The history of Star Trek games Part 2

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posted 11/30/2012 by Sean Colleli
other articles by Sean Colleli
Platforms: Multiple
Welcome back to my in-depth look at Star Trek gaming. After Elite Force introduced Star Trek to mainstream gamers, Trek gaming took off at warp factor nine…just in time for the Star Trek franchise to start faltering as the ratings for the current TV show, Star Trek Enterprise, began to crash down to Earth. But for a time, the early 2000s were very good to Trek gaming, so there are a couple high points to touch on before we get to Trek gaming’s decline and potential future revival.
 
Star Trek Bridge Commander (released 2002)
This is the big one, folks. Among fans this is considered the pinnacle of Star Trek gaming, and it’s easy to see why. Bridge Commander came the closest of any Trek game to recreating that essential formula: making you feel like a starship captain commanding a colorful and valiant crew on a mission to explore the galaxy and protect the Federation.

Bridge Commander was developed by Totally Games, the same studio that created the groundbreaking series of Star Wars fighter sims in the '90s; ironically the very series that Trek had tried to copy only years earlier with Starfleet Academy and its Klingon spin off. As the old saying goes, if you can’t beat them, hire them to develop your own space sim, and Totally Games was uniquely suited to the challenge. Rather than try to imitate a specific game genre and hammer a property onto it, Totally takes the best, most memorable parts of a property and develops the daylights out of them, until they reach high-simulation levels.

Case in point: the surprising distinction between X-Wing and Bridge Commander. Totally’s Star Wars fighter sims captured just what you’d imagine flying a nimble starfighter was like, but they added a huge volume of technical detail on how you’d manage the various functions and systems of such a craft, in a high-speed dogfight situation where razor reflexes and intimate knowledge of your vehicle were key. It was all about knowing your fighter, gradually mastering the complex controls in a very smart learning curve until you were a real ace.


It would’ve been easy to just copy and paste that formula onto a federation starship—Starfleet Academy certainly did it—but instead Totally Games took the same detailed approach but from an entirely different angle—the Star Trek angle. While the X-Wing trilogy was a series of dogfighting sims, Bridge Commander captured the essence of Star Trek combat: huge, powerful naval battles in space.

While Star Wars was often evocative of the WW2 Air Force films of George Lucas’s youth, Star Trek has always been an analogy for the Navy and the Horatio Hornblower adventures that Gene Roddenberry devoured as a teenager. Totally Games captured this perfectly in Bridge Commander and let the fans relive some of their biggest Trek fantasies. In Bridge Commander you are an unnamed captain with your own crew of unique, quirky individuals, but in the course of the game you command both Galaxy and Sovereign class starships. Incidentally these are the exact same kinds of ships that Captain Picard helmed during The Next Generation and the subsequent movies, the Enterprise 1701-D and E respectively, so you can already see the appeal here. Bridge Commander is essentially your own personal eighth season of The Next Generation, and Totally Games did everything they could to make it feel authentic.

The game starts with your current captain getting killed when a star goes supernova several billion years before it was supposed to. Your ship, the USS Dauntless, barely escapes the catastrophe, and after some R&R you and your crew are sent out to discover why the star exploded. Freshly promoted to captain of the Dauntless, you head out of spacedock with Captain Picard as an advisor, but soon you and your crew are boldly going into a mystery that involves rogue Cardassians, stolen weapons technology and a shadowy new alien species.

More than any other Star Trek game, Bridge Commander made you feel like a Starfleet captain. You had an entire bridge crew to command, each with their own unique aspects of ship operation. While you could get by on minimal commands and let the AI handle a large majority of the game, Bridge Commander also let you micromanage several aspects of your ship’s functions. Depending on the current situation and what difficulty you were playing on it could either be a good idea or absolutely crucial to jump in and take control.

Direct control was most important on tactical. Your tactical officer was pretty good at handling minor skirmishes but all-out assaults on space stations or desperate fights where you were outnumbered 3-to-1 required more strategy than simply pointing your tactical officer at a target and telling him to blow it away. Totally Games built in a ton of strategy options, letting you negotiate with enemies or, failing that, target specific subsystems, allowing you to disable weapons, shields and even enemy cloaking devices—particularly helpful against those sneaky Romulans.

