Starfleet Command 3
When a game is released that's based on a film or other intellectual property there is often a tendency to proclaim its greatness if it merely manages to not be terrible. I take a somewhat different viewpoint. I feel that if a developer has such a wealth of material to draw inspiration from then the resulting game should be better than its counter parts. If done correctly the game should embody the essence of its source as well as great gameplay. Game such as Blade Runner, Aliens vs Predator 2 and of course Goldeneye are prime examples of this. Starfleet Command 3 from Taldren software comes close, so very close, to being such a classic. When you add up all the flaws though the result is more of a Nemesis than a Wrath of Khan.
The fact that this is the third major installment for the Starfleet Command series tells you that it's one of the few popular and successful Trek games. With the same developer at the helm, Taldren, it also tells you that people must think they are doing something right. The previous games dealt with the Kirk era but this time around we're in the home of the Next Generation. I preferred the style of the original ships but that's a matter of personal taste. By moving forward a generation they've given themselves some more freedom to change the game design. You now have four shield points where as before there were six. This aids the pace of the game as you no longer have to slow things down to ensure you hit the weak point. Shuttles have had their roles limited which keeps the focus on capital ship combat. Missiles have gone entirely and you can no longer beam mines out into space, all of which is more in-keeping with the show. So far so good then. In previous versions each race's interface had a distinctive look to it, like a Winamp/Media Player skin. Sadly a generic interface is used throughout which while making the game slightly easier to learn is less visually appealing.
The single player campaigns revolve around a new starbase called Unity One built by the Federation and the Klingons. You have the choice of playing through as either the Klingons, Romulans or the Federation and it's best to go through them in that order as suggested. Each campaign tells a different story that revolves around Unity One and its purpose. The style of each race is well used. Without giving away the plot the Klingon campaign deals with family honour, the Romulans contend with corruption, betrayal and subterfuge while the Federation wants to find out the truth behind the events. These are all well thought out and contain a large amount of voice acting to keep the universe alive. Patrick Stewart, Picard himself, narrates the Federation campaign which is especially enjoyable and you will even come across the Enterprise. It was also good to see that they've made the effort to include nice end sequences for each of the campaigns.
Combat between ships takes place on a two dimensional plane as before and involves out maneuvering your opponents and maximising your ships potential. You'll need to keep the enemy within the firing arcs of your weapon systems whilst making sure you keep your shields reinforced. Once you've managed to knock down a shield, you can target individual systems like the warp core, or if you prefer the personal touch beaming a team aboard to take it out. Romulan and Klingon ships can cloak and all ships can warp across the system to get into a fight, or get out of one. Cloaking is by no means a major strategic advantage as when engaging or disengaging the cloak your shields are down rendering you very vulnerable. Even tractor beams can be used in an interesting manner to stop the enemy escaping from your grasp or dragging an unsuspecting player into a black hole. The game offers you that 'sandbox' experience of giving you a host of controls and systems and letting you figure out the best strategy.
There are a few problems with the combat system though. At the beginning of a campaign when you have a small ship your weapons lack sufficient punch to do much damage to enemy ships. So you might break through the shields of a ship with a full volley, but by the time your weapons have recharged so will their shields making for a fairly long and uneventful engagement. You have a small pool of engineers to repair damaged systems but you can only use each one once. If a system is being repaired and gets hit your team will keep working away. So it's better to let your systems take heavy damage before you have them repaired, Geordie would not approve. You can adjust the speed of the game from 1 to 11 which is a totally unnecessary level of discreetness and should have been changed to simply slow, medium and fast. This timing system has been in place since the first title and isn't the only thing that seems unchanged.
The graphics on offer are far short of what has come to be expected from a modern title. The ship models, of which there a large number, are well done but the surrounding effects are poor at best. Space based games have the opportunity to shoot above their station because most of the time the screen is filled by a backdrop. Ships explode in a very dull manner. The backdrops are grainy and uninspiring. Black holes still look square when viewed from above and the energy wave resulting from an explosion is a flat animation that I swear hasn't changed since the first game. If you compare the graphics to something like Independence War 2 it's all the more embarrassing. Go back even further and Homeworld had far superior effects. Homeworld is also a good counter point on how to implement one good camera system rather then offer three bad ones. The graphics engine gets the job done but is in sore need of an overhaul.
The games best achievement is that it has become as much a role-playing game as a strategy game. Instead of a character seeing improvements as you play though it is your ship that benefits. When you succeed in a mission you gain prestige points which you can use to upgrade to a better ship. More than that though, you are now free to customise the systems for your ship making it much more personalised. Your hull class gives you limits on the total mass of any changes which prevents you from having outrageous firepower in a small ship. Each hull class will have a certain number of weapon hard points each with corresponding firing arcs. So maybe you'll want lots of forward firepower for charging into battle or a more balanced spread so you'll be more effective when surrounded. Another role playing aspect is the return of officers that crew your ship. Each has a bearing on an aspect of the game, such as a good helmsman can execute high energy turns, so you'll need to train them up and try and not get them killed in combat. Both of these systems are very well put together and great fun to play around with.
The dynamic universe, or as Taldren calls it the Dynaverse, is irrelevant and buggy for the single player game. What could have been utilised to produce a lot of interesting sub quests and plots mainly just gets in the way of the well put together stories. Why they choose to deviate from standard map conventions and number from the top left instead of the bottom left is beyond me. The Dynaverse's real strength is in the online massive multiplayer games. The universe is divided into a large hexagonal grid and you fight over each hex to aid the economy of your race, which in turn translates into a wider selection of ships and cheaper supplies. The computer generated missions aren't particularly varied but they are balanced to stop you being too outclassed or outnumbered. Depending on the size of the grid it can be hard to find human opponents who are at the same level as you. For those who want to enjoy a long multiplayer campaign it will certainly keep you occupied. For me though online deathmatches were the high point. Using the ubiquitous Gamespy you can enjoy a team game with up to eight players. The games have a good pace, action packed but not too frantic giving you time to think, and think hard because there are some crafty players out there. Three vs. three battles online produced the best moments the game had to offer. When your team has lost a member of the fleet, your phasers are inoperative and your officers call out that a ship is decloaking off the port side you almost want to shout out "go to auxiliary power" or "I need warp power in three minutes or we're all dead."
Starfleet Command 3 is very much an evolution of the series and it's clearly in good hands with Taldren. They have a firm grasp of the main gameplay and hopefully they can turn their attentions to the graphics and getting rid of the myriad of bugs. They've also shown the community good support by allowing ship models to be imported and there is even a Nemesis plugin that coincides with the film. I'm a huge Star Trek fan and it's from that perspective that I got most of my enjoyment from this game because it offers up a quintessential Star Trek experience. It's not a perfect game but it's carved out a niche audience who have seen far worse things with the Star Trek brand. I'm sure the series will only get better and better.