GDC 2013: Boldly going etc., etc. Hands-on with the ‘Star Trek’ video game

Enterprise BridgeIt is harder than you may think to avoid the litany of Star Trek quotes that have ventured so far into the public lexicon and now border on cliché. While that may partly be attributed to the commonly used crutches of a certain gaming editor (i.e. me), it’s also a testament to the enduring legacy of Star Trek, as well as the fire that was reignited for the franchise following J.J. Abrams’ recent reboot. Abrams did what he needed with the film, and the fans responded. As a result, Star Trek is as popular as ever, and a second movie due out on May 17 should further fuel that passion.

But before that happens, the property has another adventure to embark on in the vein of a video game. Developer Digital Extremes, hot off the success of The Darkness II (and the not-so success of the Homefront PC port and the BioShock 2 multiplayer), and Namco Bandai have partnered with Paramount to create something more than a typical video game tie in.

Back when the discussions first began regarding making a game that would build off the 2009 film, the consensus was reached that those involved would rather take the time and make a good game rather than just a quick tie-in to grab some cash off the coattails of the film. From that meeting, the nugget of Star Trek the game was born.

GornThe game takes place between the two films and offers an original story that features the Gorn – the race best known for the legendary episode of the original Star Trek TV series, “Arena,” that featured William Shatner fighting a guy in a rubber lizard suit in the desert outside L.A. while epic music played. That episode would go on to become one of the cornerstones of what we now know as the quintessential Shatner experience. Alas, the Gorn weren’t seen again until a brief appearance in an episode of Enterprise.

Although the Gorn earned their cult status basically by sucking (in a gloriously campy way), the game reinvents them. There will be multiple types of Gorn, from velociraptor-like creatures to the first ever look at female Gorn to a play on the rubber-suited Gorn that Kirk apparently beat so badly that he rendered their entire species moot. The Vulcans will also play a big role in the story, as the now transient logicians attempt to rebuild on a new planet. How that all fits with the next movie isn’t clear yet, but the game is being considered as canon.

While the movie takes place between the two films, the story will be completely self-contained. There will be allusions to the two films, as well as some Easter eggs hidden throughout. The game’s story will contribute to the new Star trek universe, but you don’t have to play the game to appreciate the coming movie, Star Trek Into Darkness.

Spock & KirkThe entire staring cast of the Enterprise return for the game, both to lend their voices as well as their physical likenesses. The game focuses on Kirk and Spock as the playable characters, but all the cast will be present and integral to the narrative. Between missions you can speak with the crew to learn more about the coming mission. They may appear to help during play. And some of the objectives will even revolve around the individual crew members.  The Enterprise will also be a huge part of the game. While the majority of the game will feature designs taken directly from the films, there will be several areas of the ship that we haven’t seen yet, or at least not seen in the new Star Trek universe – locations like crew quarters, for example.

As for the gameplay, it is difficult to judge a game based on a preview. Star Trek the game won’t be released until April 23, which gives the developers about a week to polish what they can, and fix any bugs that jump out before it has to go to print. After that, more fixes may come via patches; but for the most part, the game being previewed was very close to the final product. Still, for a true review, you’ll need to check back with us in the coming weeks.

Star Trek does a good job of building on what the films introduced, both in look and feel. The character animations, however, look dated – especially the facial animations, which seemed raw and occasionally hard on the eyes. Thankfully, this is easy to overlook when compared to the rest of the game, which has at least a few moments that can be called stunning. A handful of instances will have you outside the ship, while others will have you flying the Enterprise itself. In both instances, the graphics are solid and fit with the world of Star Trek.

Kirk & ShuttleAs for the gameplay, it’s a traditional third-person shooter built around co-op play. The easiest comparison may be EA’s Army of Two, but that is perhaps too obvious. Both Spock and Kirk have their own abilities and attributes, offering a slightly different experience for each character – but only slightly. The most notable difference is the primary weapon each character has. Kirk’s phaser is a modeled after a Western six-shooter with a powerful kick, while Spock’s is a Vulcan phaser that is a bit more subtle and has a faster rate of fire. Like all items in the game, they are upgradable. They are the primary weapons you will always carry, but there are well over 20 weapons found throughout the game, including weapons from: the Gorn, Vulcans, and Humans. The primary weapons are only one small part of the game.

Experience is earned through several actions, including finding collectibles, which you can do by using your tricorder. Using the tricorder will be an essential part of the game, and activating it gives you something akin to Batman’s detective mode. Special items will be highlighted, and your objectives will be more prominently displayed. But the tricorder also has game play elements of its own, and you’ll often have to use  it to scan and interact with certain objects, which occasionally leads to a mini-game. Sometimes these scannable items and mini-games are unique to each character, so playing through the same level a second time does offer some differences. Along the way, you’ll also find some items steeped in Star Trek lore, like the occasional scourge of the Klingon Empire, the dreaded Tribble.

Enterprise & Gorn Ship

Along with the third-person mechanics will be certain trappings that should be familiar to fans of the genre. There will be cover mechanics, alt-fire for most guns, and the odd jumping obstacle as well. There will be a handful of space combat battles to boot, which put you at the controls of the Enterprise. The combat in this mode is straightforward: one player controls the phasers, while the other controls the photon torpedoes. The view is from outside and slightly behind the bridge of the Enterprise, giving it an arcade feel.

Star Trek the video game has some rough edges, but it will be the story that is what fans will remember. If the game can stick the landing on the narrative, while keeping the look of the franchise alive, Star Trek may beam up a hit. Or set phasers on fun. Or whatever cliché you chose.