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by Activision

BCW85-01.jpg (4207 bytes)Star Trek’s famous holodeck is a fully customizable virtual environment that is capable of fabricating any place from any time. The premise is wonderful: you go into an empty room, tell the computer to run the Mean Streets of New York program, and suddenly you’re in the roaring twenties sipping bourbon in some back room speakeasy. While the word "holodeck" is a blend of "hologram" and "deck," it might just as easily have come from "holiday," too, since the holodeck’s recreational applications are often enjoyed by crewmembers needing a break from the daily stresses of life on a star ship.

BCW76-01.jpg (4392 bytes)The holodeck is the logical extension of video games, which seek to immerse their audience in a fabricated environment, telling a story in which the reader actively participates. The holodeck’s strength lies in its ability to faithfully recreate any environment and provide full interactivity with this environment. So if you’re standing in that backroom speakeasy and you don’t like the look of the guy in the mustache and wrinkled fedora, you can throw your drink in his eyes, or give him a hug, or just stomp on his foot. It’s up to you. Think of the holodeck as one giant simulator capable of providing perfect simulations of almost any experience.

BCW87-01.jpg (4465 bytes)Unfortunately for you and me, the holodeck is a work of fiction. Until technology catches up with imagination, we’ll have to make do with good old fashioned video games, including Activision’s latest attempt, Bridge Commander. This game seeks to simulate the fictional experience of captaining a Sovereign class vessel for the United Federation of Planets. And everything the holodeck has, Bridge Commander lacks. The bridge of your star ship looks nice enough, unless you notice that the line where wall meets ceiling is jagged along the diagonal. But compared to your crewmembers, the environment looks spectacular. Human models are polygonal to a fault, so that Captain Picard’s bald head looks more like a twenty-sided die than a cue ball. And the development team took a lesson from Speed Racer when they worked on matching characters’ mouth movements to their actual speech—the dialogue looks worse than the cheapest dubbing offered by the Sunday Afternoon Martial Arts Theatre on PBS. Those sorts of details matter less in first-person shooters, where the emphasis is on adrenaline-charged action. But in Bridge Commander you interact with the crew so often that their presence is elemental to the game. The less realistic they look, the less convincingly they move or speak, the poorer the overall game experience becomes.

BCW74-01.jpg (5448 bytes)One saving grace in this regard is the voice acting, which ranges from competent to noteworthy. Jean Luc and Data both make appearances, and they are played with consummate professionalism by Patrick Stewart and Brent Spiner. The supporting cast does as fine a job as any Star Trek episode can offer.

BCW82-01.jpg (5452 bytes)Also satisfying is the plot, which is nuanced and intriguing enough to keep a simulation entertaining in the absence of the usual battles. Captains of star ships don’t spend all their time destroying enemy vessels. There are diplomats to be escorted, summits to be protected from outside interference and hotheaded factions. Bridge Commander understands this enough to provide a broad variety of missions and tasks that require players to think as much as they shoot. Or rather, think as much as they give the order to fire.

BCW77-01.jpg (5793 bytes)Unfortunately, Bridge Commander is tied to a clunky command system that involves clicking on crewmembers and choosing their orders from a preselected menu. This drastically narrows the game’s interactive capabilities, as well as your possibilities as captain, and thus drastically diminishes the accuracy of the simulation. Airplane sims have the advantage here because they place you in the pilot’s seat and put the controls at your disposal. Controls can only fill their specific function. Crewmembers of a star ship, on the other hand, are supposed to be capable of stretching the limits of their sections and bending the rules in times of stress. Yet the menu doesn’t offer the option of ordering Commander Sanchez to launch a probe at the planet to get Commander Data’s coordinates so you can rescue him from the approaching enemy fleet—you have to eliminate the enemy ships and then go into low orbit before Sanchez will conduct a successful scan. In other words, there isn’t room for innovation outside the game’s pre-designed series of events. Of course, this isn’t Activision’s fault—we all suffer the limits of technology. But this particular limit enforces a pretty low ceiling on the otherwise vast possibilities that a star ship captain simulator could offer.

BCW79-01.jpg (6117 bytes)Finally, the AI is especially disappointing. When other federation ships join your cause, they’ll sometimes follow you from star system to system and sometimes not. But because the command menus are limited, there’s no way to hail these friendly ships and tell them to get their thumb out of their ass and follow you. So if there’s an especially difficult battle on the horizon, your allies could be two star systems away while you face the music alone. And despite what I said earlier about a variety of missions, Bridge Commander is nevertheless full of battles. This can be good or not, depending on your tolerance for giving the order to fire and then watching your Tactics officer move back for an attack run and line up the forward torpedoes. There’s an option to take control of the tactics, even to manually fire the weapons, but this is about half as fun as it sounds and ultimately more trouble than it’s worth.

BCW83-01.jpg (6996 bytes)The bottom line? If you’re a Star Trek fan, you’ll probably enjoy Bridge Commander as much as anything else the Star Trek industry has to offer. It should also provide adequate entertainment for space fans of more general tastes. With its complex storyline, Bridge Commander could even provide a satisfying morsel to the role-playing crowd. But hardcore sim fans who lack a special affinity for star ship games should be wary, and those craving adrenaline-charged thrills should turn their gun sights elsewhere.

Paul Cockeram   (05/13/2002)


Ups: Take control of a Federation star ship; wide variety of missions; great voice acting.

Downs: Poor graphics; missions are limited by pre-set scripts -- no real creativity; little to no action.

Platform: PC