- Minor Spoiler Review -
If you ever played the N64/PC game Shadows of the Empire and felt like the Hoth level was the best thing in it, you were not alone. Factor 5 and LucasArts felt the same way and thus created Rogue Squadron, released in 1998. Critically acclaimed and a sales juggernaut, it warranted a sequel not only in the developers eye’s, but also the fan’s. Three years later, and on the start of a new console cycle, Rogue Squadron II: Rogue Leader was made as a flagship title for Nintendo’s newly released system, Gamecube. Frustrating, fun, and too short, Rogue Leader makes me never want to actually have to get caught in a real space battle and happy I can pretend to do so from the safety of my basement.
Let it be known that playing Rogue Leader without playing the first Rogue game won’t leave you feeling left out. Both games cover stories in the same timeframe, Episode IV-Episode VI, but each game has its own self-contained adventures. That being said, story isn’t a huge focus, seeing as the only real expository information you’ll get is from the missable pre-mission briefings. The 10 main missions (not including five bonus levels) cover everything from the attack on the Death Star, moving the fleet to Hoth, stealing the Imperial shuttle Han and Leia take to Endor’s moon, and culminates in the Battle of Endor.
As fun as some of that Star Wars lore sounds, forgetting the reason why you’re even in some levels happens almost instantly upon starting, but that’s all thanks to the fun and sheer madness that can pop up at any given second. In fact, I’d argue it’s exactly what would happen if you were truly in one of these engagements in space: you lose the bigger picture to help focus on keeping yourself and your teammates alive. And in Rogue Leader, you’ll die or fail a level numerous times, making your main concern more about the “how do I survive this battle?” than the why. The answer to survival lies within three aspects of the game: the fighter you’re flying, your familiarity with the level, and the unpredictable AI of both enemies and friendlies.
Each level throws you into the cockpit of some of the trilogy’s most famous vehicles, including X-Wings, A-Wings, Y-Wings, B-Wings, Snowspeeders (and some fan-favorite unlockable crafts). No matter which craft you’ve been assigned to fly, they all handle roughly the same. The differences are mainly speed and shielding, for example: the A-wing is the fastest, but the weakest craft shielding-wise, while the Y-wing is the slowest and most powerful with its bombs. Flight controls are pretty responsive and you’ll find yourself pulling dives and loops like in an ace in no time (shut off the auto-leveling and auto-rotate, where the game automatically puts you upright, and you’re in for one heck of an experience! Unless you get queasy easily). The game decides which craft is viable for each level, but I found myself questioning the choices from time to time. Having the A-wing as the default fighter for the liberation of Cloud City made sense due to all the small spaces, but its weak shields make the level nearly impossible to complete due to all the incoming fire from turbolasers and TIE Interceptors. After completion of the game, you can select different craft for each level, but this should’ve been a feature accessible from the start.
Thankfully, you won’t go into most levels solo, but that comes with its own merits and problems. Being the Rogue leader, whether that’s Luke Skywalker or Wedge Antilles, allows you to command two wing-men. The D-pad has commands mapped to each direction, giving you the option to keep your friendlies close, have them blow up TIEs, or go after turbolasers. The wing-men’s AI can be helpful when you sick them after TIEs, but they only fly circles around turbolasers/gun emplacements and having them form up makes them target practice. No matter what command you give, you’ll end up doing most of the work, which is just one of the ways this game can and will find ways to frustrate you. As noted, they can be helpful with the TIE situation, but once bombers, gun towers, or other mission specific targets appear, it’s all on you. Most, if not all, of those targets aren’t truly an issue to deal with alone, but you’ll fail levels time from time because of the lack of help.
