Star Trek: Elite Force 2
"Through its actions and inactions, Viacom has let the once proud Star Trek franchise stagnate and decay," states Activision. As we reported recently, these hurtful truths came from a lawsuit filed by Activision against Viacom concerning the future licensing of Star Trek games. The franchise is indeed in a terrible state. The last film, "Nemesis", performed poorly at the box office and there are no current plans for another. After all Patrick Stewart has said he won't be returning and who would replace him? The TV series has fared worse. Despite constant criticism from the fans Voyager churned out the same old garbage week in, week out. Now that the new series, Enterprise, seems happy to do the same, even the hardcore fans are abandoning ship and it's slowly becoming the ratings graveyard it deserves. Activision for its part is not entirely innocent. The quality of the games they've produced since 1998 have varied somewhat between good (Starfleet Command 3) and bad (Away Team). I don't think that it's unfair to say that Star Trek is going out on a whimper rather than a bang. What this all means is that Nemesis is probably going to be the last film, Enterprise the last series, and Elite Force 2 the last game. As a diehard Trekkie I must ask you now to pause for one minutes silence and contemplate this loss. (Oh the humanity!)
If you survived that rather lengthy introduction you'll want to know if Elite Force 2 is worth buying. The answer is a hesitant yes. It is a good, if at times rather generic first-person shooter. In a strange way I'd almost call this game old school in that it eschews the current fad for god awful stealth missions and just ensures that enemies keep on appearing around every second corner. This probably comes from the use of Quake 3 engine that lies under the hood. While it may not be the most advanced engine available it can still render some impressive levels. The added bonus of course is that the game seems very stable and should be compatible with a very wide range of system configurations. If you've played the original Elite Force, or any recent FPS, you should be immediately at home.
The game begins where the previous outing left off. You play as Alex Munroe, a member of Voyager's Hazard team trapped in the Delta Quadrant. Well trapped for the first few missions anyway. You begin on a Borg ship that you must infiltrate in order to free Voyager. As you might imagine this entails a bit of sneaking around and copious amount of shooting. A nice touch in this part of the game is that the Borg will adapt to your different weapons like in the show. So you can only kill a few Borg drones before they become shielded to that particular weapon. After a bit of running around, some well placed phaser bursts and a fight with an uber Borg Voyager breaks free and heads back to the Alpha Quadrant. Just in time for Janeways' court martial. Once back in Federation space you get to visit Starfleet Academy for your debriefing only to be told that the Hazard is being disbanded and your next assignment is as a teacher for plucky new cadets. These early mission allow the game's story to fit into the arc of the TV series before branching forward. This is done using the classic cliché technique where the screen fades out to subtitles of "2 years later" and there you are.
Your talents don't go unnoticed though and pretty soon Captain Picard himself brings the Hazard team back together to see if such a squad has a role to play on board normal star ships (how many red-shirted ensigns had to die before this was realised?). Soon after this the main story kicks in involving two new alien races, the Attrexians and the Idryll. This is also where the games main failing begins to appear. Star Trek has a wealth of information that can be drawn and built upon. So why add yet another alien race, that in turn requires its own back story. Particularly why add a rather generic alien artefact plot. It's almost as if there are two games thrown together here, one that is pure Star Trek and another that is like an Unreal or Quake outing.
For example, to me by far and away the best level is at the start. You are called to the USS Dallas that is adrift in space. You start by beaming aboard with your Hazard team crewmates wearing space suits. The ship's power is down and the level has a cold eerie feel to it thanks to the great atmospheric soundtrack and lighting. The gravity system is malfunctioning and cargo canisters float above you. You go over a display console to unlock the doors from the cargo bay. Then comes the 'money shot'. As the door to the shuttle bay opens it is accompanied by a burst of cold air and a dead body floats into the centre of the room. Then you walk into the shuttle bay to gaze out, past the emergency force field, to see the two huge warp nacelles at either side of the ship. It is gaming nirvana. That's also only the start of what is a masterfully put together section that has a gradual build up to its crescendo. You power up the ships systems seeing the authentic looking displays light up. You have to crawl through Jeffries tubes, catching glimpses of aliens scuttling around. Finally a big fire fight erupts toward the end to cap it all off.
