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GamesFirst! Magazine

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by Taldren and Interplay

Scr00040-01.jpg (3265 bytes)This year has been a vintage one for Star Trek games, which means a decent one got released--the first-person shooter Star Trek Voyager Elite Force. Unfortunately, Star Trek games have been one of the most star-crossed franchises in the history of computer gaming. Most titles bearing the Star Trek imprimatur have been average at best, and until Elite Force the only really good Star Trek offering was the original Starfleet Command. Hopes were high, then, for  Starfleet Command II: Empires at War, which promised to expand the number of playable races to eight and to introduce Dynaverse II, an online multiplayer dynamic campaign in which players would take the role of a commander in the fleet of one the eight empires as they struggled for galactic supremacy. It's a shame, then, that Taldren and Interplay couldn't quite pull it off. Because while Starfleet Command II is an excellent starship battle simulator, with an improved interface, graphics, and gameplay from the original, the highly-touted Dynaverse II is nowhere to be found. It's advertised on the back of the box, and it's on the game menu when you fire it up, but you can't connect to it. As of this moment, the Dynaverse exists only on paper. Add to this a needlessly steep learning curve, several uninspired campaigns, and a considerable amount of bugs--though patches have repaired many of them since the game's release--and you've got a game that clearly needed a month or two more of tweaking.

Scr00024-01.jpg (3540 bytes)And that's a shame, because at its core Starfleet Command II is one hell of a game. It's essentially a computer version of the popular tabletop game Starfleet Battles, so the battles you'll fight between Klingon and Federation starships play out much more like a stately battle between two W.W.II surface ships than, say, the quick-twitch 3D x-y axis battles you experience in such starfighter games as Descent: Freespace. In SFC II, you'll be able to put yourself at the helm of frigates, light cruisers, heavy cruisers, dreadnoughts, and battleships of any of the eight races represented in the game. The Federation, Klingon, Romulan, Gorn, Hydran, and Lyran empires are all back from the original, and the harsh Mirak and peace-seeking Interstellar Concordium are new additions. While each race's ships have their own strengths and weaknesses, and some have unique weapons and abilities, most races have some sort of beam weapon, some sort of missile weapon, and some sort of special heavy weapon available for their ships. Interfaces look different for each race, but are organized in much the same way.

Sound and graphics are excellent, from the beautiful capital ships to the asteroids and supernovas that populate the universe, and each race's interface is very distinctive. Close up, the ships look like something out of a Star Trek movie, and weapon, shield, and explosion effects are stunning.

Scr00077-01.jpg (3790 bytes)Commanding one of these capital ships is a complex job, and as commander you'll have to keep an eye on your ship's weapons status, damage, communications, energy management, shields, transporters, ECM, away teams, shuttles, and scans and probes--and you'll have to attend to all this while maneuvering and firing.   Things get stickier when you begin to command up to three ships at a time, and that's when you'll find the game's pause function to be very welcome indeed. Though baffling at first, once you get the hang of ship-to-ship combat in the Star Trek universe, it's a gas. Figuring out how to balance your energy management between shields, engines, and weapons while in the heat of combat can be complicated, but it's really rewarding as well.

Scr00087-01.jpg (2866 bytes)Unfortunately, it takes far too long to become a competent commander. While the game does include a series of tutorials, they barely scratch the surface of the game, and many essential concepts will be learned the hard way by most neophyte commanders. It doesn't help any that the manual, while large at about 250 pages, isn't particularly well-written or organized. There's no index, for example--which is inexcusable in a manual this big--and while there are many illustrations of the game's MFDs, they are neither very clear nor very helpful.

SCR00021-01.jpg (5403 bytes)And while the game's guts--its basic ship vs. ship engine--are amazing, the game's campaign is not. You can play in a very customizable skirmish mode, but the game's several campaigns are curiously bland. In the campaign, you move your ship around on a hexagonal map that represents the galaxy you're fighting over--each empire has its own area, and staying within your own is a good idea for the new commander. Some hexes offer starbases where your ship can refit and repair, or where (once you've acquired enough prestige points from completing missions successfully) you can upgrade to a new ship, or buy a new one to expand your fleet. When you move into some hexes, you'll be presented with a couple of missions that you can usually choose to take or not (though some are mandatory. Most of these missions are pretty bland, and usually consist of randomly-generated and unremarkable patrol or escort actions, but some of them are scripted and mandatory. The problem with these missions (and the campaign) is that they seem totally disconnected from any sort of larger narrative--indeed, totally disconnected from each other. In the campaign game of Starfleet Command, it's just one damn thing after the other. There's never any sort of feeling of being a part of a bigger picture, or feeling that your actions have made any sort of impact on that picture. While this may indeed be realistic, it's not a very happy gaming convention, and soon enough the campaigns become pretty dull.

This might have been OK if a killer online game had been included, but with the absence of the promised Dynaverse, there's really not much more here than an excellent starship skirmish game. And, by the way, a buggy one. Out if the box, SFCII has some very annoying crash bugs, though a very quickly released patch has cured most of them. So this one's a tough call--while I want to ding Interplay for releasing a game that fails to deliver on such terrific promise, it's hard to condemn a game that does such a great job of modeling the Star Trek universe. OK, if you're a big Star Trek fan, or if you can live with just a first-rate starship-to-starship skirmish game with a steep learning curve, you'll love this game. On the other hand, if you're looking forward to a deep campaign and fantastic multiplayer, this game's not there yet, and you should hold off until the Dynaverse is up and running. When and if it does go online, we'll be there.

Rick Fehrenbacher


Ups: Great modeling of starship-to-starship warfare, beautiful graphics and effects, nice sound, eight races to play

Downs: Buggy, campaign games are disappointingly bland, promised Dynaverse online game not included, steep learning curve. 

System Reqs: P-500, 64 MB RAM, 4 MB VRAM


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