Since the dawn of video games, developers have always sought out the rights to valuable television and movie properties, particularly titles that belong to the science fiction genre. After all, what child in 1977 didn’t want to fly the trench run with Luke Skywalker? Science fiction has always inspired technology, and you would be hard pressed to find a franchise that inspired more in technology and video gaming than Star Trek. But there is an underlying problem to licensing movie and television properties: TV and movie based video games typically suck.
As bad as most games based on series are, the simple fact is that they sell. The biggest licensed turd burger of the year, Aliens: Colonial Marines has sold excellent numbers despite being a broken mess of a game. But companies know they can get away with this: a trip to my local Gamestop will have my kid reaching for the latest Ben 10 or Power Rangers game rather than a title that has much more potential to be a good game. In fact, he has a pile of DS games based on movies and TV that have been played for a matter of hours before being forgotten. It’s a way of life for developers, who will continue the practice until people stop buying these games; and face it, that’s not going to happen.
Star Trek is a franchise that has been used time and time again for video games, going back so far that fan and studio made Trek adventures could be played on some of the earliest home computers. Sadly, many of those attempts at interactive adventures have fallen short of the mark, with the latest installment landing between poor and average. Here are five of the biggest things it gets wrong, and five that it actually gets right.
1. Uncharted….IN SPAAAAAAAACE!!!!! (Or Diet Mass Effect)
Nathan Drake’s adventures have become a shining example in recent years of how to make an adventure game, so much so that the reboot of Tomb Raider borrowed heavily from the Uncharted format to great success. Star Trek also borrows from the Uncharted format, with cover-based gunfights, climbing sequences, puzzles and more. The problem is, it just doesn’t do it that well thanks to uninspired action, dated graphics and abysmal controls.
The game tries to shake things up by allowing you to choose either Kirk or Spock, and the cooperative multiplayer (seemingly inspired by Portal 2) can be a hoot if you find the right partner (or bring your own), but none of this makes up for how it plays. While the game is described by creative director Sheldon Carter as “…someone spliced Metroid Prime into my Uncharted“, it feels more like Digital Extremes saw how cool Uncharted was, replaced Nathan Drake with Kirk and Spock, and blatantly stole Detective Mode from the Arkham series. Taking good ingredients from some of the best game of recent history, throwing them into a pot and mixing them does not necessarily make a good cake.
2. There’s Movement All Over the Place (I Just Wish it Were Where I Wanted)
On of the things that made Uncharted so easy to love was its tight control scheme. For cover-based shooters, good controls are a must, otherwise your character will quickly become a digital bullet sponge. It’s that lack of good control that takes some of the fun away from Star Trek.
There is a sequence early on in the game which requires you to dive for cover, hiding behind structures as unfiltered sunlight attempts to give you sunburn that SPF 1,000,000 wouldn’t sooth. It should be an easy sequence; you are given plenty of time to get from one bit of cover to the next, and there are indicators of your forthcoming flash frying long before the heat turns on. Unfortunately while in cover, moving the stick just a little too far in one direction will cause your character to inexplicably stand up, self immolating himself in a matter of seconds. It’s annoying to say the least.
Other times I experienced instances where Kirk would just take off running to the left for no reason at all, with my thumb completely off the left stick. Normally this is annoying, but during some of the game’s fatal jumping puzzles, it’s enough to make one throw the controller. The controls were so poor, I actually swapped out controllers twice in hopes that only mine was bad…turns out it was the game.
3. Give Peace (Through Superior Firepower) a Chance
One of the most compelling concepts to come out of Star Trek is that the human (and alien) mind can overcome obstacles without resorting to violence. While violence was occasionally necessary, it was always used as a last resort.
This game seems to have a hard time deciding if it wants you to be a pacifist or not. Loading screen messages remind you that Starfleet Officers use deadly force only as a last resort, and the game will even reward you at times if you are able to complete a section using only the stun setting of your phaser followed up by an old fashioned ass kicking; however some enemies and bosses require that you kill them. We’ve seen issues like this before in games such as Deus Ex: Human Revolution, where you could go the entire game without killing anyone, but bosses would not be affected by non-lethal weapons, making murder the only option.
