Platforms: PC (reviewed), Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4, Xbox One
Redout: Space Assault attempts to mash up Star Fox, bullet hell shooters, and space sims and fails to do any of the genres justice. The game is dragged down by its awkward camera, repetitive action, and unpredictable difficulty curve. I’m willing to excuse a lot in order to play a new space combat game, but Star Wars Squadrons showed me that I don’t have to. Yes, it’s four times the price of bargain-basement indie Redout: Space Assault, but it’s also one hundred times more game.
The story is a thin skein barely tying the action together, and the missions take place in near-identical areas. You’re a guy named Leon who is a space pilot, there are enemies, you shoot them. Don’t come to this game for the story.
Most of the missions are exercises in rail shooting. The rail shooter is a hard genre to justify in 2021. Despite what VR game devs would like you to think, as a genre, it’s an artifact of an earlier time, when gamers expected less interaction and immersion. Unlike, say, the platformer, the boundaries of the rail shooter were a product of technical limitations, not the magic of a particular genre. The game’s press release contends that Space Assault is a “true arcade game” but R:SA never comes close to delivering the kinds of raw thrills that I went to the arcade for as a kid. It started its life as a mobile game, and still feels like an iPad refugee.
The rail shooter is an even harder sell in a game about space dogfights, where you’re surrounded by the vastness of space and the excitement of space stations and asteroid caves to fly through. I feel like R:SA put me in a kickass spaceship and then ordered me to keep my arms inside the cart.
I don’t want to trundle through an asteroid full of gun turrets in a train car, like some kind of lumbering Epcot Center ride. I want to speed through under my own power, choosing my own flight path. It doesn’t help that the rails feel incredibly slow but still hard to contend with due to the game’s camera.
Many times, the camera tilts, pans, and rotates at the last second, giving you little time to fly through a hoop or avoid a wall. Making matters worse, there are often multiple projectiles flying at you, taking up huge amounts of screen real estate, making it hard to see what’s happening onscreen.
One of the things that make a rail shooter work is weapons that feel powerful. The entire Time Crisis series was built on the oomph of its mechanized recoil. The weapons in R:SA feel like peashooters. There’s no aural or visual feedback that tells you that you really just gave it to the enemy. Enemies that you’ve shot just flash white briefly and continue to shoot at you. This is especially frustrating when you’re fighting a large number of enemies at once. The meager hit animations leave you wondering if your shots were on target - you only get significant visual feedback when an enemy dies.
(There are 4DOF free-flight missions, but those are few and far between. When we do get to play those missions, it’s just a reminder of everything we’re missing out on while stuck on rails.)
R:SA lacks the visual cues that can help communicate the state of your ship. The animations for losing and regenerating your shields look almost exactly the same. On top of that, your shields and hull level are two tiny bars around your targeting reticle. That can be okay in space shooters where your reticle is locked to the center of your screen, but since this is a rail shooter, your reticle is constantly moving, making your hull and shield levels already hard to read.
Making matters worse, the full part of your shield bar is bright blue. The empty part is dull blue. The same goes for your hull bar, except it’s red/dull red. This is almost impossible to read in the midst of combat, so you almost never know whether you’re about to die or not.
Controls are also a mess. You can perform an afterburner boost, but hitting the engine cut button doesn’t actually cut your engine. You’re stuck burning your entire boost, even if that means the rail level will slam you into an enemy capital ship.
All of these things culminate into a very frustrating experience when you have to cope with the game’s random difficulty spikes. In the final mission of the first act, you have to chase down a rebel cargo ship and destroy its four engines. You have less than three minutes to do so. If you blow past the time limit, the game forces you to start over.
The enemy cargo ship will fire vertical and horizontal lines of projectiles that are hard to dodge while also firing homing missiles at you. You have to jink constantly and roll to evade missiles. It took almost 20 tries for me to get past this mission. I finally gave up on jinking, ground out experience points by repeating earlier missions, buffed my shields, and just sat and fired into the engines, only rolling to avoid the missiles. It was possibly the most boring way to handle that situation, but it was the only way I could get past it. Cheesing out a space dogfight is probably the worst way to win. To be clear, I don’t mind that cheesing it out was possible - I mind that it seemed necessary.