What kind of strange hold does Star Wars and LucasArts have over this industry? With every Star Wars game release, the video game industry salivates. It doesn't even matter that we get stinkers like Shadows Of The Empire, Jedi Power Battles and many of the other forgettable releases, the next announcement always brings more cheers from the press as if it were the first. It's no more evident than with Star Wars: Starfighter. For almost two years, I have read accounts that were overflowing with praise. Magazines were touting this game as the first title to demonstrate what the PlayStation 2 could really do while other sources were proclaiming it to be a title that deserved to be called "next-generation." You can imagine my shock after finally sitting down with Starfighter and finding that it is barely that far removed from LucasArts' two Nintendo 64 releases, Rogue Squadron and Battle For Naboo.
I agree with Mike that Starfighter's graphics are an improvement over previous console Star Wars shooters. I was surprised at how far the horizons would extend into the distance and LucasArts should be commended for throwing so many ships (friendlies and enemies) onto the screen at once. In almost any level, it was routine to see the different ships engaging in dogfights around me while land units and ground troops duked it out on the ground below. This gave most of the conflicts a sense of scale that was lacking in the Nintendo 64 releases. Keep in mind that this is all going on without a hit to the framerate.
What I disagree with Mike about is the degree to which the visuals can be called stunning. Are they crisp, colorful and detailed? Yes. Are they better than the Nintendo 64 versions overall? Yes. But they are not quite the leaps and bounds above what we've seen before. If you look closely at some of the levels, it's easy to see that they are made of wide-open areas that lack very much detail. Viewed from a moderately close proximity, you can see that the textures of surrounding structures, ground vehicles or the ships themselves are quite ordinary.
While I'm on the subject of the visuals, I should mention the computer-generated (CG) work in the game. To help tell this uninteresting story, LucasArts put together some CG sequences every couple of levels. Great CG doesn't necessarily quantify a game as better, but when I see mediocre CG like this one I have to ask why it was even used to begin with. The character model look primitive and animate awkwardly. The hero of the game, Rhys, looks like a wimp and not the average Joe that LucasArts was looking for. It's also funny to note that the aliens in the game either look like people in costumes or puppets. That's saying something when you consider that they are rendered in CG.
Mike has a good point about the controls—they are easy to learn and the ships handle wonderfully—but there is no denying that this is all pretty irrelevant when there is nothing interesting to do with them. Like Mike said, most of the levels called for you to either destroy or defend something and the action is never any more complex than picking a target and holding down the fire button until the target's shields are depleted. Though the levels varied in complexity, your missions did not. I can't recall a level in the game that was particularly satisfying to play or to eventually beat. LucasArts' solution to the lack of depth was to add bonus objectives and bonus missions. These must have sounded like a good idea at the time, but most of these objectives offered little in the way of variety—most are nothing more than "beat the clock" scenarios. Meeting these objectives unlocked bonus missions that could be a decent enough diversion, but since you had to endure boring levels to get to them, I doubt any but the most hardcore Star Wars fans would bother to go through the trouble to unlock them all.
Starfighter is not a horrendous release, but it is hardly a breakthrough title and it is certainly undeserving of all that positive press it received prior to its launch. Had this game been released without the Star Wars license, I am sure it would have been heaped on the pile of disappointing first-generation games that glutted the PlayStation 2 launch. Without an interesting story or compelling missions, I still have to ask: "This is what everyone was so excited about?"