I've long resigned myself to the fact that Star Trek games aren't about brainy exploration anymore. We're way past the days of Spectrum Holobyte's A Final Unity turning "The Next Generation" into an adventure/simulator game, or when Interplay's 25th Anniversary Star Trek game led players through episodic point-and-click chapters. I loved every minute of those, aside from when the Enterprise flew around like a bomber from "Wing Commander."
Star Trek's no stranger to action, though. "Voyager" didn't do a half-bad job as an FPS with Elite Force. Even Klingons got a little love with the Unreal-powered title from MicroProse, "Honor Guard." However, the new Star Trek game from Digital Extremes, who put together a fun sequel to The Darkness, lacks the same magic and technical polish.
The story is one of the better elements and takes place right after the first movie. The crew of J.J. Abrams' Enterprise answers a distress signal from a science station in orbit. Soon, Kirk and Spock discover that whatever they were working on has opened a rip in the fabric of space and time, pulling in unexpected guests — the Gorn — much to the glee of "Star Trek TOS" fans.
Instead of the classic Kirk-versus-Gorn throwdown from the original series, the Gorn in this adventure are invaders from a parallel universe where their hobbies of conquest, genetic manipulation and genocide have crushed everyone in their galaxy. These Gorn make the Borg look like door-to-door vacuum cleaner salesmen. These Gorn aren't like the slow-moving lizard guy that William Shatner MacGyver'ed with a piece of bamboo, homemade gunpowder, and diamonds for bullets. These Gorn come in several shapes and sizes and kill anything in their way. In their galaxy, they probably killed whatever would have become the Borg long ago.
The story by Marianne Krawczyk (God of War) and the writers of the 2009 film, Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci, does a solid job of capturing the essence of the camaraderie between the crew members, especially the bromance between Kirk and Spock.
I went through the game as Chris Pine's Kirk, and the scripted banter between the two was about as natural as I'd expect from the Shatner-Nimoy pair-up, with dialogue updated for 21st century audiences. The whole crew from the film reprise their roles, adding to the atmosphere of the new Star Trek, whether it's Karl Urban's McCoy complaining about something in sick bay or Simon Pegg's spirited Scotty excitedly hurling himself into the latest, ship-saving idea involving the warp core. Coupled with an orchestrated soundtrack taken from the film, this is a Star Trek game that could've been a decent movie tie-in.
After the title screen and the shiny new bridge of the Enterprise, the game starts syncing trophies, which it does every time the game starts. Players can choose to be either Kirk or Spock, though the banter between the two is scripted and doesn't change. Their weapon upgrades change, though. Both bring phasers to the fight, which can either pew-pew-pew enemies to death or stun them cold, opening them up for a knock-out blow.
Kirk, being the guy who likes charging into the thick of things, has phaser mod options, such as an improved stun setting that flattens most enemies in one shot. Phasers also tend to overheat after much use or immediately after special attacks like that stun blast, forcing players to wait for a cooldown. Spock's stun mods, on the other hand, focus more on length of time or hitting entire groups of enemies at once for follow-up knock-down attacks.
RPG elements, such as experience points, create an incentive to do more than simply shoot through the game. By using the tricorder to hack panels, find collectible logs, and scan points of interest, you can earn points that can be spent on purchasing upgrade modules for different ability classes for your tricorder scanner or phaser. In single-player mode, you can make the upgrade decisions for both Kirk and Spock.
Additionally, there are "Commendation" challenges — special conditions in fulfilling certain missions — that go toward big point bonuses. Commendations, described as how a "real" Starfleet officer would play a mission, might call on players to get through an area undetected or stun crew members turned by the enemy instead of disintegrating them like your usual Redshirt.
Despite that much promise, a lot of those extra doodads amounted to squat. As Kirk, I only used two things for my phaser: the cooldown rate and super stun mods. Even with only one module per category (damage, stun power, and cool-down periods are broken down into different bins), both mods belonged to different ones, so Kirk's phaser was the deadliest weapon in the game.
This made every weapon obsolete early on, especially since the phaser also had sniper-like range and accuracy without a scope. Between the phaser's unlimited ammo and manageable cooldown, I had no need for anything else. Sometimes, I'd use an arc rifle and blast bad guys with its Ghostbusters-like beam until I realized how long it took to deal with them. Then I'd go right back to my phaser. During boss fights, I'd switch to a module that juiced up every fourth kill shot. My phaser became the only necessary weapon for most of the game.
