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Friday, August 1, 2014

Strike Vector


By on 3:26 PM

Strike Vector is a terrible name. It's an ugly, meaningless pairing of words, vaguely aggressive and speciously technical. What does it tell about the experience in this multiplayer sci-fi dogfighter? Presumably, things will be struck. Usually walls, as it turns out. Other things will be set into motion and given a direction. Usually you, and usually into walls.
That's part of the Strike Vector equation,and for the first few hours, the unwieldiness of the interface and controls seems well in step with the asperity of the game's title. You furrow your brow at the shoddy tutorial, and at the misspellings in the menus. In your first matches, you hurtle from your spawn headlong into nearby obstacles like Wile E. Coyote shot from an Acme cannon. As you're puzzling over what the Kebs column next to your increasingly negative kill-to-death ratio might mean, a dubious name like Strike Vector is emblematic.
Perhaps 1995's WipEout could have served as a precedent for a title with embedded significance. The old sci-fi racing stalwart used to run advertisements featuring two vacuous youths with nosebleeds. Below a stylized Designers Republic logo that oozed counterculture cred read the caption "A dangerous game." They used to say that the capitalized "E" stood for the drug ecstasy. Strike Vector has something of that uniquely '90s sensibility, perhaps owing to the members of WipEout's now-defunct Studio Liverpool within its ranks. It's got the same disaffinity for limitations on speed and gravity and the same aficionado appeal. It bears the same muddy industrial patina of the WipEout prototype from the movie Hackers. The old teenage angst even bubbles to the surface here and there; the new development team's name, Ragequit, sits in the spot reserved for the "Leave Match" button in more...let's say, "businesslike" shooters.
Strike Vector's old-school sensibilities run deeper than a bit of branding. Though it's a dogfighting game fought between futuristic jets, it's structured in a manner that should be instantly familiar to Quake veterans. Absent are the unlocks and the tiered bonuses so endemic to the modern shooter scene. Eight weapons greet you when you first visit the game's armory, and the count remains eight a few hundred games later. The only unlocks earned through play are cosmetic. The arena shooter comparisons gain further credibility when your jet's Macross-esque hover mode is toggled, and the game becomes a first-person shooter (or a third-person shooter) in a purer sense. Hovering can make you an easier target, but it also inverts the traditional pursuer-chaser dynamic of flight games. Find a bogey on your six, and the options avail themselves. Hit the brakes and have him fly right by? Or maybe dive into a nearby structure and wait in ambush around a corner? It's a fitting evolution--the trench warfare that preceded the rise of the modern FPS gives way to the trench run from Star Wars.
Strike Vector has no qualms about taking its speedy vector ships and forcing them into cramped quarters. Open air cedes space to massive works of industrial architecture: slums, fortresses, and foundries that tend to come crashing into view when you're in the throes of desperate evasive maneuvers. It's a relatively small sampling of maps, but there's good variety to be had in their aesthetics and layouts, and each is tuned to pitch-perfect gameplay possibility.
I'm enamored of these stages, more layered and detailed than any flight game fan has a right to expect. They feel like rare artifacts that survived the journey from concept art to execution, chock-full of little protrusions and crannies that make escape both viable and precarious in turn. I find myself getting caught up in my eagerness to explore their depths, taking in the neon signage and the bright paint jobs, becoming inattentive to teammates and enemies as I loaf about. The finer details are hard to appreciate in the heat of combat, you see--the flips and loops that combat necessitates make these environments disorienting, even if it's in the best possible way. It's a savvy combination of form and function, a design that shifts from artwork to obstacle to pathway with nary a seam in between.
Strike Vector's combat is a delightfully grungy spectacle in its own right. It's most reminiscent of Warhawk's aerial combat, all floating power-ups and high contrast. There's a metal-on-metal crunchiness to the sight of ships coming apart under fire. A splatter of oil and flaming detritus makes for gratification that's often tantalizingly delayed, the reward for a dogged chase or a crafty bit of strafing during a head-to-head shootout between hovering vectors. In a rather mischievous touch, if you're shot down, you're granted a few seconds to direct your flaming ship into an enemy for a spiteful kill. It's all eminently .gif-able.
The vectors are also worth a look when they're not exploding. They're bulky mechs, more Transformer than Gundam. The whole of their backsides are given to engines, an overkill of thrusters that do a wonderful job of conveying...well, conveyance. Their forms can be nominally customized, though Armored Core fans should look elsewhere for their gearhead fix; Strike Vector's garage feels incomplete. That's the other side of the coin, the roughness that oxidizes Strike Vector's machined finish. There are little impurities, like the aforementioned menu misspellings, or the odd game crash, and there are larger oversights that give the impression of a game put under live loads before it had time to harden. There's no real tutorial to speak of, for example, just a few vague slides to click through and a solo flight mode to learn the ropes. I'd recommend spending a fair bit of time with the latter.
What else is missing? A tactile sense, really--a feeling of connection between player and game that bypasses all the little mechanical and electrical intermediaries. There are a lot of barriers: the dubious ability of mouse and keyboard to simulate acrobatic flight, for one. The inputs have never struck me as an ideal control system for aircraft simulation, but Strike Vector's half-baked controller support makes them the only practical option. The crosshairs used for targeting also initiate turns--they need to be moved to the edges of the screen to do so--meaning that during pursuit, you're stuck juggling your ability to attack or steer. If you manage to draw a bead on your enemy, you might find it tough to gauge your weapon's efficacy. There's no leading crosshair, and it's difficult to tell what effect--if any--your shots are having when you score that elusive hit marker. Absent the ability to tell whether you're using the weapons properly, fitting your vector becomes a matter of sticking to the one or two that have proven remotely viable.
Then again, I might be willing to take to the skies without any weapons fastened to my unwieldy ship, to jet around Strike Vector's impressive environments and let the chips fall where they may. There's a substantive quality to the game's core combat and visuals, even if the rest remains somewhat clumsy. Each time you quit the game, an exit splash screen reminds you that future content is free, and the first such drop is promised for February 28. I'll fill the time until then learning how to stop crashing into the very pretty walls.

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