Something of a specialised genre, space combat games haven't had an impact on home consoles for years now. We suppose that there's not a lot you can do within the traditional confines of these titles, but Born Ready's Strike Suit Zero attempts to put its own spin on the formula by letting you pilot a transforming spacecraft. One minute you're dogfighting as a ship, the next you're tearing huge cruisers apart as a humanoid mech. It's arriving on the PlayStation 4 having been available on the PC for over a year, but comes with a Director's Cut subtitle, along with numerous tweaks, changes, and additions.
The original PC release was nothing if not divisive. Some loved it, some loathed it, but it's safe to say that the developer has done a good job in dealing with the game's most popular criticisms. Checkpoints are now far more frequent, relieving the frustration that comes with watching your Strike Suit spiral out of control and burst into a ball of flames. You'll also find yourself in control of the titular craft earlier in the campaign, as you now jump into the pilot's seat during the second mission. Many of the changes that have been made are present on the PC thanks to patches, but receiving the title in its best possible form on Sony's machine means that it's certainly a better release than it was in 2013. If you weren't keen the first time around, you may find that your grievances have been dealt with here.
Taking place a few centuries into the future, mankind has spread out across the blackness of space by colonising other planets. A kerfuffle between the Earth's military and the colonists erupts into a war between the two, and you're plopped into the shoes of a mute Earth pilot named Adams who unsurprisingly ends up playing a major role in the final acts of the conflict. Having already raged for a considerable amount of time, the sudden appearance of the Strike Suit and a suspicious artificial intelligence dramatically alters the course of the intergalactic battle, as Adams and his comrades deal blow after blow to the powerful colonial forces across 13 missions.
Each stage comprises of multiple objectives that change as the story plays out, which means that you'll need to keep on top of situations as they occur. You may have to engage an enemy squadron in combat, or you might be tasked with intercepting deadly torpedoes that are heading towards the cruiser that you're trying to protect. The constantly shifting battlefields keep you engaged, and help to keep the somewhat thin narrative structured, but it's perhaps a shame that they're so limiting. Drift away from your objective and it's likely that you'll fail the mission, which means that you'll usually be darting from one corner of the wide open arena to another in order to fulfil your goals, ignoring targets that don't play a particularly vital role. In contrast, there's a scenario within the Heroes of the Fleet campaign – a set of five missions that were initially DLC – where you're dropped into a battle and tasked with pushing back an infinite number of enemies, while they try to do the same to your own fleet. It's much more dynamic in nature as you aren't given a specific target: you're simply left to fight as best you can until you win, and it's possibly a structure that better suits the game's hectic, moment-to-moment gameplay.
That said, there's nothing particularly wrong with the title's main campaign. Barring only a couple of stages, the missions are well paced and offer plenty of opportunities for some show-stopping combat, while online leaderboards provide incentive to dive back into scenarios that you've already cleared. Completing certain requirements during battle – such as sinking a foe's frigate before it escapes or shooting down a number of fighters – rewards you with upgrades too, which are applied to all of your currently unlocked machines. And it's worth mentioning that you might need them, as Strike Suit Zero can be an unforgiving game that'll see you get massacred time and time again if you're not quick to adapt to your immediate surroundings.
With three difficulty levels to choose from, we'd recommend starting on easy – especially if you're entirely new to the concept of space combat. Even if you're not, the release's controls will no doubt take a lot of getting used to. You'll be using the right analogue stick to manoeuvre and aim, while the left controls your craft's angle of flight. L2 is your thruster, pushing R3 will activate a further burst of speed, R1 handles your finite stock of rockets, and R2 fires off your primary weapon. You're likely to grasp these basics relatively early on, but when it comes to tapping different face buttons in order to change your lock on target, or equipped set of weaponry, you'll be scrambling to hit the right one before it's too late. Since you're given a multitude of options during combat, however, it's difficult to think of a simpler control scheme that could work just as well.
With some patience and quite a bit of practice, you'll hopefully be able to wrap your head around what it takes to be the Strike Suit's pilot. It may take a few missions, but once you're finally clued up, the title can prove to be an incredible, intense experience. Success hinges upon your understanding of when to switch between the suit's two modes: pursuit and strike. With a tap of X, you'll be able to shift forms, allowing you to alter your tactics in a pinch. Pursuit mode is your standard jet fighter, which you'll be using to chase down smaller adversaries as well as close the distance on larger, stationary ships. Meanwhile, strike mode grants you brilliantly destructive firepower, but is nowhere near as mobile as your standard form. It also requires flux energy that you'll need to build up by sinking enemies, although battlefields are generally populated enough to ensure that you'll never really be in short supply.
