Starfleet Command Volume II: Empires at War Review

For all the changes in Starfleet Command Volume II, it's basically just a slightly improved version of the original.

Starfleet Command Volume II is based on its predecessor, which in turn was inspired by the legendary Star Trek tabletop game, Star Fleet Battles. The sequel looks and sounds excellent, but for all the changes in Starfleet Command Volume II, it's basically just a slightly improved version of the original. The biggest change is the inclusion of a persistent online universe - a feature that isn't actually fully functional yet. So, since this was intended to be one of the game's biggest selling points, it's probably accurate to say that the best things about Starfleet Command Volume II will happen in the future. In any event, it'll be frustrating for those players who go out and buy the game this year.

To date, Starfleet Command remains the single best attempt to capture the spirit and style of Star Trek and translate it into an interesting strategy game. Taking the minutiae of Star Fleet Battles and making a real-time 3D combat engine out of it was risky - but it worked, and the resulting game was both exciting to play and a real challenge to master. While it isn't an exact port of the board game by any means, the essential premise of Starfleet Command - having a starship with a fixed amount of power to allocate to all sorts of functions - is well executed in real time. You can even approximate the turn-based sequence of the board game by turning the speed setting way down. And in the solo game, you can pause and issue orders.

At first glance, Starfleet Command Volume II looks very much like the first game, which is to say it looks fabulous. The graphics are slightly improved from the original in the normal view, but they look substantially better than those in Starfleet Command when you zoom in for a closer look at the ships. For instance, you'll see point-defense weapons firing at incoming missiles, which is quite impressive. Overall, the 3D-rendered ships look very good. The sounds are varied, but they are a lot like the ones in the first game; and the same goes for the music. The overall effect of the game's presentation is superb. The training missions are narrated by George Takei (Mr. Sulu from the series), who does a great job. The interface is essentially the same as before - it has similar rows of tiny buttons that frustrated many users the first time. But there are plenty of keyboard shortcuts to get around these, and some functions (like the fleet management area) have been expanded and improved.

Since it's similar, veteran Starfleet Command captains will undoubtedly approach Starfleet Command Volume II with confidence. However, after delving deeper into the game, these players might be surprised to find several changes to the gameplay - ones that have a significant impact on tactics. As a result, you shouldn't assume that your favorite tactical tricks will still work in Volume II. For instance, missiles have been toned down, so they're not necessarily the all-powerful weapons they tended to be in the first game. Volume II adds two new playable races - the Mirak and the Interstellar Concordium, the latter of which initiates an intergalactic war in the campaign game. These new races also introduce new tactical opportunities to the game. Still, the basic concepts of energy management remain unchanged, so players who are familiar with the first game should pick up on the balance tweaks in short order. But for newcomers to the series, the system can seem initially overwhelming - yet, it greatly rewards time invested.

Multiplayer Starfleet Command Volume II is a great experience, and you can play it either cooperatively against the computer (in team deathmatch mode) or as a free-for-all with multiple players who each have control over several ships. The game seems stable online, and lag is hardly a factor even when you play via a dial-up connection. Multiplayer Starfleet Command Volume II is undoubtedly the best way to experience the game, but for those who would rather play solo, the skirmish setup is as painless as ever.

Serious Star Trek fans would probably agree that one of the best ideas ever invented by anyone was the thought of running a persistent multiplayer universe based on Starfleet Command. The concept of actually commanding a ship, completing missions, progressing through the ranks, and competing against (or cooperating with) fellow human players in a virtual Star Trek universe is something that Starfleet Command players have wished for ever since the first game was released. Volume II is supposed to grant that wish.

Or at least it probably will eventually. Unfortunately, Taldren and Interplay were blindsided when Won.net, which was supposed to host this setup, was completely reorganized by its owner, Havas Interactive. Left without a host for the persistent online Dynaverse 2 just weeks before the game's scheduled release, Taldren had to significantly rewrite the Dynaverse code to make it compatible with a new server system. The good news is that Interplay will now be running servers for the game's persistent universe, and individual players will be able to run their own servers as well (which opens up the possibility of infinitely customizable online worlds). But these features haven't yet been implemented. Even so, the biggest problem with the online Dynaverse 2 is not that it isn't running yet - though this might create a problem for those who want to play it right now. Instead, the real issue is that it's based on the game's disappointing single-player campaign system.

The campaign system in the original Starfleet Command involved starting with a small ship and then completing a succession of essentially unconnected missions while gaining prestige points with which to buy additional craft, as well as upgrade and resupply your current ones. As the game progressed, you became a sort of fleet commander in charge of multiple vessels. Starfleet Command Volume II tries to enhance this system by implementing a hex-based galactic map, which displays the location of planets, imperial borders, and the like. As you travel over each hex, you have the option of taking on a variety of missions, which you can accept or reject. There are also mandatory missions that differ substantially from the basic missions - these might involve destroying a shipyard with a freighter rigged with antimatter or transporting a diplomat to a planet. Some of the functions of the Starfleet Command campaign have been streamlined - for example, there's no longer a system for recruiting different officers to man your ships.

What these tweaks fail to address is that the campaign system is one of the least involving, least immersive aspects of the game. The campaign system in Starfleet Command Volume II makes you feel as if you're playing with the programmers' tools that they built to generate campaign events, rather than actually participating in a campaign. Judging by the implementation of the campaign, it appears that the designers felt that the dynamic element was singularly important and thus forgot that if this were really the case, all anyone would ever need would be a random-mission generator.

The campaign, like the tactical battle element, should contribute to the atmosphere that the game tries to convey. Instead, it gives you scrolling text reports that say things like "The Klingons have attacked system (15,9)." In the board game, you couldn't just click on the name of some system to find out where it was - you had to use the 17th-century invention called the Cartesian coordinate plane. In Starfleet Command Volume II, the campaign presentation is ugly; and to make things worse, the entire premise is faulty. Ships shouldn't just be able to wander around the galaxy deciding between a patrol mission and escorting a convoy - they're supposed to be getting orders from people (unless they're space pirates). The best thing that could have happened to the Starfleet Command system would have been for Taldren to design an actual campaign game with strategic fleet movement, which could evoke the same sense of immersion that the tactical system already does. But that would probably require a whole new game. Which is what Starfleet Command Volume II could have been, instead of just an upgrade to an existing system.

The actual tactical combat in Starfleet Command Volume II is not only one of the best Star Trek games to date, but also one of the year's best strategy games. However, if you were to take the "Volume II" out of that sentence and go back in time one year, you would simply be describing the original Starfleet Command. In other words, there really isn't much new in the second game - just a host of tweaks and improvements which, taken together, don't really justify the release of a whole new game one year later. The developers should be proud that they were able to make improvements to a game that was really, really good in the first place and to manage to make the resulting game be really, really good. But with such a great core game engine to build from, they could have concentrated on bringing the campaign up to the high standard of the tactical game instead of making only minor adjustments to everything.

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Starfleet Command Volume II: Empires at War More Info

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  • First Released
    released
    • PC
    For all the changes in Starfleet Command Volume II, it's basically just a slightly improved version of the original.
    8
    Average Rating208 Rating(s)
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    Developed by:
    Taldren
    Published by:
    Interplay, Virgin Interactive
    Genre(s):
    Strategy
    Content is generally suitable for all ages. May contain minimal cartoon, fantasy or mild violence and/or infrequent use of mild language.
    Everyone
    All Platforms