Previews// Star Trek

Posted 1 Mar 2013 17:38 by
Brian Miller, Senior Vice President of Paramount Pictures, is a gamer. He talks highly of titles such as Mass Effect, Batman: Arkham City and Halo as if they had come out yesterday. And he is aware that he has an uphill struggle to overcome with the upcoming Star Trek game.

The main challenge is in trying to overcome the perception that all licensed games turn out to be utter rubbish. In the case of Star Trek, a franchise that has been transformed in recent years, there’s an additional problem: satisfying the action fans of JJ Abrams’ reboot and long-time followers of the 1960s classic TV series at the same time.

Paramount’s broad solution is to be much more invested in Star Trek’s development than most license holders care to be with their franchise games. While the movie studio has collaborated with developers before - The Warriors and The Godfather being key examples - with Digital Extremes and Namco Bandai there is no shortage of stops being pulled.

“It was important for us to do this ourselves,” Miller revealed. “Star Trek is such an important brand for us, and when we rebooted it, we took that to heart because it means a lot to us. We wanted to make sure that this game was authentic and a great experience for fans.”

To do that, Paramount wanted everyone who was involved with the 2009 film to get on board with the video game. Such access to movie talent - costumiers, creature designers, storyboard staff, composers and environment artists - can only be unlocked by Paramount’s direct contribution to the game’s development.

Even Industrial Light and Magic and JJ Abrams himself have been involved in the process, to decide how to present Star Trek in the most authentic light. Paramount’s ultimate goal is to make a game that really makes the player feel like they are in the sci-fi universe. And to that end, they’ve nailed it.

A lot of care and attention has gone into the environments, the dialogue and the scripting to make sure that you feel like you’re on board the USS Enterprise. As you hop from the Bridge to Engineering, you get to explore areas of the ship that you recognise from the film - while later levels allow you venture through areas of the ship that you’ve not seen before.

The dialogue emphasises that inimitable camaraderie between Kirk and Spock, in a game that is equal parts exploration and shooting action. The stage backgrounds in particular look strikingly authentic - especially in one scene, which sees Kirk circling the Enterprise in an action-packed space-jet sequence.

The game itself is heavily built around co-op play, thus offering the opportunity to further explore the relationship between Captain and Science Officer. Unlike some co-op action games, where your friend amounts to nothing but a second gun, in Star Trek there will be sections of play where one will need to assist the other to progress. Certainly, in the demo I played there was barely any shooting at all - a refreshing surprise to what I was expecting, for sure.


Modernising a Classic

To satisfy fans of the Shatner-tastic Original Series, the game takes various cues from the 1960s show. The entire plot, for example, is loosely based around the episode Arena, in which Captain Kirk engages in slow and awkward combat with a solitary alien known as the Gorn.

Star Trek: The Game takes that concept and expands on it so you get to see an entire race of the buggers. The pace of battle has been sped up a little bit, too. Miller also revealed, during a presentation, that there will be moments where Kirk and Spock’s friendship will get a little strained, to the point of fisticuffs. Amok Time was mentioned. I asked if the classic battle music would feature. Miller said no. The crowd sighed in disappointment.

Nevertheless, despite these welcome throwbacks (Doctor ‘Bones’ McCoy makes mention in dialogue of Sulu boring him with ‘fencing stories’), if you weren’t a fan of the 2009 film, then chances are that this re-interpretation won’t convince you much. This is still Abrams’ Star Trek - heavy on the action, explosions and shoot-outs; light on the post-modern social deconstruction.

The Gorn look and act much more lizard-like than their mutant 1960s TV ancestor. Gone are the diamond-encrusted eyes and hench masculine posture in favour of a design that looks more like a slithering Covenant Brute from Halo (sans armour). You could say that this kind of setup is perfect for a video game, however, with a separate hands-off demo showcasing plentiful cover-based shootouts. I wasn’t allowed to play through any of these shootouts, though, so can’t really tell how well they play out.


Space-Age Tunnel Vision?

It really does seem that both Paramount and Namco Bandai have their hearts in the right place. Miller constantly talks of the main pitfalls of licensed games - the lack of time and money given to complete the project - and how the company has worked hard to avoid them. The development studio has been given three years and a lot of cash to ensure a quality product.

“A lot of these licensed games are done on the cheap, with limited time, because they’re thought of as products [by the IP holder],” Miller lamented. “They’re just there to make a quick buck. We’re not really in it for that. We’re in it because we love Star Trek and we think the franchise deserves a quality AAA game.

“The best compliment that I think we’ve got so far is ‘This feels like Star Trek’. That’s an incredible achievement. You’ve watched those movies, seen those actors - putting all that into a game and making it believable is hard! Hopefully we’ve solved that problem.”

While that’s admirable, in doing so Star Trek seems to be in danger of falling into another trap - an emphasis on making the game look and feel true to the license, at the expense of the gameplay itself. It’s certainly not a bad gaming experience, from what I played. It’s just nothing to write home about.

The game itself amounts to a co-op adventure game featuring cover-shooter segments (inspired by Gears of War), hacking mini-games (inspired by Mass Effect) and action scenes (inspired by Halo). Along with a navigation device in the Tricorder, used to reproduce Batman: Arkham Asylum’s Detective Mode, and ledge-climbing antics lifted from Uncharted.

None of these features have been implemented poorly, nor did I necessarily dislike my time with the game. The stage I played, set on a Vulcan Starbase on the brink of destruction, was a pleasant (if uninspired) affair where Kirk and Spock had to work together to evacuate its crew. In one segment, I had to run the pair down the outside of the station to reach some survivors, taking cover to avoid solar flares and solving an action puzzle to build a walkway to my destination. And not an angry phaser shot was fired. Hooray for Starfleet diplomacy!

But it seems that, while Paramount has gone out of its way to impose the franchise’s original, unique design on the presentation side, there’s a worry that the same efforts haven’t been made on the game side. Rather than offering an experience that plays as fresh as it looks, the company seems to have followed a recipe of success written by past developers - to the letter.

The result is a solid gaming experience that flirts with already established conventions, for a franchise that is known for explicitly breaking conventions. That strange irony could be enough to put fans and gamers off. From what I’ve seen though, as far as licensed games go, you could do a lot worse than maintain an interest in Star Trek.

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