Essentially using strike mode as a missile platform that sports a handy quick-strafe ability, it's the best option when you're outnumbered or out-gunned. Quickly clicking into a humanoid shape, R2 lets rip with a deadly cannon that's ideal for blitzing annoying fighters that are in close proximity, while holding down R1 locks your flux projectiles onto anything that you pass over with your crosshair. Releasing R1 after targeting dozens of foes and watching the resulting carnage is immensely satisfying, and grants a superb sense of empowerment before you transform back into pursuit mode and boost through the wreckage like the galaxy's most badass ace pilot. When you manage to get a firm grip on the pace of combat and begin to piece together your next move across the battlefield before you're even done with your current offensive, there's nothing quite like Strike Suit Zero. When you're in the zone, it's absolutely glorious to behold and be a part of.
Unfortunately, the release doesn't always reach these lofty heights of gaming brilliance due to a multitude of annoyances. For starters, the lock on system isn't ideal. By holding down circle, you can cycle through different targeting parameters using the d-pad, and then tapping the button will highlight and lock you on to nearest machine that you've specified: you might want to switch to fighters that are swarming your position, or you may feel that it'd be best to focus on a capital ship's deadly beam cannons. The problem is that swapping between these options is far too time consuming for a game that's constantly asking you to perform at breakneck speeds, and it quickly leads to frustration when you end up gliding straight past the aggressor that you wanted to target, only to realise that you're still fixed onto an entirely different type of enemy.
It also doesn't help that almost every mission in the release sees you protecting an allied ship or two. They're not quite the kind of escort tasks that gamers have nightmares about as your comrades are capable of defending themselves reasonably well, but you'll still need to keep an eye on their health bar and do your part to fend off barrages that are aimed straight at them, which does break the otherwise breathtaking flow of gameplay a little too regularly.
Most unforgivable of all, however, is an entire stage which sees you piloting a sluggish bomber as opposed to the versatile and agile Strike Suit that you've become accustomed to. The mission – where you'll need to fire slow-moving torpedoes at static fuel depots – just feels boring and completely out of place after blasting through several pulse-pounding thrill rides. Worse still is the fact that you'll be destroying identical storage facilities later on in the campaign while sitting back in the seat of your favourite mech, which makes us question why the specialised bomber was even necessary to begin with.
As we previously mentioned, Strike Suit Zero can be a brutal experience, but its unapologetic nature makes for a fantastic sense of achievement when you complete a chapter with an especially high score. It also helps that the title's art direction is eye catching and memorable, with each stage boasting different galactic backdrops that perfectly set the mood for the massive showdowns that occur in front of them. And while the ship models aren't that impressive, the way fighters swoop and dive while painting the darkness of space with neon trails makes for a gorgeous spectacle. But the game's biggest visual plus is the grand sense of scale that it manages to portray. The battlefields that you'll be drifting through feel alive and utterly soaked in action as chaos unfolds all around your comparatively tiny machine. At times, it looks even better when you're making use of the cockpit view rather than the third-person perspective, but performing barrel rolls and falling in and out of combat is bound to make many feel nauseous.
On the audio side of things, the release sports a surprisingly Eastern-tinged soundtrack that's full of ethereal vocals and eerie instruments that are spread across electronic beats. It definitely gives the game a unique tone, but repeating melodies can really start to grate during longer missions. Thankfully, the sound effects are satisfying and crisp. From hearing the scream of an opposing craft as it spirals into a burning wreck to the bass-filled boom that echoes across the area when a capital ship is sunk, the title sounds fantastic when you're deep into the action. Meanwhile, the cast is voiced well, and features numerous recurring characters as you progress. No one's too interesting or memorable, but the dialogue is solid, and like the plot itself, it's executed well enough that it holds together despite its rather stunted development.
When it's at its absolute best, Strike Suit Zero: Director's Cut is a brilliantly bombastic, incredibly intense space combat game that's sure to give you wings. Complex controls, a couple of poor design choices, and some iffy mechanics can make it difficult to love, but conquering the final frontier will leave you with a sense of accomplishment that's currently unrivalled on the PS4.