Captain’s Log, Supplemental
After a brief detour to a strange planet populated by sentient, shape-changing robots, I return to my original mission. Will I find what I seek in the star systems controlled by the entity called “Activision”?
At the end of the 20th century, the rights to much of the Star Trek franchise went to publishing giant Activision. Though their first effort, 1999’s Star Trek: Hidden Evil, a direct sequel to the ninth film, Star Trek: Insurrection, was forgettable at best, Activision’s Trek-related output quickly left behind everything that had come before by releasing…well, some actually really solid games. Imagine that.
Star Trek Armada (2000)
Activision’s first considerable entry into the franchise was Star Trek Armada, which also brought Star Trek to the RTS genre for the first time. (Interplay’s disastrous New Worlds, another RTS set in the Trek universe, came later in the year and is better left alone.) Like Hidden Evil, the game capitalized on some elements from Star Trek: Insurrection, but told a story completely separate from it, weaving together plot elements from Deep Space Nine and Voyager as well, though all the characters featured prominently in the title were from The Next Generation. Developed by Mad Doc Software, Armada was a quite playable (if ultimately unremarkable) RTS with plenty of competent use of the license to justify some game time from any RTS player who was also a Star Trek fan. The four playable races – the Federation, Klingons, Romulans, and Borg – had pretty similar builds, but their visual style was appropriately tailored to match their film appearances.
For me, a few gameplay features stood out in this game. For one, even smaller ships felt slightly sturdier than your average RTS grunt, and any shipyard could repair your ships, which helped the game not feel quite so entirely like a Starcraft clone. Further, the magic of transporters (and, in the case of the Borg, the cube’s holding beam) allowed players to send boarding parties to enemy ships, eventually capturing (or assimilating) these vessels. Other hazards, like radioactive nebulae, could kill off all the crew on a ship, leaving a perfectly good warship hanging around for whomever could find it first. Turning an enemy’s ships against them became a favorite tactic, and if you could manage to capture a construction vessel, it gave you access to the enemy’s entire tech tree, all the way to their superweapon, some of which were pretty neat.
For a lot of franchises Armada would have been a so-so entry, but for Trek at the time there wasn’t much contemporary competition. Fortunately, Activision proved to not be a one-hit wonder where Star Trek was concerned.
Star Trek Voyager: Elite Force (2000)
After trying a strange little online collectible game that didn’t go much of anywhere, Activision upped the ante for good with Elite Force, the first game specifically dedicated to Star Trek Voyager. Raven Software, at the time best known for games like Hexen and Heretic, took the action shooter route here. Understandably, this might give one pause: though shooters were beginning to really enter a golden age at the time, past efforts to make a shooter out of Star Trek hadn’t gone well, perhaps because the nature of the shows doesn’t necessarily lend itself to the “Set Phasers to Frag” mentality of Elite Force‘s tagline. Yet Elite Force succeeded wildly at being not just a good shooter – a very good shooter – but a good Star Trek game, with the premise worked out in a fashion that justified everything pretty well. As with Armada, the game made considerable use of established bits of the universe while telling its own story.
The story is setup like an episode of the show, albeit a very long one that only peripherally involves the main cast. The USS Voyager, still traveling through the Delta Quadrant on its way home, finds itself trapped by a massive space station called the Forge, and they aren’t the only ones: dozens of derelicts surround them, some of which have clearly been there for a very long time. Fortunately, they have the Hazard Team on hand: a detachment of specially trained officers meant to handle the tough situations, like away missions to Borg cubes. What ensues is a series of surprisingly well-designed FPS levels, from a Borg ship infested by Species 8472 to a vessel of the Terran Empire and the Voyager itself, with the run-and-gun gameplay built in to a Trek-like story with Trek-like objectives without too much difficulty. The other members of the Hazard Team are well-rendered for their purpose. What weaknesses Elite Force has are largely ones that plague such games to this day: derivative weapons and enemies. It’s not that they don’t work, but some things feel like they are there because Quake or Unreal or Half-Life had something similar, not because it fit the theme.
I do have to give Elite Force an honorable mention for “most internally sensible explanation for how you carry around ten very large guns”: each member of the Hazard Team had a portable transporter buffer on their belt, so guns you weren’t using were beamed away but not rematerialized until you wanted them again.
Elite Force was also one of two Trek games Activision released to consoles that year, the first since the mid-1990s, though the PC version was generally more well-known. The other console game was Star Trek: Invasion, a Next Generation-based starfighter sim for the PlayStation, built by the Colony Wars team. While a competent clone of that series, and arguably a good game featuring the Star Trek license, it, like much of what Activision released (Elite Force and Armada included, depending on who you ask) wasn’t a “good Star Trek game” because it shoehorned some popular game genre into the universe, creating an action game with some Trek aesthetics but without much of Trek‘s essence.
Star Trek on the Outside
Although Activision’s tenure as holders of much of the Trek license (Interplay still seemed to have the rights to the Original Series for a little while, and Simon & Schuster did a bit with Deep Space Nine) is widely considered the best era for Star Trek games as a whole because of consistently playable, solid releases, their strong start started to drift into mediocrity. Through 2003 they released several more Star Trek games, though in general none lived up to the quality of Elite Force – as games or as entries into the Star Trek universe. That included the sequels to Armada and Elite Force, both of which felt like fairly weak genre derivatives that lost most of the strengths of their predecessors in the making.
Once Interplay had gone under for a while, Activision published the third entry in the Starfleet Command series, which brought the tactical gameplay into the Next Generation timeline, just in time for Star Trek: Nemesis. The game dumbed down a lot of the inordinate complexity of the earlier games but didn’t do much for the repetitiveness. The open-worldish campaign, which had story missions but allowed players to undertake random missions as well, was plagued by the fact that there only seemed to be about three random missions that ever came up, and that the story missions were not terribly well-designed. Starfleet Command III was a more accessible but less compelling game than earlier entries into the series.