The combat was also decidedly different than most space combat games. It really did feel like naval warfare; instead of zipping around between targets, you had to move your ship in strategic arcs, presenting stronger shield layers against incoming attacks, or bringing loaded phasers and photon torpedo launchers to bear while you waited for the drained ones to recharge. At the same time you had to manage power levels to various ship systems through the engineering console, and listen to the hints and advice from your first officer.

While not as prominent as the combat, Bridge Commander also included some diplomacy elements. If you weren’t careful you could completely mess up a diplomatic situation, causing an ugly battle that could’ve been avoided. Late in the game you could even recruit a new ally by sparing a vulnerable enemy ship; blowing the ship into shrapnel made the last handful of missions much harder.

For its day Bridge Commander was a moderately attractive game. The starship models, damage effects and space environment were all masterfully done. Particularly impressive were the starscapes, taking cues from Hubble images to make breathtaking cosmic vistas to battle against; Bridge Commander is one of the few Star Trek stories to really portray just how vast and majestic space is.

The sound design was equally good: dynamic music switched from awe-inspiring atmospheric pieces that conveyed the beauty and majesty of space, to epic tooth-grinding battle themes reminiscent of classic Star Trek space combat music. The voice acting was also surprisingly high quality—while Patrick Stewart and Brent Spiner were in typical fine form as Captain Picard and Commander Data, the bridge crew and many of the incidental characters were memorable as well. Having Picard and Data as temporary advisors was a fanboy dream come true, but having my own crew of memorable characters meant that the rest of the game was just as evocative. It’s a shame that the actual character animation was so poor; Bridge Commander’s Persian flaw. Having low-poly NPC’s flap their stiffly-textured faces at me was almost enough to pull me out of the experience, at least at first.

Dated tech aside, Bridge Commander’s gameplay and atmosphere have stood the test of time. You can judge a game’s fan dedication by the size and devotion of its modders, and Bridge Commander has one of the most active modding communities outside of Quake and Half-Life. Over a decade on and they’re still cranking out mods, ships and skins for this game, some of them frighteningly extensive, like Deep Space 9 Enhanced, and the massive uber-mod Kobayashi Maru. Bridge Commander sparked the imaginations of Star Trek fans like no other Trek game before it. Unless you’re a Star Trek fan, it’s hard to describe just how powerful it was to finally experience a game that got it; Totally Games understood exactly what made Star Trek so special and somehow they made it incarnate with Bridge Commander. It’s just too bad they never made a proper sequel.
 
Star Trek: Elite Force 2 (released 2003)
While Bridge Commander got Star Trek space combat more or less perfect, there was still more ground-based exploring and shooting to do, so, good old Alex Munro was called upon for once last mission…which would ironically be the last big hurrah for Star Trek gaming as well. The original Elite Force was considerably more successful than anyone had predicted; it catapulted Trek gaming into the spotlight and proved that, with enough consideration for the source material, Star Trek could be adapted to more mainstream types of video games. Naturally, Activision commissioned a sequel, this time developed by Ritual Entertainment. Ritual’s approach was ambitious: they took everything from the first game and broadened the scope considerably, and like Raven they started with the source material.

As a result, Elite Force 2 had a uniquely authentic, almost slavish feel to it. A lot had changed in the Star Trek universe since the original Elite Force, and Ritual took this into account. Voyager had made it back to Federation space after being stranded in the Delta Quadrant for seven agonizing seasons, and the beginning of Elite Force 2 covered Voyager’s return from a different perspective. Munro and his team, still comprised of the same characters and their respective voice actors, were the ones who broke Voyager out of the Borg sphere that trapped the ship in the show’s series finale.

