J.J. Abrams' re-imagined Star Trek played off of nostalgia so much so that even its radical reworking of the source material required the frequent nod here and there to even the most esoteric details of the campy 1960s sci-fi show, such as Sulu's fencing or Kirk's fondness for green women. Paramount's upcoming Star Trek game, timed to coincide with the release of the film's sequel, inspires a similar sense of nostalgia but not of Shatner and Nimoy in space, instead it offers glimpses at the recent past of successful sci-fi and comic book games.
The strap line for this story ("to boldly go where Mass Effect has gone before") is perhaps unfair. When watching the 2009 film, I remember the constant lens flares, sleek surfaces and carbon-fibre-like textures reminding me of BioWare's take on the future with its space-opera Mass Effect. In fact, the trilogy of games has become so popular with designers I've been spotting its influence in most, if not all, sci-fi action films for the past few years. However, Start Trek the game's similarity to Commander Shepard's adventure is a little deeper than just aesthetic.
Developed by Digital Extremes, of Bioshock 2 and Darkness 2 fame, Star Trek promises a co-op adventure where players can choose between Kirk and Spock. In the levels I played, the cover-based mechanics and in-game puzzles reminded me more of Mass Effect than anything else in recent memory – just not quite as good. One particular level I found myself ducking from waist-high cover to waist-high cover just in time to avoid solar flares. It felt almost like a carbon-copy of Mass Effect 3's Geth mission, in which Shepard and crew must seek cover from intermittent shock-waves while fighting off possessed robots. Star Trek also provided zero-gravity areas, that requires the gamer to navigate a cylinder map that rotates 360 degrees to get form one end to another, yet again this reminded me of BioWare's efforts in that same Geth chapter.
However, these Mass Effect comparisons may only be representative of a small part of the overall game. At the preview event, the publisher showcased a number of potentially unique and interesting levels, such as one in which Spock's mind-meld allows gamers to play part of the story through the eyes of a dead enemy, ending with a grizzly death at your own hands in the form of Kirk and Spock's phasers. Another interesting level saw Kirk zipping around space, via something that resembled an underwater scuba propeller, circling the Enterprise as it came under attack from the primary antagonists – the Gorn.
Chiefly remembered as stumbling man in a rubber mask awkwardly fighting Shatner in a forced death match, the Gorn are re-imagined as an all-consuming race of space reptiles hell-bent on taking over our galaxy. See the original below:
Star Trek throws a number of different types of the space-reptiles at you, that range in size and ability, from standard grunt units to larger boss-monsters. And while the original series implied these fearsome creatures might just be misunderstood, resulting in Shatner's Kirk sparing the rampaging reptile, the game takes a page out of J.J. Abram's book and seemingly opts to make them mindless cannon-fodder.
This could be indicative of the story, which, when compared to other sci-fi epics, offers a much more linear and simplistic narrative. Some Vulcans have made some device which does some... thing. While I would love more of an RPG focus for the Star Trek game, where I have options with how I interact with characters, nailing down a fixed narrative is not necessarily a bad thing.
The game delivers on the dialogue, which seemed nicely written with the same level of care put into the charming Kirk-Spock banter as it was in the film. Furthermore, all the actors have returned to voice their characters, including Chris Pine as Kirk and Zachary Quinto as Spock. They don't phone it in either, with both providing high-quality performances. Additionally, all the character's likenesses are brought to polygon-life in the game, but it must be said that this resulted in some guffaws at the uncanny valley-ness of it all.
Despite some fun banter, the vaunted co-op elements didn't quite deliver on what has been promised. While the hands-on was limited to only a few levels, co-op seemed confined to basic puzzles and sometimes arbitrary demands – such as both players being required to rapidly tap buttons to open almost every door. Given the amazing co-op offerings found in titles such as Portal 2, what was offered for the preview felt somewhat lacklustre for a game that is supposedly all about co-op play. In fact, the company calls it the "most fully realized co-op experience of this console generation," which may be proven to be true but, as yet, hasn't been demonstrated.
Where Star Trek does deliver in a surprisingly gratifying way is in the use of the Tricorder. The iconic bit of Star Fleet kit has been deftly applied to the game to act as a aid for puzzle solving, fulfilling a function similar to that of detective vision in Batman: Arkham Asylum. My only hope is that the puzzles offer an opportunity for the Tricorder function to feel fully necessary, as the levels showcased only hinted at it being a valuable tool. Using it to deactivate industrial laser cutters to save Spock, or acessing hacking mini-games, which most modern games have wisely steered clear of.
All-in-all the game holds some promise but seems to fall under the shadow of more innovative predecessors. One cannot help but wonder if the bulk of the game was designed and intended for release around the time of J.J. Abram's 2009 Star Trek but instead held back for the sequel as many of the boasted features seem a little old-hat now. Otherwise it's hard to see, either from the inconsistent visuals or unimaginitive gameplay, what the years of development have brought to it. The title could yet exceed expectations when it hit shelves, however, with only a month until release it seems likely that its phasers will fail to stun (sorry!).