Publisher: Bethesda Softworks
Developer: 4J Studios
Release Date: October 4, 2006
Whether Connoisseurs of Kirk or Deep Space Nine devotees, most Trekkies would readily admit that their franchise's history in gaming has been less than stellar. In warping its way across strategy, adventure, shooter, and simulation genres, the 40-year-old series has seen only a handful of direct gaming hits alongside the misses. Simply put, the core elements its fans value (thoughtful exploration of ideas, character development, green-skinned alien females, and captivating plotlines) haven't translated too well onto an interactive form.
Star Trek: Encounters doesn't venture outside of this established lineage, but it does manage to add some fresh blood to the franchise. Though the series itself is dense with drama, and conflict remains a common thread, overall Star Trek promotes a more peaceful tone – the Federation itself is not a military organization, but the galactic equivalent of the United Nations. Conversely, then, Encounters is less for gamers who want to seek out new life and civilizations, but targeted toward any would-be Ensign who's ever wanted to boldly eradicate the Federation's foes. Encounters is all about engaging the enemy and accessible combat, and it skips through 20 specific skirmishes across every Trek era.
Moving chronologically, you'll command battle scenes from Enterprise, the original series, The Next Generation, Deep Space Nine, Voyager, and "Sovereign," which puts you in the captain's chair of the Enterprise-E, featured in Trek's three most recent movies. Because the emphasis is placed on battling, ST:E lacks a coherent plot, instead making disjointed jumps between encounters similar (but not identical) to the era you're playing.
This in itself isn't an offense, but the manner in which 4J Studios delivers story elements is completely off the mark. Prior to a mission, objectives are read off by William Shatner amid a simple in-game-rendered cut scene that dishes out a dash of background info. During battles, you'll receive more pseudo-orders from Starfleet in the way of text displayed on the screen, sans voice acting, and that's it. There's no added in-game dialogue, no character cameos, nothing noteworthy in the presentation that helps draw in players to the already-rich universe. It wouldn't have taken much, either – a few lines from Tuvok or Geordi when your engines are failing, a warning from Worf when the Jem'Hadar are attacking … but each is noticeably absent.
Though the game's bland personality and facelessness will inhibit the play for die-hards, Encounters' overall mechanics salvage the experience. The game takes on a persistent top-down perspective that zooms in and out freely, and while this means your starship will often seem minute on the screen, it works well because the camera is coupled with a non-relative control scheme – up will always move your vessel upward, etc. With movement being assigned to the left analog, its neighbor guides each ship's "targeting slice," a triangular scanning range that directs your weapon fire. It's transparent that the designers put a lot of effort into structuring the experience specifically for the PS2 platform rather than aspiring to be a dumbed-down port of Star Trek: Legacy headed for the Xbox 360, which is a very good thing.
If Encounters has a shining star, it's the well-rounded, fairly dynamic combat paired with the controls and respectable visuals. Players drift through open space littered with a range of enemy fighters, cruisers, and battleships to take on, with nearly every major alien race represented (including the Borg and Species 8472) with excellent ship models, though the Federation's are a tad more detailed. plated in ablative armor and powered by warp nacelles that radiate a blue hum, the Enterprise-D is a spectacle sure to raise the eyebrows of Trek fans at first glimpse. Planets and other space debris in the environment are nicely detailed, and the solar hue reflecting off your starship's bow from nearby stars feels genuinely warming.
The score is reminiscent of Star Trek's classic themes and acts well as a bed for the gameplay, but it doesn't especially stand out, either. In-game sounds, from the squeal of phaser fire to an imminent hull breach, are in the same vein: getting the job done, but not necessarily immersing you in the battle scene (and where's the patented "red alert" sound effect?).
Aboard your vessel, phasers and photons are the standard complement, though your arsenal also features deployable mines that pack serious punch. An enjoyable tactic is to release a mine in the direction of a dense fleet of enemies, then cut a phaser blast across the bomb, detonating it along with the enemy ships. For general, more accurate combat, you can use R2 to lock onto adversaries within your targeting slice to take out specific systems: sensors, engines, weapons, and shields. These are the same tactical resources you'll divert power to and from on the fly, using the d-pad.
Much as the battles themselves feel gritty and authentic, the contexts they're constructed in weigh down the otherwise good gameplay, keeping Encounters from hitting warp speed. The missions range from defense and escort assignments, to straight-up search-and-destroy or escape-style efforts, along with warp signature track-downs. The latter two become incredibly tedious and frustrating; trailing a ship through warp conduits that act similar to the "turbo rings" in games like Starfox will leave you bored and frustrated. More painful, though, is the minimal variation on these themes; playing through the different eras gave 4J a chance to tap into a variety of battle situations and scenarios, yet many of the mission content seems recycled.
There are a few stand-outs along the way, though. "My Enemy's Enemy," one of the Voyager missions, drops Captain Janeway & Co., into a dispute against the Borg and Species 8472, who have captured a tactical cube. Initially, you're trading phaser fire with both sides in a sizable brawl, but as the story breaks, 8472 and Voyager come to see themselves in a mutually beneficial situation, and the aliens task you to defend their starbase from an oncoming Kazon attack fleet in exchange for the valuable information held in the tactical cube. Equally good is "See No Evil" from The Next Generation, which pits Picard's crew against the Romulan Empire. Though it's one of the few moments you'll see your ship alongside Federation allies, teaming up with Nebula- and Constitution-class starships is a treat. Unfortunately, the majority of the missions are strikingly simplistic compared to this pair.
What rescues some of the story mode's scattered gameplay is the skirmish mode accessible from the main menu. "Head-to-head," (one-on-one battles) "Battlefest," (three-on-three with set teams), and "Onslaught" comprise the available options, the latter of which tasks you to fend off increasingly dangerous waves of enemy craft to record a high score. Because most of the combat is so potent, having instant-action aboard for Encounters is a welcome addition, and equips the title with some much-needed replay value. Offline multiplayer and the ability to command any ship in these modes also helps raise the title's overall value.
Otherwise, 4J Studios can be accused of playing things too safe with Encounters – a condition to which licensed titles seem susceptible. A number of added features could have spiced up the gameplay, but notably, a lack of ship customization leaves the experience feeling flat. Outfitting a vessel with quantum torpedoes or other weaponry, customizing crew members for bonuses, or integrating other upgrades couldn't have been too outside the realm of possibility. Even further, this situation is underlined by the fact that the ships don't feel distinctly different; we'd expect the Defiant to feel more maneuverable than the Galaxy-class Enterprise D, but this isn't the case. Some of the interface seems equally half-baked, as the expansive levels would be easier to navigate if players had a star map to help guide the way.
Crafted in a TV universe that puts less emphasis on warfare, Star Trek: Encounters is a curious choice as a tactical ship combat simulation. There are few moments when the game takes advantage of the complex relationships between races, but these glimmers of fun are dimmed down by dull storytelling and annoying pursuit missions. More risk-taking on the part of 4J Studios would have produced a better product, but we can compliment the combat engine they've developed for the game. Either way, Encounters ain't exactly a shooting star, but there are twinkles of good play along the way.