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by Activision

There are only so many clever things you can say at the start of a Star Trek review, and most of those have already been said somewhere in the long history of Star Trek based game releases. As an aging Treky still coming to grips with the loss of The Next Generation from our weekly TV line-up (a wound once again re-opened with the release of Nemesis), it’s always refreshing for me whenever a game licenses TNG over some of those other shows (like Voyager…shudder). It’s good to see the Elite Force series, one of the best Star Trek based game lines on the market, teleporting across the generation gap to a Starfleet made famous by Jean-Luc Picard. In the same respect, it’s good to see Starfleet Command III make that same transition, even going so far as having the captain himself lend his talents as a voice actor to help narrate the tutorial, and spice up the storyline. In fact, the combination of voice acting, musical score, sound effects, and graphic design, make Starfleet Command III the strongest player on the market when it comes to pure Star Trek TNG flavor. From the moment the opening cut scene begins to play and Captain Picard’s voice comes over the speakers, it’s like being teleported back in time, being reintroduced to an old friend. Starfleet Command III succeeds in capturing the one thing that every Star Trek game has sought (and most failed) to offer: a familiar taste of what we lost during that two-hour finale back in 1994, and have really failed to see anywhere but the big screen since.

Starfleet Command III opens in a new era of peace and prosperity between the Federation and the Klingon Empire, and finds the two constructing an advanced space station capable of detecting cloaked ships along the edge of the neutral zone. There are those in the universe, of course, who do not like this idea much at all, however. Unlike many games that try to place you in command of well known starships from the series, Starfleet Command wisely places you in the role of a beginning captain on whatever side you happen to choose to play (from Federation and Klingon to Romulan and Borg), letting the significant players appear to progress the storyline.

The game is played from two perspectives; the tactical, hex map of the universe allows you to direct your ship in and out of friendly and enemy space at high speeds, jumping from mission to mission. At the same time, the missions themselves are played from an over-the-shoulder camera angle that sits behind your ship in classic third person. The two allow for multiple perspectives of the game, one letting you manage your ship – replacing crew, armament, and weapons – and view the overall progress of your alignment, the other letting you blow things up in glorious fashion with phasers, photon torpedoes, and various other toys. Between the two, Starfleet Command offers a complex and engaging glimpse into the life of a Starfleet captain. Broken in half, each element offers a number of excellent features, and at the same time, a number of items that could have stood a little more attention during development.

Before you have a chance to launch into battle, which is really the heart of Starfleet Command III, you find yourself having to get there. The topographical hex map shows a great deal of useful information, from what sort of morale a sector has, to which empire or political affiliation rules the area. Once you arrive at a specific hex, you can check your missions log to see if there are any jobs in the area that need to be done for petty fame points (cash). If there’s a space station in the area, you can stop off for a drink or two at the local bar, swap stories with potential crewmen, and pick up new supplies. You can also look over what new ships and weapons may be available for purchase, and you’ll quickly find that the pursuit of newer, bigger ships is one of your favorite pastimes. Every time you earn enough points to pick up a ship with new gun ports and shield enhancements, you’ll get a thrill taking it out into the world to kick some alien race’s triangle shaped bum.

Unfortunately, there are some glaring omissions in this area of the game that boarder on frustrating (not quite, but close). For one, and to my major disappointment, you can’t keep any of the ships that you capture. You knock down someone’s shields, you beam some soldiers over and take control of the ship… but for what? Do you get to keep it? Do you get extra points, or get to sell it for better parts? No. It disappears at the end of the battle. It drains the fun out of piracy.

For another, there isn’t any labeling on the hex map. Often, orders will send you to a certain hex, like 5, 23, and then expect you to know exactly where that is. While you do know what hex you are currently on (it tells you in a little information box at the bottom of the screen, if you scroll through the text) there’s nothing to tell you what hexes are on either side of you. You end up actually traveling to a neighboring area, just so it will tell you what the coordinates of the hex you are now in, so that you can compare them to the ones you were just in… and it all gets rather confusing. It’s like asking someone to go north five miles on a map without pointing them in the right direction, and forgetting to mention that one mile equals one inch. This is such an obvious glaring omission in a game that is really quite polished that I kept expecting to figure it out, to discover a hidden information box that answered all my questions. None, as far as I know, exists.

This wouldn’t be so bad if you had an unlimited amount of time to figure things out, but you don’t. Once you’re issued an order to report to a certain location, the computer gives you a limited amount of time to get there before it decides you’re lost and teleports you there automatically. This wouldn’t be a problem if it had some regard for your current activity, such as buying supplies at a star base, before whisking you spiritedly away to your next encounter. It doesn’t. It was particularly annoying when, after a few minutes in port deciding how many men I wanted to have for boarding parties, it took over my controls and sped me away just before I clicked the purchase button a few times. I then found myself entering a mission with orders to capture, but not destroy, an enemy ship. Want to know how many soldiers I’d managed to stock before my unexpected departure? Zero. I had to quit the mission and re-load a previous save. In a game that is so detailed and well done in many other respects, you’d think the computer would make sure you had the ability to complete a mission before sending you in with no way out. Thinking, in this case though, would lead you astray.