But then there are all these other levels that just seem hugely out of place. Underground alien facilities, caves, industrial refiners, many of these levels could fit into practically any first person shooter. That's not to say they're not good, all of them are in fact well put together, they just don't seem to gel with each other. This also translates to the weapons. There are really nice phasers and phase rifles that are authentic to the show. The sniper rifle, that made a brief appearance in DS9, is added at a later date. Some interesting alien weapons are also thrown in for variety, one of particular note has a neat secondary fire mode that creates a pool of explosive gas that you can ignite. They should have stopped there, but instead they looked through their list and realised they didn't have a shotgun type of weapon or a rocket launcher and so these are bundled in without regard for consistency. You can sense the checklist being ticked off as you play through the game. A sniping level, some abandoned buildings, maybe a bit of alien cocooning, oh wait we forget the molten lava level that means we also need levels in the snow. And so on.
I like to be immersed in a game, and in the same way you wouldn't expect an 'Aliens' game to feature a Tomb Raider level, or a Star Wars game to suddenly become Rainbow Six, so too would you expect a Star Trek game to stay true to its setting. When it doesn't, it jars you out of the game quite unceremoniously. The worst instance of this is when you go to meet the Idryll scientists for the first time. Imagine if you will that you wanted to create a believable alien race in a game. What might you have the female scientist wear? A uniform, a hardwearing suit to cope with harsh alien conditions, perhaps a coat of some kind? Well Ritual entertainment choose a bikini! It's misguided decisions like that which lie at the heart of the franchises current crisis.
One aspect that this game happily shares with the TV show is the high production values. Everything in the game, regardless of its authenticity, is well built, textured, lit, animated, scored, etc. There is even a nice opening sequence to the game that is akin to a new credits sequence for a show. They've hired in some good voice talent including many of the shows cast. Patrick Stewart does yet another stalwart job as Picard. At times though he does sound like he's not really interested, so when he's consoling you about the loss of a comrade he may as well be ordering Earl Grey. Tim Russ does an excellent job as Tuvok. Even Dwight Schultz makes a cameo for his role as Lt Barclay. A whole host of other talent from the show are recognisable voicing other characters, like Jeffrey Combs (Weyoun) and J.G. Hertzler (Martok). It seems the Star Trek Welfare program is as strong as ever. It is quite exciting though to hear the right voices with the right face.
It was obviously someone's bright idea to have interactive speech at various junctures in the game, but it turns out rather poor. It must have seemed like a splendid addition until they realised just how much of a hassle it would be to implement all the way through. The result means that at times you can have infinite looping speeches, or one option means you'll simply skip a small cut scene. In some conversations if you choose the wrong option you'll just fail the game and have to start again from a recent auto save game. The only bearing I think that these branches have on the story concern which love interest you'll end up with at the end. Suffice it to say I don't think you'll really care.
In terms of pacing each part of the game will generally introduce a new weapon to play with and will culminate in a boss battle. These bosses are actually quite good, and provide the appropriate step upward in challenge each time. I thought the final level in particular was nicely crafted with a good alien to deal with. The AI of the creatures in the game is nothing special. When dealing with creepy alien monsters simply having them charge at you seems entirely appropriate. When fighting Klingons though this behaviour for a warrior race is a tad simple and suicidal. If you want to explore there are also secret areas to be found (another tick on that checklist) as well as small golden ships to be collected. These in turn unlock some secret levels from the main menu. Admittedly I only accessed the first few of these and while they were nice they weren't enough of an incentive to make me play through it all again. To finish the single player game it took me a very respectable ten hours. Longevity is of course achieved from the multiplayer game. I think it is best described as being like a really good mod for Quake 3, and I mean a really good mod. The levels are well designed offering a nice free flowing environment to run around. The weapons and power ups, like the personal cloak, are all good fun. There are lots of different options for the multiplayer game type, from a straightforward death match to capture the flag and variations on that theme.
Star Trek: Elite Force 2 is not a great Star Trek game nor is it a great first person shooter. While there are moments of brilliance the piece as a whole is let down by its derivative nature, by its unwillingness to draw the player completely into the Star Trek universe. Instead it mixes too many contrived settings and plot twists. The game however is very well produced. It provides a solid, albeit slightly forgettable, piece of entertainment. If this is indeed the last game to bear the proud Star Trek name then it's not quite the swansong one might hope for. On the bright side there have certainly been far worse products to be branded under the Trek banner. If the franchise could consistently produce titles of this calibre then Star Trek would probably be able to struggle on and live a little longer. Prospering however, will require just that little bit more.