There's one thing about my Uber Stun Gun: the reticle is clearly off for the stun setting. I usually had to aim the reticle down and to the left of my actual target to hit someone. After a while, it felt like a natural thing to compensate for, even though it didn't make a lot of sense.
Tricorder upgrades were also generally useless. Late in the game, I started spending the thousands of points I'd hoarded for no reason other than they were there, making for a very weird experience. In other games, like The Darkness II, upgrades mattered because the system made every choice feel important and empowering. The limited resources and upgrades of the BioShock universe encouraged careful planning. In Star Trek, it feels arbitrary. I didn't even know I could upgrade Spock's stuff until I was near the end.
Star Trek has a co-op feature, and it's essentially the best way to play. Having Spock controlled by a real person was far better than leaving it to dodgy behavior that led him to occasionally get stuck in rooms, killed by bosses because he stands in their way instead of running (there's no dodge feature), or stopped fighting and left it all up to Kirk. I understand he's the captain and all, but even Shatner needs a little help from time to time.
Action-wise, there's a lot of shooting, but it's not that exciting, with the exception of one area toward the end of the game when I had to fight through waves of enemies. Otherwise, it's routine stuff with an AI that tends to be dangerous as long as the game throws more enemies at you.
The cover system sometimes takes a few tries to get it to stick. It also would have been nice to be able to shift shoulder views. Enemies arrange themselves in an area, take cover, and wait for me to stun them. Even though Spock yelled that they were trying to flank me, I didn't see anything of the sort. After a while, the Gorn didn't seem all that fearsome, leading me to believe that the only way they conquered their galaxy was through sheer numbers.
Ruining much of the pacing were the minigames. You could have Spock's AI auto-solve everything since doing these yourself means having to match notes, find frequencies, or guide a circuit through a lag-crippled grid pattern. It's as if someone took the pipe puzzles from BioShock, decided to make two other variants, and attached as many interactive items as possible. I should have quit early and let Spock's AI do the work, but the RPGer in me wanted those XP, not knowing that I shouldn't have bothered with the extra effort.
Co-op puzzle-solving can be something of a chore because of how obscure the left section can be. The person on the right side just has to keep the cursor in the center of a circle. The person on the left, however, has to move a crosshair all around the circle to find a random "sweet spot" that matches the waveform frequency between both halves. Sometimes the game even throws enemies at you during a puzzle in case you need an extra challenge. In a single-player game, it's pretty easy when the AI handles the left part.
There are also difficult flying sequences where Kirk and Spock use portable rockets to fly through an obstacle course of debris to reach an objective. This isn't so bad until wreckage in the background flies from the edge of the screen to hit you, or when an invisible collision box that's just a bit too large for a piece of space debris nicks and kills you even though it seemed you were clear, forcing you to repeat the entire sequence. There's no way to skip these, either.
Graphically, the game is an odd mix of cool visuals, which show the new Enterprise or the battle damage scarring the Gorn, and eerie, expressionless faces. Starfleet also seems to have a monopoly on the most polished floors in the galaxy. Elsewhere, rough visuals, such as flying 2-D bitmaps masquerading as space debris and strange bugs intrude on the illusion of this being a polished game. In one area, Kirk occasionally twitched into the T-pose setup that 3-D artists work with, and his arms were splayed while he floating across the floor for a second or two.
Kirk signs off the game like Shatner did from the old episodes, which was a nice touch as a part of the ending. After that, there's really nothing else to do with the game other than co-op through it again or repeat certain chapters to find collectibles — if I wanted to go back through those puzzles or one-shot the bad guys again.
Star Trek is a dish best served to Trekkies who want to fight their way through the bowels of the new Enterprise and see what the new sickbay and engine room look like while they occasionally blast things. The acting chops, design of the sets, and story seem to have a lot of potential for much deeper gameplay than what we actually got. It's not the worst Trek game out there as much as it squanders an opportunity by playing it safe and ticking off a basic checklist of action clichés while forgetting that Kirk and his crew occasionally broke the rules.
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