In spite of their skills and qualifications, Starfleet sees fit to break up the hazard team, assigning them to various postings throughout the Federation. Munro is stuck teaching at the Academy back on Earth, but a chance encounter with none other than Captain Jean-Luc Picard gets Munro transferred to the Enterprise in short order. It isn’t long before Munro collects the rest of his team, and with a few new members, including Klingon officer Korban, they’re off to help the Enterprise confront a mysterious new alien threat to the Federation.


The huge jump in scale was the most immediate improvement in Elite Force 2. After dealing with the condescending Janeway and her sneering crew for an entire game, it was a huge relief to be working for Picard. The Enterprise-E was a much bigger, grander ship than Voyager and exploring her brought back the same feelings of wonder and awe as the Technical Manual; my jaw dropped when I opened the main shuttle bay and saw the view of the colossal ship stretching off into the distance. While many of the essential areas from the first game were re-created on the Enterprise—the equipment lockers, the holodeck, the briefing room, the transporter—they all felt much, much bigger and more professional on the Enterprise. Elite Force 2 finally made me feel like a legitimate Starfleet Officer—the hazard team was no longer just an emergency necessity cobbled together out of spare parts on a tiny ship lost in the middle of nowhere. Now it was a fully equipped spec-ops team stationed on the Federation’s flagship and serving under Starfleet’s most legendary captain.

Munro and his team got a big upgrade too. The uniforms were cooler, the guns were bigger and everything was even more accurate than the first game. To give an example of the attention to detail, the hazard team is outfitted with outdated weapons and equipment in the first mission because they’ve been stranded with the rest of Voyager’s crew, but once they get back to the Federation their uniforms, phasers and tricorders are all brought up to date. This required modeling different weapons, characters and items that were only used for the game’s first level, a detail that only diehard Trekkers would appreciate. The new story also examined locations from various Trek eras, including a smuggler-retrofitted K-7 space station and a behind-her-times Excelsior class vessel. Ritual took Raven Software’s Trek authenticity and ran with it.

The developer switch also brought on a few gameplay and story balances. Different guns worked better for various situations, eliminating the distinctly generic Star Trek Quake feel of the previous game. With the introduction of the tricorder scanner, Munro was required to do more than just blast everything in sight; there were environmental puzzles to be solved, structural weaknesses to be found and even a conduit-switching minigame for unlocking secure doors and consoles.

The story even involved a bit of pre-Mass Effect outer space romance, with Munro able to woo one of two ladies through cutscene dialogue options, though one of them was decidedly (and embarrassingly) more of the Kirk-era alien sex kitten variety. While some of the innovations felt rushed—including a too-short EVA battle on the Enterprise’s hull and the Klingon Bat’leth sword being limited to a scripted cage match—Elite Force 2 was a far more fleshed out Trek experience. The original Elite Force was impressive just by successfully mating the complex Trek formula to the admittedly simplistic FPS genre, but Elite Force 2 succeeded by adapting—one might even say assimilating—the FPS that much farther into the Trek universe.

That being said, Elite Force 2 also had an element of the melancholy to it. It took place after Star Trek Nemesis, the movie that served as the disorganized and highly disappointing sendoff to the Next Generation crew. As Kirk put it in The Search for Spock, the Enterprise felt “like a house with all the children gone.” Data was dead, Riker and Troi had gone on to command their own ship, and Worf, Geordi and Dr. Crusher were all apparently on vacation. In their place was Tim Russ reprising his Voyager role as Tuvok, taking over for Worf at tactical, and Dwight Shultz holding down engineering as the eccentric Reginald Barclay. They were joined by other Trek veteran actors, albeit in different roles, including Tony Todd, Jeffrey Combs and J.G. Hertzler.

It was very cool seeing so many longtime Trek actors round out the cast in the absence of most of the main Next Generation crew. You could tell Patrick Stewart was really phoning in his lines on this one, but being Patrick Stewart he still pulled off a convincingly involved Picard. Still, the game retained a nagging sense of untimely eulogy, a necessary but sad requiem for the once great Next Generation era of Star Trek. It was also clear to see that the Quake 3 engine, while used to impressive effect by Ritual, was far past its prime. Ultra-crisp (for their day) textures and flashy effects couldn’t disguise the jerky animations, limited world geometry and utter lack of a physics engine. Fittingly, the Elite Force series kicked off and ultimately closed out the era of the Quake 3 engine. Elite Force 2 was an excellent Star Trek game, but it couldn’t escape the feeling of being just a little too late.
 
