With the notable exception of Star Trek: Voyager Elite Force, very few Star Trek games have been able to capture the essence of TV series, and with the exception of Starfleet Command, even fewer have successfully re-created ship-to-ship combat as it has been portrayed in the series. So it's not difficult to gauge the ambitiousness of Bridge Commander, the latest project from Totally Games (the creator of the excellent X-Wing and TIE Fighter series). Bridge Commander is a Star Trek game that will attempt to integrate the drama of the Star Trek series into a starship simulator that's been specifically designed for both experienced Star Trek fans and those who have only a basic understanding of the show and all its technobabble.
Totally Games enlisted the help of veteran Star Trek writer D.C. Fontana to help craft and refine Bridge Commander's storyline, which unravels as you progress through each mission in the single-player campaign. The game begins with you taking the position of first officer on a starship, but shortly after you walk onto the bridge to assume command in the captain's absence, a nearby star begins to explode, destroying the captain's shuttle on its way back to the ship. Interestingly, as this occurs, you get a brief glimpse of an object or another vessel warping out of the area, leading the Federation to believe that some group--possibly the Cardassians or Romulans--is attempting to construct a weapon of incredible power. Now in command of your own sovereign-class ship, your orders are to investigate the accident and discover who's responsible by exploring an area of space known as the Maelstrom.
As previously mentioned, Bridge Commander has been designed with two different audiences in mind--those who have more Star Trek knowledge than they'd care to admit and those who have just a general interest in the series. For the latter audience, Totally Games has developed a bridge mode, in which you basically sit in the captain's chair, look around the bridge, and give various orders to the appropriate crewmembers. For example, your first officer--who will be sitting to your immediate right--will be able to change the alert status of the ship, contact the Federation, and perform other tasks. Your engineer, located just behind the captain's chair, can make repairs to the ship or set power levels for the ship's systems. You'll be able to give orders to the helmsman and tactical officers for the purposes of navigating to new areas or firing phasers and torpedoes in combat. There's even a science officer who can scan different objects within the area--something you'll have to do during the course of your investigation into the accident. Essentially, the bridge mode acts as a three-dimensional interface for the game, allowing those with lesser knowledge to ease into the Star Trek environment as opposed to getting drowned in technical information that only the most ardent Star Trek fan would understand. If you feel that the bridge mode is beneath your abilities, then you can jump right into Bridge Commander's alternative game mode, which lets you control the ship and all its systems manually.
Red Alert, Shields Up, Captain to the Bridge
Anyone familiar with Starfleet Command knows how complicated a starship can be, but Bridge Commander tries to simplify it as much as possible, even in the game's alternate tactical mode, where you literally take control of the ship. In this mode, the game shifts to an external camera, showing your ship in the center of the screen. To the left, you'll be able to access different ship systems, such as engineering, by clicking on individual menus or by using shortcuts on the keyboard. On the bottom right portion of the screen, there's a display that indicates shield status and strength, and it's the most important onscreen display during combat. The basic control setup for the tactical mode is fairly simple, as the keyboard can turn the ship in any direction you see fit.
It'll probably be difficult for anyone to jump into the tactical mode right away, but there are missions that function as tutorials. One such mission puts you in command of a ship fresh from the mothball fleet. The admiral--who will give you briefings before each mission on the bridge viewer--orders you to take the ship out on a shakedown cruise to test it out, and not surprisingly, very few systems work properly. During this mission, another Federation captain will ask if you want to participate in wargames--you can either accept or decline his invitation, but it's usually a good idea to accept, since it will help you become familiar with both gameplay modes during a combat situation. Eventually, the Klingons will jump in with a few birds of prey to make the mock battle a little more interesting.
While there seem to be plenty of missions focused on combat, Bridge Commander's single-player campaign does have other types of missions, ranging from something as simple as scanning an asteroid to escorting a diplomat to a meeting with Romulan ambassadors. Unfortunately, we only saw a few of these missions, but it's clear that the development team wants to diversify the single-player campaign so that you're not constantly engaged in battle during the game.
Originally, Bridge Commander was going to be a single-player-only game, but Totally Games announced a few months ago that it had delayed the release in order to incorporate a multiplayer mode. As unfortunate as the delay was, it appears the extra wait will be worth it. There are a number of different multiplayer modes, including deathmatch, team deathmatch, and defend the base--just to name a few. Most notably, though, you'll be able to take command of non-Federation ships in Bridge Commander's multiplayer modes.
Even at this prebeta stage, Bridge Commander looks excellent. The ships are made up of 3,000 polygons, and there are plenty of lighting effects. But perhaps the most impressive aspect of Bridge Commander's visuals is the fact that ships and other objects have been constructed at a proper scale. Romulan warbirds are enormous, and it actually takes a few minutes to fly around a Federation space station. These detailed graphics also allow for some spectacular battle scenes. In one instant-action battle, 10 ships--from the Federation, Cardassains, Romulans, Klingons, and Ferengi--were fighting a Borg cube that looked bigger than every single one of those ships combined. Needless to say, Star Trek fans have something to look forward to in March of 2002.