Perhaps Activision’s most widely panned Trek outing, at least amongst fans, is Away Team, a Commandos-style squad-based RTS. It doesn’t necessarily deserve this distinction, and at the time was reasonably reviewed. The player takes command of the USS Incursion, a secret vessel equipped with specialized cloaking technology and tasked with essentially Starfleet black ops. (As you might have noticed, “Starfleet black ops” was a theme Activision liked to use.) Players can choose their away team (hey, that’s the title!) for each mission from a good-sized selection of team members with different gear and specialties. Some of the mission design was good, sometimes, and though the conspiracy story was rather trite and not terribly compelling, the trick of overcoming various obstacles to complete objectives could be engaging. Still, dodging patrolling guards gets old fast, even if they’re Borg drones in one mission and Romulans in the next.
Activision wasn’t the only company working on Trek games at the time. In 2004, four years after Star Trek: Invasion, TDK released Shattered Universe to return console players to asking the question, “When did starfighters become a fixture of the Star Trek universe?” Simon & Schuster, perennial not-quite-game makers, threw in their lot a few times, with the not-quite-game Starship Creator (which is exactly what it sounds like, and yes, I have consequently spent some geeky time with it), the feels-like-a-demo Dominion Wars, and the surprisingly good third person action platformer Deep Space Nine: The Fallen. The most notable feature of Simon & Schuster’s releases was, generally, that they seemed much more able (or willing) to find solid game concepts within the bounds of the franchise, even though they (or the developers they worked with) had a hard time executing these ideas quite so well as I might have preferred.
Elite Force II was Activision’s last hurrah with the franchise, and a disappointing hurrah it was. Their penultimate Star Trek game, though, was arguably their best, especially for the Trek purist who can’t accept the original Elite Force because its a shooter.
Star Trek: Bridge Commander (2002)
Conventional wisdom about Star Trek games, especially as the Activision era wore on, has often been that what fans really want to be able to do is command their own starship. There’s certainly a lot of truth to that, and though several games took a stab at it, no one quite nailed the premise. Admittedly, Bridge Commander didn’t quite, either, but it is, so far, the best shot at the concept and an enduring fan favorite.
In the game, the player takes command of the USS Dauntless after a disaster kills the captain. Unlike Starfleet Academy, in many ways Bridge Commander‘s predecessor, Bridge Commander went out of its way to create the feel of working with, and deferring to, the other officers on the bridge. Most functions of the ship could be automated or manually-controlled, with the AI handling things once the player gives a particular order. In first-person view, the default viewpoint for the game, orders are given by actually looking around at the station you want to order. For those that wanted to take direct control of helm or tactical, the controls were there and straightforward, and (again, unlike Starfleet Academy) the ship moved and fought like the huge naval vessel it actually is, rather than an X-Wing.
The game didn’t really involve any substantially peaceful missions, or much of anything that resembled away missions, so the illusion was somewhat incomplete. Most missions eventually amounted to fighting off Romulans or Cardassians at some point, and though this still worked in the context of the era the game occupies, it’s not exactly the image of starship command that most of Star Trek nurtures.
Perhaps the most disappointing part of the game – and no one can really hold this against Activision or the developer, Totally Games – was that the intended voice command interface just didn’t work. It was an ambitious design decision to begin with, but when Bridge Commander was teased, it was with the promise of being able totell the crew what needed to be done, rather than use the point-and-click interface, if you wanted. Obviously, this would have been limited to fairly particular phrases, and required a microphone, and voice recognition needed to be able to figure out what you were saying, which in 2002 could take a bit of calibrating…but doesn’t that sound cool anyway? I was happy enough clicking on things to order my ship to warp speed, but I won’t pretend I wouldn’t have been even more psyched to sit back in my computer chair, flick my finger toward the screen, and give my best “Engage!”
Bridge Commander was a really solid and original shot at tackling this premise, and I have often wondered if some of its failures weren’t because of a sense of combat being a requirement for a PC game. Whether this is a decision made at the design level or, you know, higher, it frequently baffles me. Time and again these games get old quick because they’re just combat, whether or not that approach fits with the franchise. I can appreciate the notion that even though someone might be making a Star Trek game, they also want to make a game that’s appealing to other people, but really – who do they think is buying these games?
And Then There Was Bethesda…
So you don’t think of Bethesda – yes, that Bethesda – when you think of “people who would make great Star Trek games”, but apparently somebody did. The resulting smattering of Star Trek games in 2006 and 2007 – Star Trek: Legacy is the best known, a frustrating (some would say “cheap”) strategy title, a good idea bogged down by poor, poor execution – basically cemented the negative reputation of Star Trek games for good. The portable Tactical Assault was probably the best-made of all, being in a lot of ways a throwback to Starfleet Command, though releasing on portables rather than PC or major consoles probably hurt more than it helped. Other, more budget-minded attempts included the 4X lite Star Trek: Conquest (which paradoxically had no multiplayer) on the Wii and the PS2’s Star Trek Encounters, an awkward arcade shooter-styled game.
The most notable feature of Bethesda’s brief and largely forgettable tenure as custodians of Star Trek‘s legacy (heh) was that their games often incorporated all five series together (something I think most earlier holders of the license legally couldn’t do), and Bethesda’s games are the only place, save for Star Trek Online, where fans can find Star Trek: Enterprise content.
Post-Bethesda there has been little of note besides Star Trek Online. Since I’ve logged my thoughts on that game at length elsewhere, I won’t go into great detail here. For single players, though, the Star Trek franchise is pretty dead, the only hope next year’s movie tie-in title.
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