E3 2001 Hands-On: Star Trek: Bridge Commander

We take a look at Larry Holland's impressive Star Trek simulator.

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Though generally known for producing Star Wars simulations, Larry Holland and his development team at Totally Games are hard at work on Star Trek: Bridge Commander, a new entry in the vast Star Trek PC game library. You assume the role of a first officer who takes control of a Starfleet star ship after a mysterious new weapon destroys a sun, along with the original captain's shuttle. In command of your new ship, you must find out who's constructed the new weapon before any more damage can be done. As the plot unfolds, some familiar Star Trek races--such as the Klingons, Romulans, and Caradassians--jump into the game, and all cause problems for you and your new crew. Totally Games has enlisted the help of veteran Star Trek writer, DC Fontana, to help write an in-depth story worthy of the TV series.

As the game's title suggests, you can control your ship in one of two ways: from the bridge or directly in the tactical mode. The two modes are actually quite distinct from each other, as the bridge mode uses a much more hands-off approach, whereas the tactical mode is much more action-oriented. In the bridge mode, you basically sit in the captain's chair and give orders to crewmembers in the area. For example, if you want to go to a specific area in the galaxy, you simply give the order to the helmsman, and a few seconds later you're in war. During battle, you can order your tactical officer to perform a number of different actions with the ship such as evasive maneuvers, or you can specify how many torpedoes you want in a spread. Even the chief engineer occasionally makes stops on the bridge, and you can order him to make repairs to specific areas of your ship or adjust power to various systems. In some missions, you must talk to your science officer to learn more information about ships or areas of unexplored space.

In the tactical mode, Bridge Commander changes into a game that's somewhat similar to Starfleet Command in that you control the ship and all its other functions yourself. Since Totally Games wanted to make Bridge Commander accessible to a wide range of fans, the control combination of the mouse and keyboard is actually quite easy to get used to, and fans of first-person shooters can jump into the game right away. Even with the game's realistic physics system, it's easy to get a bearing on what kind of maneuvers your ship can perform. All your ship's systems are located onscreen, so you can adjust power levels, set repair priorities, and manage weapons without leaving the tactical mode. This is helpful, especially during combat because you don't want to worry about switching between the two modes while being pounded by enemy fire.

The tactical mode also lets you get a better look at the ship models in Bridge Commander, and without question, this is the best-looking Star Trek game to date. All the ships in the game have been meticulously modeled to show even the smallest of details--even individual windows on the ships are clearly visible. In addition, every single ship and structure in the game has been properly scaled, so Romulan Warbirds are much larger than your ship, and some Klingon ships are a little smaller. But the most impressive sights are the Federation space stations--they're absolutely enormous structures that actually take a few minutes to completely fly around. At certain points in the game, you must fly inside the station to make general repairs to your ship. Ships have been designed to show varying levels of damage that changes depending on where an enemy ship hits you, so your ship won't repeatedly show the same damage. There are also plenty of special effects as well. Warp nacelles and other light sources emit a gentle glow that you can't really see in screenshots, but the effect is impressive nonetheless.

As you can imagine, the battles in Bridge Commander are spectacular, but underneath all the great special effects and detailed ships is a robust battle strategy system that you must learn to use effectively if you want to survive some of the later battles. Probably the most important aspect of ship management is the power supply because it determines how well the systems on your ship function during the action. If you take too much power away from the shields and put them into weapons, you have an offensive advantage, but at the same time, you weaken your shields and increase the possibility of your ship receiving substantial amounts of damage. And you still have to worry about your navigation systems--the more power you put into your engines, the easier it is to maneuver around enemy fire. Of course, if you use too much power for your engines, your ship is going to move around like a slug.

Your captain skills are really put to the test when you're engaged in a firefight with an enemy ship. One battle pits your ship against a series of Romulan Warbirds that come out of cloak, and you must decide which systems on the enemy ship you want to attack. You can try to disable their engines or disrupt their attack capability--it just depends on the type of strategy you want to use. If you find that you're receiving too much damage, you must learn to maneuver your ship, so that the less-damaged areas, or the areas that still have shields, take the brunt of the onslaught. This strategy is absolutely necessary in Bridge Commander's battles, and if you don't use it, parts of your ship will start to get blown off, leaving you stranded in space among enemy ships. No ship holds a distinct advantage over any other--Romulan Warbirds are strong but slow, Klingon ships are quick but weak, and Cardassian and Federation ships appear to have average abilities. So the battles are often evenly matched when it comes down to individual ship abilities.

Bridge Commander is easily the best-looking Star Trek game to date, and it improves significantly on many features introduced in other Star Trek games such as Starfleet Command. When the game is finished, there will be 30 different missions set within a continuous universe, so there won't really be any breaks in the action in the typical sense, although the game does automatically save after mission completion. In some of the later missions, you get to fight alongside Jean Luc Picard and the Enterprise. Unfortunately, Totally Games has decided to scrap the multiplayer and instead focus on making a great single-player Star Trek experience.

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