The biggest threat to beating levels comes in the form of enemy AI. While the developers seemed to skimp a bit on the programming the friendlies, the TIEs won’t have any trouble making short work of you. It doesn’t become an issue until halfway through the game in the level (that’ll forever mean agony when I hear it) Razor Rendezvous. The mission has you escorting a frigate with valuable intel that is suddenly attacked by a Star Destroyer chilling over Kothlis. Tasked with covering the frigate from TIEs and taking down the Star Destroyer, only luck seems to help beat the level (which doesn’t exist, according to Obi-Wan). After having finally defeated the level, I can safely say I’d rather attack a Death Star in just an air bubble than take any fighter up against a Destroyer. Bouncing back between protecting the frigate and attacking the Destroyer may sound simple, but that would be a lie. Having your wing-mates harass the TIEs allows you to stay on the Destroyer, but that kills you quicker with its turbolasers and TIEs. Keeping the wing-mates on your six allows you to die less agaity, I almost gave up trying to review this game.
This is where most of the frustration from the game comes from. The fifth level spikes in difficulty and continues on an upward slope till the end. Upon losing all three lives (which you’ll do quite a bit), the game boots you all the way back to the start menu, as if punishing you for failure. It’s only if you fail the mission, like letting the Millennium Falcon or a medical frigate be blown up, that you get a chance to replay the level. However, if you just want to beat the game barebones, all bronze medals, then you’ll have no trouble. But if you want to access all the bonus levels, bonus ships, and great behind the scenes (BTS) content, then you’ll have to sacrifice time and hair to gain gold medals on each level (I say hair because I nearly pulled all my out trying to just get bronze medals for later missions). At the end of a level, you’ll get graded on several aspects, including completion time, hit percentage, lives lost, and targeting efficiency (whether or not you use the targeting computer). The game will show your current scores and how they stack up against the next medal level, taunting you with your lack of skill. You’ll frequently look at the requirements for the next medal and think to yourself, “How?!?”
Mercifully, it seems the developers realized the game was hard and they have included passcodes to unlock all the bonus content. Of course, only a Sith would take the quick and easy….ah, who am I kidding, I used the cheat codes (Only to experience the extra levels and BTS material). Bonus levels include surviving the asteroid field as Han and crew do in TESB, to playing as Darth Vader and trying to rewrite the Death Star’s fate. For the BTS bonuses, you’ll get a wealth of content. There’s audio commentary on every single level (which barely any game does at all, if ever), a documentary on making the game (lots of interesting footage here), a small art gallery, and the entire score, track by track, in the music hall. Missing out on all this material would be shame, and if you don’t want to use cheat codes, it might take you awhile.
But all that extra time with the game is easy on the eyes thanks to the rather stunning graphics for its time. While ground terrain in the game isn’t anything to write home about, the ship, debris, and explosions in combat are truly things of beauty. Whether flying through a nebula, asteroid field, or a swarm of TIEs, it’ll seem like each moment was ripped right from the big screen. Keeping with that aesthetic, the ships are detailed and look exactly like they do in the films. The real problem with the graphics is the frequent starry backdrop and the grey and black coloration of any type of TIE fighter. It’s easy to lose TIEs to the background when in space and the radar tends to be more confusing than helpful when trying to locate the enemy pilots. Well, remember the Rebel flight controllers asking Luke why he switched off his targeting computer? The game gives you the option to use one once you jump into the inside cockpit view. The computer highlights enemies and objectives in bright and obvious colors, but using it guarantees not obtaining a gold medal. Instead of using it, there’s always squinting. The choice is yours.
Here’s a few other things to note:
• Denis Lawson, the actor who plays “True Wedge” in the films, reprises his role for this game. Bob Bergen continues is stint as a terrific Luke, but Admiral Ackbar gets a disservice from his voice actor
• My favorite line spoken in the game: “The incoming fighters are incoming.”
• Darth Vader’s character model looks like an animated version of the original Kenner action figure. I’m not sure if that was on purpose.
• Craft descriptions, which you can hear while running around in the hanger area before a mission, are extremely informative.
• The music, when not borrowing from John Williams’ score, can sound out of place with too many horn instruments (or something).
Despite Rogue Leader‘s length, which will only take most gamers no more than 5 hours, the movie-quality experience the game presents is definitely not to be missed. Sure, you’ll find frequent bouts of frustration very common while playing, but really, what game doesn’t have those? It’s all worth it, just to deliver the final shot to the second Death Star and escape before it explodes its guts all over the Ewok’s night sky. Picking up Rogue Leader shouldn’t be a hard choice for any Star Wars gamer.