Wednesday, 26 March 2014

Star Wars: Rogue Leader

Post-Launch Review
Star Wars: Rogue Leader (Rogue Squadron II)
Developer: Factor 5 & LucasArts
Released: November 2001


Take command of Rogue Squadron and join the Rebel Alliance's fight against the Empire. Fly a variety of ships in covert missions and dogfights, and face down Star Destroyers and even the Death Star.

At Launch

 Rogue Leader was highly praised, earning average review scores of 90%. As a Gamecube launch title, the graphics were considered extremely impressive, and reviewers enjoyed the sense of immersion created by the surround sound, force feedback, and music from the movie soundtracks. Many critics enjoyed the replayability and the challenge in unlocking the top medals, though some found it too difficult.

Post Launch

Gamecube games get no updates. 

I was a huge fan of the Rogue Squadron series way back in high school, and I think it's safe to say I had mastered the games - gold medals and ace medals all around. So when I found used copies at Toronto Comicon I had to pick them up and replay.

I remember the graphics being pretty amazing when Rogue Leader first came out. They're not so much anymore - landscapes are mostly just bumpy textured surfaces, though buildings are pretty good. I will say it's nice to see so much terrain variety. The ships, though, still look great for a Gamecube game, with good textures and a lot of detail on the models. Music isn't great; the best tracks are the ones lifted from the movies, but it's quite apparent when the game moves to original music, because the synth trumpet is painfully obvious when up against the movie soundtrack.

When I first played Rogue Leader I didn't care so much about the story. On playing again it turns out that there really isn't one. It's more a series of missions than a proper story, most following Rogue squad leader Wedge Antilles. Missions are short, most lasting 7 to 12 minutes on reasonably attainable bronze medals. And there are only 10 main missions (with 5 unlockables) so it's very possible to beat the game in a few hours.

Not really selling this game too well, am I? How about this:

Gameplay is damn smooth and action packed. Rogue Leader is an arcade shooter, not a flight simulator, but there's a very good balance of control accessibility and difficulty: you won't struggle to learn to play or to beat most missions, but you'll need to practice and learn the patterns to score gold medals. Ships are well differentiated, with variable speed, turn radius, shield power, and secondary weapons.

The best element of Rogue Leader is its replayability. There's a hidden ship upgrade in each of the core missions. You'll want most of these to help achieve gold medals - advanced shields keep you alive longer, advanced lasers increase your damage, and various homing missiles will help you pick off troublesome targets. The upgrades tend to be well hidden - very few are out in the open, and most will require either flying through a tight space or blowing something up.

I've already mentioned medals, but they aren't just for show - there are a few unlockable ships that can be earned by scoring the right medals on the right missions. These include the Millenium Falcon, the Slave I, Darth Vader's TIE Advanced, and the Imperial Shuttle. The Naboo fighter (from Episode 1) can be unlocked through the training mission (look it up, it's a little complicated) and the regular old TIE fighter can be stolen during the Imperial Academy mission. 

You also earn points for each medal, with gold worth the most. You can spend these points to access unlockable missions. Two of them let you play with the Millenium Falcon, two are "what if" scenarios where the Empire wins at Yavin and you get to play as Darth Vader, and the last is a 400 minute endurance run (!!!). But not only does it take a lot of points to access these missions, you have to spend your points to do so. 30 points isn't ridiculous to unlock the first Vader mission - after a mix of bronze and silver medals on the 10 core missions I had 39 points or so. But after spending those 30 points I'm back down to 9, and it costs 40 to unlock the follow-up. Now I can only score points by upgrading existing medals, so it'll take quite a bit of practice and work.

From a game design standpoint, probably the most interesting element is how slow your lasers travel. If you've played a lot of shooters you're probably used to your shots connecting almost immediately after you fire, and most of the time if you have to account for travel time it's really not that long. But here you have to lead your targets substantially, and if you want to score gold medals you'll have to get good at prediction, snapping to targets quickly, and slipping in behind enemy fighters to maximize your chance of hitting. If you play for a while you'll notice that most of the fighters follow pretty straightforward paths, but it can still be tricky to hit them with your slow slow lasers, and you have to pick targets because taking out a squad leader causes the unit to scatter. Homing missiles help once you earn the upgrades, but your ship can only hold so many of them.

One of my favourite missions is the very first one - the attack on the Death Star. Once you've played the game for a while you'll notice that nothing really shoots at you at all during the first two stages, and if you take your time the trench run is pretty easy. But if you're trying to get the mission done as fast as possible, the trench run becomes pretty exciting, with movie from the music and everything.

The Battle of Endor is pretty crazy because of the sheer number of TIE fighters. When the first wave is approaching you can hit a few just by shooting into space. And Strike at the Core (flying into the second Death Star) is really cool but the first segment is quite annoying - you have to cover the Millenium Falcon across the surface of the Death Star, but TIE fighters are quite literally flying up your engines and knocking you onto the surface or just straight up exploding you. And the Falcon is surprisingly fragile, so you have to be quick to shoot down fighters while juking around to dodge the ones trying to ram you. In fact the Falcon is so fragile that you can easily fail in the first ten or twenty seconds and have to restart. But once you get inside the Death Star, space is tight and things get suspenseful, especially after you hit the core and you need to balance speed and maneuverability to escape the oncoming explosion.

Recommendation: maybe.

Rogue Leader is pretty fun. Though it's quite short, it has high replayability if you want to grind out the medals and unlocks. The best missions are the ones that let you participate in battles from the movies. Graphics and gameplay have aged pretty well, but after all these years Rogue Leader feels a little sparse - especially when most of its missions are included in the sequel's co-op mode. For that reason I'd recommend Rebel Strike (which I'll be reviewing next week) over Rogue Leader.

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