I had high hopes for this one. Not only am I a fan of Star Trek, new and old, I really thought this could be an important game for the industry. I went so far as to claim that this could be the best movie tie-in game to date. Turns out, not so much.
It sounded great on paper. Originally the game was going to be a tie-in to the 2009 film, but instead they shelved it in favor of taking more time and care to expand on it and make it into a standalone story that was another chapter in the continuing adventures of the rebooted crew of the Enterprise. At least, that was the plan.
Here’s the thing: the game actually debuted at E3 in 2011, and Namco showed a decent bit of alpha gameplay while hyping a 2012 release. There was enough completed game then to indicate there had been a fair amount of work already done, maybe a year or more. Yet somehow the gameplay shown in 2011 looks as good, maybe even better than the final product. That’s hard to confirm from just a 1 minute 15 second clip, but the retail game certainly doesn’t show much polish. It feels rushed and half baked, with muddy controls, glitches, and inconsistent graphics. Something odd must have happened.
Star Trek isn’t a disaster on the level of Aliens: Colonial Marines, but it is in the same boat. A sinking, leaky boat. Unlike Aliens, Star Trek isn’t totally broken, just kind of broken at a few parts. The bigger issue is that it is just dull and extremely clichéd. At its best, it is a game that you should play with a friend to pass the time. At its worst it is the gaming equivalent of a red shirt in TOS = a completely forgettable dead man walking.
The Agony and Ecstasy of Trekkers
While I would not classify myself entirely as a Trekker, I have seen all the movies and TV shows, probably more than once. Even Voyager. God help me, even Voyager. I ascribe that more to a general love of all things sci-fi though. That said, I am about to get really, really nerdy here. I’ll give you warning when it gets bad.
The game takes place in the J.J. Abrams-verse, sometime between the 2009 film and the upcoming sequel, Star Trek Into Darkness. It neither spoils, nor even really hints at what is to come in the film, so if you are hoping to remain pure when seeing Into Darkness, this game won’t ruin any surprises. There are a few things that expand the universe though.
The game avoids stepping on the toes of the new films by bringing back an old, and mostly forgotten enemy, the Gorn. The Gorn are best remembered by the guy in the staggeringly fake lizard suit that fought Kirk in the TOS episode “Arena.” They were mentioned several more times in the various Trek properties, but only made one other appearance via the show Enterprise. The game reimagines them completely. They are now Velociraptors with guns.
Answering a distress call from a Vulcan science station, the crew of the Enterprise stumbles upon a rip in space leading to another galaxy, where the Gorn are oppressive masters. After seizing a powerful new technology that could lead to the doom of our galaxy, Kirk, Spock, and the others try to stop them. Please skip the next paragraph if you aren’t a Trekker.
The Gorn Hegemony, or the Gorn Confederacy as it was occasionally called, was originally described as a civilization that was firmly part of the Alpha Quadrant. In the game they are from another galaxy, which constitutes a liberty taken by the developers. J.J. Abrams’ story went out of its way to reboot the franchise without disregarding the established universe. It was a time paradox, but one that allowed the existence of all the old mythology, just in a slightly different way. The game does not. I’m sorry, and I will never do that again.
The story is at best serviceable, if dull. There are a few cool moments for Trekkers though, mostly found through collectibles scattered throughout. One set tells of a Tribble invasion on Earth, while another discusses the Vulcan exodus after their planet was destroyed. If you are a fan, then some of these are actually fairly cool. They make the act of collecting almost worth it. Almost.
Experience Breeds Contempt
The act of collecting is a good window into the greater game. Like the main product, it is joyless, but you’ll often find yourself doing it anyway. To find collectibles you hold down the LB/L1 button to use your tricorder, which is an all-in-one device that can do everything from scan enemies to hack equipment through a series of repetitive and simple mini-games. You’ll use it often, and odds are you’ll end up using it way too much in order to find not just hidden items, but things like cloaked enemies and mines. So expect to spend much of the game in an augmented mode where you move slower and the color is off. Huzzah!
The points you earn unlock a generic and uninspired series of upgrades that you’ll have exploited as much as you want to by maybe two-thirds the way through the roughly 10 hour game. After that it is mostly pointless.