These sorts of shortfalls, the type that don’t ruin the game but tarnish slightly upon close inspection, appear in other areas as well. For example, in the combat sequences, when you take your hard earned and painstakingly equipped ship into battle, what you witness is played out entirely on a two-dimensional map. Oh, sure, the ships all look pretty good, but while dog fighting in space you have the options of moving left or right, not up or down. There are few times when this is more evident than when two ships fly over each other. Head on head, the two will overlap, appearing to be at slightly elevations, merely flying over one another. However, if the two ships are turning when they cross, often times the wing of one Klingon Warbird will pass quite cleanly and evidently through the wing of another. This is not a glaring error. It does not diminish the game substantially. It is one, however, of several small elements that evidently could have used a bit more polish.

The action of the game is provided through the combat sequences, fought in this two dimensional, third person perspective with a dizzying array of options, commands, and details to remember. This actually represents a dumbing down of the series, which used to be complex to the point of confusion, out of the easy reach for many players. Weapons are directional, depending on what type of ship your flying and what side you’re flying for (the Federation tends to have weapons placed in a wider spread, often around the saucer section, while Klingons tend to direct their fire more heavily in a single direction, etc.), and so much of your combat involves bringing your ship to bear in such a way that the enemy can’t open fire, but you can. Taking advantage of your cloaking device and tractor beams, boarding parties and combat controls is very important to victory, and provide quite a variety of tactics and style that change from race to race (the Borg, for example, just like to grab onto you and starting pounding away. Jerks). Aside from some confusing perspective shifts whenever an enemy cloaks while you are tracking him (making it very difficult to guess where he was going) the combat elements of the game are entertaining and addictive, with a system of control that is much streamlined and simplified from the Starfleet Command games of the past. While still complex, the learning-curve-hill is one easily climbed with a bit of your time, especially since Picard does the teaching. Again, though, there are questionable elements. While the voice acting is excellent, capturing the essence of the characters nearly perfectly, what they say is often a waste of time, and simply pointless. Often times you’ll start a mission with some brief ship-to-ship communications, a bit of banter from another captain or two outlining your mission. After something is said to you, you are then presented with a list of possible responses. Don’t even bother reading, because most of the time it doesn’t make a difference what you say. Your dialogue is empty. While you do have control of some minor and immediate outcomes, affecting slight variations in people depending on how you address them, characters in the game ultimately end up saying the same things regardless of how you get there, and a good portion of the time the computer will select a response for you if you take to long. In short, the dialogue elements of the game seem to be presented in an outdated, somewhat worthless way.

Which brings me to a sad confession. One of the most intriguing elements of Starfleet Command III is the online Dynaverse, a dynamic universe supported by the game that allows you to play through the internet with your pals. While many developers would have been tempted to include only the action combat in the multiplayer arena, allowing players to blow each other up one on one or in teams without a purpose, it’s a sign of Starfleet Command’s quality that the entire game is ported online instead. The multiplayer elements play out very similar to the single player campaigns, with a hex map, warring empires, and space stations used to restock and repair. Instead of going on missions with strictly computer controlled allies and enemies, though, you’ll find human beings. However, I never made it online. Be forewarned that the network requires your computer to have an outside visible IP address in order to access the Dynaverse servers, meaning no router assigned IPs. If you’re running on a DHCP system (which is me), you’re squat out of luck. It was disappointing to me that I was unable to utilize the element of the game that held the most promise.

That aside, though, Starfleet Command III still presents a strong showing. With the new streamlined controls and straightforward interface, this is a title straight out of the highlight days of TNG. Even without the multiplayer elements, Starfleet Command allows for some tremendously addicting micromanagement in terms of equipping your ship, and some engaging and entertaining combat. Where many games would have one or two strong elements, STCIII looks good from all angles, and contains enough campaign options to keep a gamer interested for a long time to come. If you just got out of Nemesis and find yourself wanting to spend some quality time with old reruns and a familiar Federation, Starfleet Command III offers an experience about as rewarding as Star Trek games have to offer. This is one to make you warm in the heart.

Aaron Stanton   (01/07/2003)


Ups: Nice to see Starfleet Command step into the Next Generation; good voice acting; fun, detailed, and much more mainstream than past installments.

Downs: Not a true 3D world; poor dialogue options; a few interesting design flaws sometimes force you to reload saves in order to progress the story; doesn't let you keep the ships you capture.

Platform: PC