Additionally, the control scheme uses the right bumper button for stun mode, with the right trigger used for filling your enemies full of little red bolts of light. If you are trying to minimize casualties, wouldn’t it make sense for the trigger to be the stun, with the alternate firing mode unleashing phaser death? Also, why is it necessary to cold-cock the enemy whom you’ve just stunned to put them down for good? Never, in all of the Star Trek episodes or films I have watched, has anyone needed to lay hands on a stunning victim to take them down; why start now? And why can you only physically strike an opponent who has been stunned? Original Kirk went mano a mano with a Gorn in the original series, and again recently in a commercial. There’s no reason why he shouldn’t be able to engage in some Queensbury rules fisticuffs with his lizard opponents.
4. In Space Combat, Everyone Will Hear You Scream
No Star Trek game would be complete without the opportunity to take command of the Enterprise for some good old fashioned space combat. Entire games have been developed to simulate starship combat. It feels like Digital Extremes forgot about including space battles until about three days before launch, as a potentially exciting segment where the Enterprise faces off against Gorn ships is reduced to a crappy rail shooter.
If you want to get a taste for the space combat in Star Trek, just play one of the shooting missions in something like Skylanders Giants. They are essentially the same, except that Skylanders isn’t in space, actually tells you what to do, and is fun. In Star Trek, however, you manually control a single battery, engaging a small Gorn flotilla that has tremendous advantage over you because they actually know how to play the game.
Apparently you have to activate shields manually, which only have a limited amount of power before you have to drop them and allow them to recharge. Activating tactical mode essentially starts a Max Payne bullet time mode, slowing down the action to allow you to pinpoint components of enemy ships or multiple fighters, but it doesn’t feel particularly valuable. There are many different directions in which they could have gone when designing this segment of the game, but a poorly conceived and controlled rail shooter is not going to win over hearts and minds.
5. The Game is Just Plain Broken
Aside from the numerous bugs, PC players have been consistently reporting that cooperative play, one of the best aspects of game, is for the most part unavailable. Digital Extremes has stated that the number of people experiencing problems with co-op is but a fraction of players, but multiple reviews have complained about being in that fraction.
Aside from the co-op problems and bugs, the game just looks rushed. Graphics seem like they were developed when the first Abrams Star Trek movie was released. Horrible clipping allows the Gorn to occasionally shove themselves and their weapons halfway through obstacles, which is deadly in a cover based shooter.
The fact is, the game was released broken for many people, and feels like it was rushed through the final stages of production. But when the product is released with a major component for the most part non-functional (for example, the latest Sim City release in which server issues made the entire game nonfunctional), the backlash is going to be severe. Digital Extremes seems to have employed the EA/Ostrich technique of putting their head in the sand, denying or downplaying the problem, a technique that will drive everyone who have been on the fence about buying Star Trek to decide to pass. I will say that when I called Bandai Namco support for help with my 3D TV, while no one was able to take my call immediately, they did call back rather quickly; the rep stating that call volume was exceptionally high this week. The question is, how many of those calls are for this Captain’s Log?
The Good (Or Better than Bad)
1. The Script
One of the first things the game hits right on the head is its script. Penned by Marianne Krawczyk of the God of War series, it feels like a sequel to the first film all by itself. Kirk, obviously older, wiser and more experienced, sounds exactly as we would expect him. He’s witty, charming and brave, all without losing that rule breaking attitude, seen as early as the introduction. The performances from the other cast are a bit mixed – Simon Pegg is spot-on as Scotty while Zoe Saldana’s Uhura feels slightly phoned in. Regardless of performance, everyone is written well and it is obvious that the camaraderie between cast mates is growing, which makes the prospects of a new film in three weeks all the more exciting. The bits of fan service here and there are enough to make any hard core Trek fan chuckle as well, particularly an homage to the original Kirk’s encounter with the Gorn.