Another way to earn experience is through the commendations, optional objectives tacked on to your primary mission. With only a few exceptions, these commendations break down into three types: find an alternate route, don’t kill certain enemies, and don’t raise an alarm. The first one is straight forward enough, and it’s usually apparent what the alternate route is. The game is exceedingly linear, so if you find another path, you’re gold. The other two make you wonder why you are doing them.
Playing the game with a stealth slant is difficult for all the wrong reasons. The controls are sluggish and not nearly as precise as you would like, the cover mechanic is clumsy, and if you are playing with an AI teammate expect them to do whatever the stupidest thing possible is, like charge a turret. That one happens often. If you are lucky, the enemy AI will be just as dumb and not see them – assuming of course, the enemy isn’t stuck in a box or halfway in a wall.
Going stealth is sometimes the best way to try to go, even when you get caught, because a single upgraded stun blast from Kirk’s phaser, or a stasis blast from Spock’s Vulcan weapon can often be far more effective than shooting them with a deadly blast 10 times. No, it doesn’t make any sense. Combat is often unavoidable though, and it is lifeless.
The game also fluctuates wildly from difficult to easy to broken. Sometimes the hardest sections are due to things like a cloaked enemy floating impossibly above and behind an area (that was a fun one to figure out), while other times the janky jumping and hanging mechanics will spell doom when you aren’t entirely sure where you can jump. Even when you do know, once in awhile you’ll die anyway. I once hit a jump perfectly and collapsed and died. Possibly Kirk’s heart couldn’t take the strain. Thankfully, the save points are unevenly placed and far removed, so I had plenty of chances to try again and again and again.
The combat and gameplay mechanics use every trope you’ve seen in a third-person shooter, one after another. There is nothing compelling or original, and even the tired cliches of gameplay aren’t done that well to begin with. It isn’t unplayable by any means, but you’ll have to really work at it at times. Like the swimming. Ye gods the swimming sections.
But at Least the Enterprise is Pretty
One of the few redeeming features of the game is the handful of sections where you sense the scope of the Star Trek universe. A few sections will have you in space, and while the controls remain your bitter foe, flying towards the Enterprise while it is under attack looks cool. The scant moments of exploration you are granted inside the rebooted ship modeled on the Abrams version are also interesting, and a few sections really stand out. If you ever wondered how a turbolift can go almost anywhere, up or sideways, now you’ll know. These moments are few and far between though, and most of the game is spent in one sterile corridor, or one drab alien area or another.
The faces also border on horrifying now and then, especially Zachary Quinto as Spock. He looks like someone wearing a cheap, plastic Spock mask who was then digitally recreated. Chris Pine’s Kirk fares a bit better. Both lend their voices to the game, as do the rest of the cast.
The moments taken directly from the movies are where the game is somewhat redeemable. The music is great, the Enterprise and its bridge are fun to look at, and the dialogue of the crew is usually solid and entertaining. If you are a diehard fan, it might be worth the tedium of the rest of the game to experience this side of it.
Share the Pain
The best way to play this game is with another person. The co-op doesn’t really alleviate the boredom, but it’s easier to take when you have a friend you can laugh about it with. All the problems with the controls remain, but it is a passable co-op experience if you are a really big Star Trek fan.
Besides, the computer controlled AI is often terrible, More than once I had to go back and fetch Kirk/Spock, and a few times while waiting for my AI teammate to appear they never did. If I was in a wait screen, I had to restart. Deliberately throwing them directly into harm’s way so they die or are wounded is therapeutic. They do now and then draw fire from the enemy, so there’s that.
Although there are plenty of glitches (including a few game enders), Star Trek isn’t quite as bad as Aliens: Colonial Marines. But it’s close. The story is dull and most of the game is drab, but Trekkers may find a few interesting tidbits to check out – assuming they can get past the gameplay which is trite. Play it with a friend to mitigate this or don’t play it at all.
With a few exceptions, the game also looks dated and rough. The Gorn are just reimagined Velociraptors with a few different classes, while the humans look far more terrifying. There is likely a story behind the failed development of this game, and hopefully we will hear it someday. They owe us that much.
(Star Trek was reviewed using an Xbox 360 copy of the game that was provided by the publisher.)
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