kokia and members of a Delhi-based group called Midival Punditz. It’s an eclectic mix, but one that forms a gripping soundtrack for your deep space tussles. Seeing your wingmates cluster around an embattled frigate as you fire up the thrusters and rush to their aid is rendered all the more urgent by Ruskay’s score. It’s game music at its most engaging, offering a sound that complements and enhances the voids of space, as well as lending an emotional spur to your actions.
The game’s craft (be they the early fighter you start out in, or the Strike Suit itself) handle pretty well on both mouse and keyboard as well as a 360 pad. WASD gives you forward/reverse thrust and banking rolls, while the mouse points the nose of your ship. The ‘deadzone’ on the mouse movement is fairly large however, which means that even with sensitivity ramped all the way up it’s necessary to drag the mouse a little way to get the full effect of pulling the nose up or down to its maximum extent. When making agile strafing runs above larger ships (where a collision can mean instant death), a little more finesse on the controls would be welcome.
There are a couple more oddities of design too, like the lack of any sort of radar. Instead, you have to rely on following permanent on-screen arrows which denote the distance and location of foes. It’s possible to target either an enemy directly ahead (with R by default), or the nearest enemy (with F), but there’s no option to cycle through targets. On missions where you’re expected to deal with a specific moving target (say, enemy torpedos) this option is sorely missed.
Having no options to give (even broad) orders to wingmates is also a bit of a shame, and leads to a few circumstances where you wonder if your fellow pilots are contributing as much to the battle as they could. As a bit of a test, I resisted doing anything in a mission that featured a few friendly fighters against nine enemies in the weakest tier of ships. Over the course of five minutes, that counter slowly ticked down to seven (far slower than if I’d been involved).
While player input should of course be necessary to complete objectives, it’s important to maintain the illusion that friendly AI is providing more than just mere set dressing. Your instructor Reynolds (a Starbuck-esque figure you meet on the very first mission) is said to be a great pilot, yet I never got a sense that her actions during missions reflected this. Don’t just tell me she’s great: show me.
Friendly AI reticence aside, Strike Suit Zero is rather successful at making the player feel like part of a wider conflict. If you manage to find time to take a look at what’s happening around you, you’ll see missiles blazing through the void, plasma weapon exchanges between capital vessels and the distant trails of dogfighting craft.
Again, it’s clear that this preview build is not the final release, so there should still be the time and inclination to address matters like a ‘cycle targets’ button. Certain Kickstarter backers are getting access to a beta build at present (likely the one this preview is based on), and will no doubt offer their feedback to the developers as well.
What it’s possible to say at this point is that Strike Suit Zero will offer an impressive staging of sizeable cosmic conflicts, satisfying control over agile ships, memorable craft design by Junji Okubo and a magnificent soundtrack. If Born Ready Games can maintain its current level of mission variety, introduce voice-acting that really sells the narrative (a few more in-mission barks wouldn’t go amiss either) and respond well to the beta feedback from its backers, then the title will be in a strong position to release in the new year.