Publisher: Bethesda Softworks
Developer: Quicksilver Software
Release Date: Fall 2006
If you're among the Trekkers/ies who hold up Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan as the pinnacle Trek achievement, you've been waiting a long time for a return to old-school form. As we mark the 40th anniversary of the original series' appearance on television, fans – at least those with a PSP or Nintendo DS – may get their wish at long last in the form of Star Trek: Tactical Assault, a tactical action game that promises a trip back to the rowdier pre-Picard days when the speeches that accompanied the rule-breaking weren't quite as fancy.
Set in the period between movies two and six – Wrath of Khan through The Undiscovered Country – Star Trek: Tactical Assault puts you in the captain's chair to lead a Federation starship crew through the events leading up to Undiscovered Country, when the fledgling Federation-Klingon Empire peace accord is put to the test by some bellicose hard-liners who'd just as soon not make nice. You can also play as a Klingon captain in a complete companion campaign to the Federation action.
The DS and PSP versions share the same campaign story, which the title's Creative Director, Rantz Hoseley, described as getting to play through the "cowboy experiences" of your own crew that run parallel to those of Kirk and company. Writers from the original TV series are involved in the Tactical Assault script, so it's reasonable to expect that rougher, early-days-of-exploration tone. After the disappointingly short life of the Enterprise TV series, fans of a less genteel Trek have reason to be optimistic.
The campaigns are divided into 30 scenarios, including story branches that Hoseley described as "shifts in destiny" that depend on how you handle pivotal situations. He described an example in which you're called upon to deal with a misbehaving merchant with a Klingon problem. Your choices have the potential to frustrate the shaky Federation-Klingon peace process. Romulans and the Gorn make appearances, too, so you can expect plenty of story complications to complement the action. Beyond the Federation and Klingon campaigns, both handheld versions will offer ad hoc wireless matches for two players, though the devs weren't quite ready to reveal details of the multiplayer modes.
While the DS and PSP versions share campaign scenarios, an obvious point of departure is the control setup. The DS has the advantage here, giving you touch-screen control of shields, weapons, navigation and alert status while the action happens on the top screen. At first, it feels slightly odd to fire photon torpedoes and phasers by tapping the stylus, especially if you're accustomed to doing most of your shooting with one right trigger or another. Soon enough, though, it begins to feel just about right, especially when you consider that that's how combat happens in the Star Trek universe, by executing a fire order order by poking a plastic screen. Of course, the PSP relies on the face and directional buttons, losing a bit of that authentic Trek feel that the DS is uniquely suited to deliver.
The battle I played through on the DS began with scanning an asteroid field to detect a Klingon ship and then maneuvering closer to get a target lock. After an initial volley of phasers and torpedoes, I checked the status of my weapons and found my fore weapons banks in need of a recharge. Coming around, I unloaded my aft torpedo bays to keep the pressure on. My starship handled easily with the D-pad as I maneuvered in a single plane without having to worry much about anything going on above or below my position. The battle lasted a few minutes, until I finally took down the enemy's shields and landed the final blow with a photon torpedo. It ended with a satisfying sense of accomplishment that wasn't altogether different from the feel of watching a decent Star Trek battle sequence on TV or the big screen.
The touch-screen gives the DS version of Tactical Assault a slight true-to-Trek edge, but the PSP has a distinct graphical advantage. It's brighter, certainly, but to be fair to the DS version, I was playing on an original DS, not a Lite with a brighter screen. Hoseley said his team has been able to push the PSP hardware to get more sophisticated effects like starlight glinting off the hulls of starships. It shows in the comparative clarity on the PSP, especially when the two versions are playable side-by-side. The PSP's wide screen doesn't hurt, either.
It was good to hear a developer speak sincerely about closely examining the appeal of the original-cast Trek films and then trying to replicate those qualities in the story and action of Star Trek: Tactical Assault. With the differences in control systems and visuals, there will be some clear tradeoffs to consider when it comes to picking one version or the other off the shelf come this fall. If Tactical Assault contributes to making this 40th anniversary a happy one for fans hungry for some portable final frontiering in the original-series mold, it'll be a welcome choice to have to make.
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