The Uncertain Future
Elite Force 2 marks the end of truly great Star Trek games. After Elite Force 2, Trek gaming descended into the same doubt, stagnancy and confusion as the Trek franchise itself…that is until J.J. Abrams forcibly resuscitated Star Trek by beating it repeatedly with the stupidity bat. Elite Force 2 was one hell of a better sendoff for Picard’s crew than Nemesis ever was and it was a damn fine game in its own right, but the vigor, wit and confidence were at an all-time low.

A year later, Star Trek Shattered Universe on the PS2 tried to explore fighter sims and the Mirror Universe but accomplished neither and quietly faded into obscurity. 2006’s Star Trek Legacy was highly anticipated, and had voice acting from all six captains and a time-spanning script by celebrated Trek writer D.C. Fontana. Unfortunately Legacy’s gameplay was obtuse, rushed and horrendously buggy, pulling the rest of what should have been a defining game down into a black hole of dismal failure and disappointment. While Legacy could’ve been the rebirth Trek gaming desperately needed, it only served to sound the death knell. Star Trek was dead, and with it, the era of great Star Trek games.

Abrams and his boorishly simple vision of Star Trek took over circa 2009, turning Gene Roddenberry’s culturally relevant vision into just one more Star Wars rip-off. I don’t want anyone to get the wrong idea here—I don’t hate Abrams and his writers, I just think they have gone the completely wrong direction and, honestly, I think they’re dead wrong for the job. I don’t hate anyone that worked on the movie either—most of the cast are great actors in their own right, the effects people did a bang-up job, hell, the legendary Ben Burtt did the sound design.


I also don’t hate the people working on the new game; the team at Namco Bandai is no doubt dedicated to making a very fun game, probably with some tense action and memorable setpiece moments. It might even turn out to be pretty enjoyable, but it still won’t be Star Trek. Trek is never, ever a balls-to-the-wall action series, even when action-oriented Star Trek is done well. It certainly isn’t a bromantic cover-based co-op shooter, even if Kirk and Spock are standing in for Salem and Rios or Marcus and Dom.

It’s always been that way; as fun as the Elite Force games were, you just couldn’t help feeling that something was off as you vaporized twelve Romulans in a row. Star Trek is a complex and difficult mixture of action, drama, politics and commentary, and no co-op shooter will ever be able to portray that dynamic concoction. It’s simply not possible within the relatively simple bounds of an action-oriented game genre like the shooter. Elite Force proved you could get pretty damn close, but as much as I enjoyed those games, I’m still waiting for the perfect Star Trek game too. It’s a shame that just as gaming technology reaches a point where a truly challenging Star Trek game is possible, J.J. Abrams seizes the captain’s chair as it were and the storytelling takes a turn for the mediocre.

But we’re forgetting one important fact that has been true throughout Star Trek’s history: the official writers, producers and directors—the “word of god” as it’s called in the industry—are only half the story. Star Trek ultimately belongs to its fans, and it’s been that way almost since the beginning. You want to cancel the series? The fans will petition you like crazy until you give them a third season. Star Trek dies and lies in state for a decade? The fans will rally support, organize conventions and convince the studio to revive it for a series of movies. No good Star Trek games for the foreseeable future? Whatever, the fans will make their own. And that’s exactly what they’re doing, right now.
 
Star Trek: Excalibur
And so we come to Star Trek: Excalibur, a fan endeavor almost unheard of in the Star Trek community. What began as an unprecedented mod attempting to fuse Bridge Commander and Elite Force, Excalibur has become something much bigger. More than just a mod now, Excalibur is an incredibly ambitious fan project to create the ultimate Star Trek game from the ground up. I know what you’re thinking—fan projects never go anywhere, it’s too big an undertaking to ever get finished. But Excalibur is not your typical fan project. The developers span multiple countries, but their infrastructure and communication are impressive, and the team leads direct the project as if it were a professionally developed and produced product. We’re looking at what is essentially Star Trek gaming’s equivalent of The Nameless Mod.

