Transform and fly out.
If you're the right kind of person, simply watching a gameplay video or two of Strike Suit Zero is probably all you need to fall irrevocably in love with it. Us space flight fans have to be one of the most underserved lots in gaming, having been without a single hit, let alone a franchise to whet our whistles in a good decade or so. The good news is that Born Ready Games has effectively ended the drought. The bad news is that despite its strong visuals and gameplay, Strike Suit Zero is still a few parsecs short of greatness.
Let me be clear, though: If you worship at the altar of FreeSpace 2 and Freelancer, you're cleared for landing. Strike Suit Zero doesn't have the ship selection of the former or the open-world freedom of the latter, but it's still the best-looking, best-playing entry the genre has seen in years. On these strengths alone, it's easy to recommend for players craving the indescribable thrills of strafing runs and capital ship battles in deep space. Just be prepared for a short, sometimes bumpy ride.
At its core, Strike Suit Zero is a straight forward space shooter that leans more to the arcade side, trimming most of the simulation elements that old-school genre zealots are used to. You play the role of a U.N.E. pilot named Adams, whose wings have recently been clipped for unknown reasons. As you undergo a flight test to determine whether you will be reinstated (in a cleverly veiled tutorial), a cataclysmic event changes the face of the U.N.E.'s ongoing war with the rebellious Colonials. It seems they've got a new toy that decimates entire fleets and blows holes through planets. Conveniently, the U.N.E. has a trump card of its own, an experimental craft called the Strike Suit, which to this point, no one thought to dust off for reasons never explained.
Despite a promising opening cinema, the story never manages to be anything but a reason to go forth and blow things up. Some people won't care, but if you like your space with a side of opera, Strike Suit Zero's flat characters and wooden voice work aren't going to fit the bill. The plot boils down to you and what's left of the fleet wandering about to trash Colonial targets in the hopes that their main fleet will turn around and come at you instead of going to Earth and turning it into the largest block of swiss cheese in the galaxy. It's about as inelegant as it is nonsensical, but fortunately, it never asks you to care more than you want, keeping the focus squarely on the combat.
On the flipside, the combat satisfies immensely. Even in the slowest crafts, the sense of flight is palpable and infectious. Perhaps it's due to how long it's been since I've experienced it in a game, but pulling off hard banks and Immelman's just feels right. While the textures are only average, the lighting effects, gorgeous backgrounds, and overall scale create an enveloping sense of place that makes you feel like you're really in the thick of a massive space battle. Huge capital ships bristle with weaponry, and enemy fighter wings swarm and dart about, leaving pulsing, Tron-like vapor trails behind them. This is where Strike Suit Zero is at its best, when it has you bobbing and weaving through chaotic melees between two opposing fleets.
But as they say, the devil is in the details, and it's here where the game falters a bit. Though Strike Suit Zero makes its disinterest in simulation clear, it suffers for some of the streamlining it does. The HUD is the biggest victim here, lacking a roll indicator, speedometer, radar, and more. These are staples of even the simplest of flight games, and without them, it can be difficult to keep track of where your enemies and allies are during a big fracas. Facing four to one odds in a dogfight an be an enjoyable challenge, but not when you're flying blind and have no idea who or what is hitting you.
This isn't the only way the game keeps you in the dark, either. The ranking system as well as the “dynamic” story that changes based on your “decisions” according to the Steam page are unsatisfying. For example, you'd imagine that if you completed any optional objectives thrown at you during a mission and met the special conditions required to unlock a new ship upgrade, you've done well. And yet, it's possible to do these things and actually perform so badly by the game's standards that you wont receive a ranking of any kind, and that the U.N.E.'s position in the war has worsened despite your "successful" mission.
Ultimately, the only way to get the “good” ending is to get high rankings by shooting and destroying as many targets as possible while completing missions in a small amount of time. As for making decisions that impact the outcome of the story, I never made any besides what ship to pilot and what weapons to load it with.
This brings me to another point: the inclusion of three ships besides the Strike Suit. As the title implies, the Strike Suit is the crown jewel of the U.N.E. Fleet, a transforming jet fighter that can become an agile, Gundam-esque robot for limited spans of time. It's utterly badass and a joy to dole out destruction with. However, it isn't until you have finished three missions that you even get access to it, and for two other missions, you're forced to use one of the other crafts, meaning that for 5 of the 13 missions, you're stuck with comparably bland hardware that doesn't offer much to set it apart in any entertaining ways.
Sure, you have the option of choosing your weapon loadout, but with no sense of what types of enemies you'll face, or in what numbers, you'll almost always go for a balanced, all-around setup. I get that this isn't a hardcore sim and all, but the additional ships and loadouts seem like an afterthought and one that interferes with the main unique mechanic on offer.
Mind you, none of these issues ever keep the core gameplay from being fun—it's just frustrating that so many little things are wrong when all the important parts are so right. With such a strong foundation, Born Ready could have delivered a real classic. But as disappointing as that sounds, Strike Suit Zero still manages to be a good time on the strength of its visuals and gameplay alone. It may not be the all-consuming space sim we're all hungry for, but it's still a tasty space combat morsel that every armchair pilot should take a look at.