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I suppose I could look this up in a walkthrough, but that's much less fun. What is it about that final level that's so very difficult? Even fully equipped, I find I'm quite depleted before I reach the boss, moreso than in other levels beforehand. This indicates a different set of tactics on the game's part, or perhaps something else.
This question / problem has been solved by DarrkPhoeniximage
The final level tends to restrict your movement more than the previous levels, and unless you watch carefully what's approaching it's very easy to put yourself in a situation where you're forced to take some serious damage. There are waves of some large ships you'll encounter fairly frequently through the level that have a wide spread of fire, and fire plasma cannons which will deplete your shields fairly rapidly (don't try to take all these out, just pick one ship out of each wave to try to pick off before it fires so you have a clear path to move through). The ships that also fire 6 missiles at a time are also very troublesome, as their movement patterns quickly pushes you towards the side of the screen if you try to avoid getting hit by them (try to move further up the screen and over these ships so you don't get stuck turtling at the side of the screen- that's a quick way to get seriously damaged on this level). Ground-based defenses are also much more troublesome than in any of the previous levels, with numerous missile banks restricting where you can move and tracking cannons set behind the missile banks making it much more difficult to take them out quickly (and these tracking cannons fire three shots at once, so it hurts a lot more if you just try to soak the damage). All of the missile banks are also hidden at first so they can be difficult to spot before they open up and start firing. These things taken together mean you need to be processing quite a bit more information than in previous levels when it comes to figuring out where to carve out a safe path for yourself. The final boss also requires more prioritization with much less room for error, otherwise you'll end up taking significant damage. Target the tracking cannons on the left and right near the bottom of the screen first, as these start shoot fairly early (it can be worthwhile to just soak some of the damage from them to take them out quickly). After those are gone target the large portion right in the center, as this contains numerous bothersome armaments. If you're quick in taking out the tracking cannons I mentioned then you can take out the central portion with it only being able to get off a few shots (as it opens up fairly late). You can also hit the central portion while moving to the very top of the screen, and when there only a single tracking cannon on the central portion will be able to hit you. Once you've taken on the central portion then there will only be forward-shooting armaments remaining which you can destroy at your leisure.
That would go a long way to explain it. Seems like the game set up your instincts somewhat differently up to that point.
I wonder how that is? I could replay the levels with an eye for design...

Edit: Ah-HA! That's another thing!
From the get-go, one could take on one's problems headlong, as you said. Tricky enemies were just tricky enemies, and profiting from them only required a delicate hand. Even the final levels of each mission, if your money had been carefully (even scummingly) accrued and spent, were financial gambles.
The final level of the Outer Regions, by contrast, is a financial sink plain until it is completed. Your reward for trying to kill everything on the screen is to be killed by everything on the screen. The level is designed to punish you for trying to profit off it, whereas the other levels are designed, to varying degrees, to reward you for destroying as much as you can.
Post edited January 21, 2011 by MackieStingray
I know I've seen someone on youtube playing through the final level on elite difficulty without any shields whatsoever. Pretty intense. I've ALMOST made it, but it's damn difficult.
Just goes to show:
Ben Folds - "There's Always Someone Cooler Than You"
(In case link fails, the a capella version: The Extreme Keys a capella version of Ben Folds' "There's Always Someone Cooler Than You"