Are we tired of Star Wars yet? I'm certainly getting there, ground down by what seems like an endless conveyor belt of games each retelling the greatest sci-fi story ever told with a unique twist. And here comes another one: the PSP exclusive Star Wars Battlefront: Renegade Squadron. Problem is, I'm finding it harder and harder to get up for games set in George Lucas' fantastical sci-fi universe. And I'm finding it harder to accept new story lines that force themselves into the lore. And that's exactly what this game does.
It tells the tale of Renegade Squadron, a group of unsung scoundrels Han Solo put together to aid the Rebels in their epic battle with the Empire. The single-player campaign starts years after The Return of the Jedi with an alien historian seeking out more information on Renegade's heroics. She eventually tracks down the squad's commander Col Serra, who decides via holo-link that now is the time to tell the universe how integral a role Renegade played in the Rebels' conquest. Queue numerous flashbacks as Col sets the record straight. While the way the narrative is progressed, via oil painting-esque stills with effects and explosions, is nicely done and evidence of the kind of polish you'd expect from a Star Wars game, the story just feels forced on the lore. There's never been a mention of Renegade Squadron in Star Wars before - developer Rebellion has come up with an entirely new story that we're now to believe actually happened somewhere off screen during the original films. I'm afraid I'm just not digging it.
But, as a result of being set during the classic films, you'll get to fight against Darth Vader, the Emperor and bounty hunter Bobba Fett, alongside classic Star Wars heroes Han Solo and Chewbacca, and in famous Star Wars battles like the escape from snow planet Hoth from The Empire Strikes Back and the assault on forest moon Endor from Return of the Jedi. This is all very cool, but it doesn't make up for the game's fatal flaw - the controls.
For me, the game works worse on Sony's handheld console compared with the other platforms the series has been released on, which makes the decision to make it a PSP exclusive all the more puzzling. Using the default settings, the analogue nub moves your character about from a third-person view and the right shoulder button locks on to targets. Most of the time you'll be circle strafing your opponent, holding down fire (the X button), lobbing grenades with the square button and occasionally doing a fancy roll with the circle button. It can be very annoying at times because you only have one analogue nub for all movement and targeting, but this doesn't stop the single-player game being easy. You'll more often than not beat the AI every time on account of how stupid they are and the fact that you have more health than them. When bosses (famous characters from the Star Wars lore) do turn up they can't seem to cope with the speed with which you can strafe them. And even if you die, you'll re-spawn without losing the progress you've made.
The campaign missions lack variety too. Most of the time you'll be ordered to capture enemy strongholds, blow up strategic points and escort famous Star Wars characters, like Admiral Ackbar, to safety. If you ever get lost or don't know what to do, yellow arrows clearly show you where you need to go. The campaign alternates between these ground-based missions and space missions, where you start in a hanger, jump into a Rebel fighter, like the X-Wing, and start pounding the Empire in space dog fights. Here, the controls don't get much better. You use the analogue nub to pilot, with X for your laser and square for your missiles, which home in on targets once you've had them in your sights for a bit. Again, turning can be immensely frustrating, with it feeling more like moving an oil rig than an agile X-Wing. And again, it's pretty easy against the AI. If you do get a rocket locked on your tail, you can do a little stunt with circle to evade it.
The graphics are above average for a PSP game - we like the Valley of the Sith on Korriban the best - with large levels, lovely lightsaber effects and seamless interaction with vehicles. We were impressed with the way you can auto-pilot into an enemy hanger, get out of your X-Wing and start fighting your way on foot through corridors on a Star Destroyer too, without any loading or obvious reduction in graphical quality. The various planets are nicely realised - Hoth is very white and Endor is very green - and suitably varied so that you don't get bored of your surroundings. But you won't find yourself taking a break from the action to gawk at the scenery.
So it wasn't until I played the game multiplayer that it started to become interesting. Star Wars Battlefront II on the PSP drew some criticism from gamers for not offering online play. Well here it is online, and it's actually quite a lot of fun, despite the fact that you have to create a GameSpy account to get things going. We didn't experience any noticeable lag even when maxing out the 16 player limit, and despite the fact that there is little genuine teamwork, the maps were interesting enough to keep our attention for a good hour or so before switching off. Renegade Squadron becomes a much better game played with real people, because they're not so easy to beat. But essentially playing online suffers the same problem as playing offline - unsophisticated combat.
Despite the addition of much needed online functionality, some nice customisation features, absolutely tonnes of game options and a quirky turn-based game mode called Galactic Conquest (which sees you moving troops from planet to planet either as the Galactic Empire or the Rebel Alliance until a fight breaks out and you're given the choice to auto-generate the result or swoop down to the planet's surface and play the game in the traditional way), it's much the same as Star Wars Battlefront II. Perhaps this is why the game wasn't called Star Wars Battlefront III - because it's not a true sequel.
This will be good fun for Star Wars fanatics who want to see how Renegade Squadron fits in with the overall Star Wars story, and the game's best feature - online multiplayer - should keep most entertained for a good few hours. But this isn't an essential PSP purchase.