The Excalibur team sets concrete milestones and, if necessary, they make the hard decision of jettisoning any team member that consistently fails to pull their weight. That might seem harsh for a fan project but the professionalism gets results: they’ve built their own engine and renderer for the game from scratch and are now busily generating art assets for it. They already have an impressive collection of starship models and interiors, complete with various graphical effects and pixel-shaded texture maps. They also have a complete story and script written, are searching for voice actors, and have a dedicated composer in the process of scoring the game’s music.


Excalibur represents precisely what fans have always wanted out of a Star Trek game but have never completely gotten. According to the developers, the game will let you command not one starship but an entire fleet, with the titular Excalibur acting as a massive carrier or staging platform and other vessels serving exploration, defense and scout functions. The space combat sounds like Bridge Commander but on a quantum level, including all the features that fans have modded in over the years but implemented in Excalibur from the get-go. As fleet captain you’ll be able to tour each of your ships and personally control major systems like tactical, engineering and navigation, or control the system specialists in charge of different duty divisions.

Of course the space combat will only be half of the game. Excalibur will finally let fans get in on that “explore strange new worlds and seek out new life and new civilizations” thing they’ve always wanted. You’ll be able to park your ship in orbit and beam down to alien planets to explore, fight enemies and complete missions that are integral to the main story. While I’m sure pitched phaser battles will be part of the ground-based gameplay, I also hope the Excalibur team includes diplomacy, conflict resolution and ally-making into their game. Sometimes Star Trek is at its best when the crew makes friends with some exotic new aliens instead of zapping them into atoms—Picard was known as Starfleet’s foremost diplomat, after all. I’d like to think that as Excalibur’s captain, I’ll be able to carry on that tradition.

While Excalibur is pretty far along, there’ still plenty of work to be done. I’d wager the game has at least a year or so of development time before it enters beta. The important thing, however, is that the Excalibur team is constantly working on the game; weekly and monthly updates always introduce some new feature they’ve implement, a new ship they’ve finished modeling and animating, or an interview with one of the team’s department heads. As veteran members of the Bridge Commander modding community, they’re also making Excalibur as open ended and easy to modify as possible, promising the ability to add new ships, interiors and even customize the UI. Team Excalibur is basically giving Star Trek fans everything they’ve ever wanted but never got from the game industry; there’s a reason PC Gamer UK called Excalibur “the Star Trek game we’ve all dreamt of.” For Star Trek gamers, it looks like the human adventure is just beginning.

Conclusion
After years of no games, a shaky reboot and nothing on the horizon, Star Trek fans can finally look forward to grabbing their keyboards and controllers again and boldly going where no one has gone before. It’s been a rough patch of space, with barren voids as empty as the delta quadrant, bad news worse than a Borg cube bearing down on you, and periods of uneasy uncertainty foggier than the Mutara Nebula. But there have been a lot of great memories, battles, victories and discoveries as well, and with Excalibur on the way the future might actually be as bright as Gene Roddenberry envisioned.

Then again, these are only my memories in this article—my personal experience with Star Trek gaming—and I’m even more excited about what I never saw. I know I’ve missed a lot of good titles. I never really got into the Armada series, I know I missed out by never playing through A Final Unity, and I’m sure there are a few great obscure titles I need to check out like Away Team or Starship Creator. I also still haven’t even touched Star Trek Online, but that has more to do with my personal prohibition against MMO's. I plan on getting back to these games when I finally get the time, but until then, I’d love to hear what you, the readers, think. Sound off in the comments about your favorite Star Trek games. I’m sure you have some great memories to share and I’d like to know what I’ve been missing.

Until next time, live long and prosper. 



* The product in this article was sent to us by the developer/company for review.



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