It’s also important to stress that unlike previous Star Trek games, the story in Star Trek is considered canon. Will we possibly see references to New Vulcan and the Gorn in Star Trek Into Darkness? Regardless, the fact that the film script writers also had a hand in the story lends to its credibility, and makes the adventure seem grander. While most may be disappointed by aspects of the game, the fleshed out story feels like an action packed episode of a Trek TV series. All that’s missing is the opening credits.
2. The Music
It would have been very easy for Digital Extremes to hire any game music composer to create a generic score for Star Trek. Rather than half-assing it, Michael Giacchino and staff scored over two hours of original music specifically for the game. Regardless of whether you like Giacchino’s score for the prior Star Trek movie, the amount of time, money and effort needed to compose and record a full orchestral score for a video game had to be immense. If you happen to be a fan of the last film’s music, you are in for a treat.
The music feels more fleshed out and thoughtful than the previous film at times, though occasionally the music doesn’t fit the scene. A perfect example of this is during the run-up to a meeting with Admiral Daniels, where a composing misstep or a bug in the game give you music written more for an action cue rather than a tense meeting with a superior officer. If this is just a taste of what fans can expect from the upcoming film’s music, they will be pleasantly surprised.
3. The Tricorder
Call me a Trek nerd, but I really loved how much the tricorder came into play in the game. Obviously borrowed, nay, stolen from the Arkham series Detective Mode, the concept fits well with the game. Experience is gained by scanning objects and elements, not given to you as a reward to popping caps in unsuspecting future handbags. This forces you to take some time to smell the roses and explore, and gives the game more of a Star Trek feel rather than a Mass Effect feel.
In fact, the more time you spend looking around and investigating, the more it pays off. Complete your research in a particular subject and you receive a generous experience point bonus. Many games are doing this these days, but it’s with the Federation’s love of science and exploration that it truly feels at home.
4. The Gorn
When Kirk first fought the Gorn in “Arena”, the lizard creature terrified the children of the 1960s. Then they grew up and laughed at the fact the Gorn frightened them. With so many bad guy races in the Star Trek universe, one might be surprised that a cheesy creature from the original series would be selected as a bad guy. Of course, they aren’t your father’s (or grandfather’s) Gorn.
There are fifteen different types or classes of Gorn that you will encounter in the game. While they all have different abilities and most seem to be your typical shooter cannon fodder, the redesign makes some of them pretty damn terrifying, particularly when one of the large tank-like Gorn beams almost directly in front of you. It’s definitely a step up from the redesign they received for their appearance in Enterprise.
5. They Are the Two Best Friends…
If there is a particular aspect of the game developer hit a home run with, it would be co-op multiplayer. Of course, if you are playing on a PC, chances are you haven’t had a chance to experience the fun of it, but let’s hope that is rectified quickly.
It helps that they designed the characters differently. It would have been easy to just put either a Kirk or Spock skin on a generic character, but instead developers decided to differentiate between the two by giving them specialties. Kirk is the space cowboy as we would expect, but he is rounded out by Spock, who is better equipped for puzzles and science. While you get to see this to a point while playing in single player mode, the game really begins to get fun while playing with a friend. Teamwork becomes the name of the game, and while playing with an online stranger may be fun, the best way to play this game would be with a close friend.
It becomes much easier to overlook the shortcomings of the game while playing with a friend, because it’s in these moments that the game is it’s most fun. That being said, the game falls into the same pitfalls we see in many – if not most – games based on licensed properties. Gameplay, control and polish were sacrificed for a movie tie-in, a pre-movie release, and copious lens flares. In fact, the immense number of problems robbed the game of its fun factor, until it was played with a friend. The big reveal at the end is just a minor bit of fan service to tie in to the next film, and is 100% forgettable. What isn’t forgettable is the fun that you can have with a partner, and watching the development of the greatest bromance (and slash-fiction inspiration) of all time. Sadly though, Aliens: Colonial Marines has a new partner in meh, and franchise fans will still be left with an empty pit in the stomach where a great game should have been.