Video games and Star Trek have had a troubled history, even for tie-in games. It’s no understatement that most Trek games suck, partly because there are so many of the damn things, and partly because Paramount hires smaller, less experienced studios to handle things. Even the good games aren’t really appealing to anyone outside the Trek/hardcore PC gaming community. As much as I want to play Klingon Academy, I don’t have the Ghost in the Shell-style extendo-fingers to handle 35 separate key-binds for every command, plus a mouse (not to mention I can’t get the game to run past the menu screen).
But another major problem is that Trek gaming has had a hard time getting the right mix of combat, exploration, sciency stuff, and dialogue to replicate the overall feel of the shows. Aside from old point and click adventure games like Judgment Rites and 25th Anniversary, the fact that the Mass Effect series are the best modern Trek games ever says a lot. Most Trek games focus too much on combat (starship combat, in particular) and suffer as a result.
An Abrams Trek game where Kirk and Spock must take on the Gorn to retrieve a powerful piece of technology that can create wormholes doesn’t sound like it’s off to the best start. However, Digital Extremes managed to put together a co-op Trek action adventure that replicates the feel of the 2009 movie. The only problem is that there’s nowhere near enough polish in the gameplay for this to be a breakout hit.
Before we get into the finer details of the game, here’s WhatCulture Star Trek editor Amarpal Biring’s video review…
Let me get this out of the way: the game has good voice acting, a decent story that feels like it fits the Abrams Trek universe (especially if you read the comics), great Kirk and Spock banter, a solid soundtrack, and is not just “shoot everything in sight” like many fans feared it would be. In all honesty, you spend more time whipping out the tricorder and looking for things to scan than you do shooting. Digital Extremes clearly put a lot of time and effort into figuring out how to best replicate the general Trek experience in a game.
The technical side of things, on the other hand, things are very underwhelming. I’m not that bothered by the graphics – yes, they are terribly dated, using DirectX 9 instead of 10 or 11 (presumably to cash in on the Asian market that’s causing a spike in Windows XP gaming) but they work and look gorgeous from time to time, when you travel through parts of the Enterprise or weird alien vistas. Am I disappointed by the lack of better graphics? Yes, but I had near zero expectations of proper PC support from publisher Namco Bandai.
The shooter part of the game, which everyone will inevitably focus on due to the horrible marketing of this game, is average. There are the usual assortment of guns – rifles, pistols, shotguns, and sniper rifles – with a few novel twists here and there in the alternate fire modes. Pistols start off with a weak stun setting that requires you to get close to enemies to completely neutralize them, which can be upgraded to a one-shot stun. Everything else gets a unique alternate fire: regular phaser rifles generate shields that use ammo, the Gorn Marauder (the game’s version of a shotgun) fires grenades that knock enemies down, and the Gorn Railer launches drones that attack enemies, and so on.
Despite this incredible arsenal, the combat feels dull. Guns don’t feel powerful when you need to dump a third of a magazine into enemies and the horrible reticule (a simple dot) when you don’t zoom in makes aiming a pain. There’s a decent variety of Gorn to fight, but their simple AI makes running and gunning a viable strategy on most difficulties. For someone who suffered through Mass Effect 1’s horrible combat system, this is way more tolerable.
However, what really brings this game down are the random difficulty spikes, especially if you’re playing single-player. The first boss fight involved a large Gorn who tossed my character (Kirk) around and beat AI controlled Spock into uselessness before the game switched out of the in-game engine cutscene. Because this Gorn kept rushing at me, I couldn’t revive Spock and get him to help out, even when I switched to easy after about a dozen failed attempts to beat it on medium. That was the first sign that the companion AI wasn’t up to snuff; later, Spock would randomly not fire weapons or maneuver into firing positions. One time, he even got stuck running into a wall, forcing me to quit and restart from the previous checkpoint.
Another difficulty spike is the Enterprise space battle, where you face several Gorn ships and legions of fighters (thankfully, you don’t have to control the whole ship, just the weapons and shields). There is no real tutorial on how to use the weapons, especially problematic if you’re on the PC and remapped the fire and aim buttons from the mouse to the keyboard. It took me two tries to realize the mouse controlled the weapons and even then I missed the shield button cue a few times.
At this point, it’s clear that if you’re going to play this and not suffer spikes of total infuriation, you need a buddy. Surprisingly, the PC version has support for split-screen, with two sets of key-binds available. Presumably the game will detect two Xbox or similar controllers on PC, but I couldn’t test that without controllers on hand. Sadly, online co-op isn’t working as of this moment. I don’t know who is more to blame between Digital Extremes and Namco Bandai, but I suspect Bandai might be more responsible. Given the fact that PC pre-orders went up about two months before release, while console preorders were setup well beforehand, it’s clear that Namco Bandai considered the PC version an afterthought from a business perspective.
The co-op experience (which can be partly had in the single-player) is what you would expect from this kind of game. Both players need to work together to open doors, climb into vents, and solve an odd waveform matching puzzle. Occasionally, Kirk and Spock will get to use unique special abilities like an Enterprise air strike or the mind meld, but these opportunities don’t pop up as frequently as you’d like. Sadly, co-op doesn’t seem to be drop-in, drop-out; players can only join at the start of a chapter and dropping out forces the remaining player to the previous checkpoint.
One redeeming element is the tricorder’s upgrade system, which allows you to craft your character to a more specific play-style. With enough XP (obtained by scanning things), you can buy upgrades that allow for stealth playthroughs (sound dampener and sound decoy), boost your offensive or defensive abilities, or increase your hacking abilities, among other things. There is a four upgrade limit per character, but it does give co-op partners a way to carve out definitive roles for their characters and spice up combat.
Overall, Star Trek: The Video Game is a solid foundation for future Trek games, albeit one that isn’t anywhere near the greatest in terms of execution. For Trek fans, there’s plenty to like in spite of its weaknesses, but for the average gamer, it’s a rental, at best, and probably something you’d only pick up if you want or need a co-op game. While this game is nowhere near as bad as Aliens: Colonial Marines, it’s sad to see such a lackluster start to the Abrams Trek era of gaming. Perhaps Paramount will continue with plans for future Star Trek games, but I’m not holding out much hope.
Star Trek: The Video Game is out now.
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This article was first posted on April 26, 2013