Star Fox on the Nintendo 64, now there was a truly great game. Stunning graphics, relentless action and a cast of memorable characters all working in harmony to craft a uniquely satisfying experience that deservedly still holds a cherished place in many gamers' hearts. Ever since that wonderful game though, things have spiralled a little out of control for the series and, after the GameCube debacle of Star Fox Adventures, it looked like fallen hero Fox McCloud would be left foraging for scraps in the bin outside your house.
Nintendo is never one to give up on a franchise though, even when it seems to have completely forgotten what it was that made the original work so well, and the platform holder has now valiantly tried to resurrect the brand on its globe-conquering DS console. Rather than take the series back to its roots though, and create another rollicking galactic dogfight extravaganza, Nintendo has once again forged another route for its furry pilot. You still get to take to the air and do some serious blasting, but before that you have to get involved in some turn-based strategy too. If any Star Fox fans need to have a bit of a lie down after hearing this news, I'd understand completely; but be reassured, it's not a complete disaster and there is something to enjoy here if you can look past the curious game design choices.
The Lylat system is once again under attack and, after foolishly disbanding his elite team of pilots, Fox McCloud has little choice but to try and take on the amassing foes alone in his Arwing fighter. The early solo missions, including the handy training levels, provide a welcome introduction to how the basics of aerial combat have been transferred to the DS. You pilot Fox's ship using the stylus and touch screen, and fire using any of the buttons on the console (with the left shoulder button proving the obvious choice). It works pretty smoothly too, although having the map on the same bottom screen can make working out where you are a little tricky at the same time as flying and fighting. You can speed up or slow down by tapping the top or bottom of the screen, and swiping quickly from side-to-side puts the Arwing into a spin, which is vital for deflecting enemy lasers - a trick that also earns you vital extra seconds to complete the mission.
With your pilot wings duly earned, it's time to start the game proper and that means getting to grips with the tactical elements of Star Fox Command. You are presented with a map of the system that's filled with enemies and bases which have to be destroyed within a set, and very limited, number of turns. Protecting the mothership, Great Fox, from being destroyed is also essential if you want to avoid the dreaded 'Game Over' screen. Fortunately, as expected, Fox's old team gradually returns to join the fight and you will quickly have the likes of Slippy the Frog and Falco as your wingmen. During your turn, you draw a flight path for each ship that will enable them to battle as many foes as possible, collect bonus items (Great Fox missiles, extra turns) or get closer to the bases at the other side of the map. The game often uses Fog of War to conceal targets, but limited sections of this can be blown away with the stylus, so you are not left entirely in the dark.
With the strategy phase out of the way, it's time to take to the air and do some real business. Rather than being an on-rails blast fest like Star Fox 64, Command's levels are open and it's up to you to find and destroy the main baddies and fend off any other enemies that come your way. There is a broad array of cannon fodder to despatch, which really adds to the variety of the game (the deadly fish in the underwater levels were a personal highlight). Disappointingly, there are really only three types of missions to undertake - search and destroy, missile interception and taking down motherships, making the action sections of the game quite repetitive.
While it's okay in short bursts, the longer you play Star Fox Command, the more a number of glaring flaws start to emerge. Aside from the lazy story, hammy dialogue (made worse by a grating noise whenever a character speaks) and general lack of plot momentum, the gameplay itself has some serious issues. Perhaps because it can be completed in only a few short hours, the difficulty spikes are brutal and there is little margin for error. Each mission relies on your ability to flawlessly plan your attack and then complete each action sequence without screwing up - something that's made even harder by the unforgiving time limits imposed on each level and the unfair ease with which your ship can be destroyed compared to your enemies. With no chance to save mid-level, a single mistake can see you having to restart time and time again. While both the tactical and action portions of the game can be entertaining in their own right, combined there is just too much pressure on the player and any sense of fun is quickly lost.
Completing the game does mean you unlock extra missions and branching storylines, but it's unlikely that anyone apart from a die-hard Star Fox fan will be that bothered about returning just to see how some of the tired sub plots turned out. Players should definitely check out the wireless battle modes though, as it's in these head-to-head dogfights that some of Command's finest moments can be found. While I occasionally struggled to find people online to play with, swooping around the game's beautifully rendered levels in the midst of a titanic struggle with another pilot is a pleasure not to be missed.
A tough one to sum up, Star Fox Command is by no means a complete mess, but there's just nothing that compelling about it. Tellingly, I just couldn't help thinking that I'd rather be playing a conversion of the N64 game and forgetting about all this strategy nonsense. It's worth a look for fans, but everyone else will probably be left wondering what all the fuss is about this fox, and that's the biggest shame of all.