It's been said that good things come to those who wait. The old saying neglects to mention that bad things sometimes come to those who wait, too. Patient Star Trek fans have waited a while for any Trek-related game, and it's too bad that they'll have to wait even longer for a good one. Star Trek: Encounters is an absolute mess, crippled by a terrible control scheme and frustrating missions that wear on seemingly forever. And even with six editions of the series supplying the narrative, it's a waste of a great license, offering very little to anyone looking for a franchise fix.
The game's 20 missions stretch across the entire Star Trek universe, from Enterprise to Voyager, including two in the unfamiliar Sovereign iteration. It's a nice idea but features none of the elements that would have made it work. The story of each episode amounts to nothing more than scraps, and you don't actually interact with any non-player characters, let alone any series mainstays. William Shatner is along for the ride, voicing mission objectives, but he can't seem to work his way out of a catatonic stupor. And it doesn't take long before that sleepiness wears off on the player.
What you're left with is a series of objectives that require you to go one place and shoot targets, and then go somewhere else and shoot more targets. Shooting objects isn't necessarily bad, but Encounters tries very hard to keep it as uninspiring as possible. The biggest annoyance is the cumbersome control scheme. Navigating your tiny ship is easy enough with the left thumbstick, and you aim your targeting beam with the right stick. But actually shooting is an enormous chore, since you have to cycle through your various weapons with a single button. Pressing the X button activates your primary weapons and cycles through the available choices, while the circle button switches to your secondary weapons. Once a weapon is chosen, you lock onto a target with R2 and then fire at it with R1. So there are many button presses for the simple act of shooting a phaser or laying a mine, while the square and triangle buttons go completely unused.
While you don't navigate 3D space in Encounters, there are three depth levels. Pressing L1 and L2 moves you higher and lower, respectively, while the default plane is in the center. A blue line and circle will indicate whether an object or enemy is above or below you, and it's a decent addition to the combat that adds a modicum of strategy. However, the depth indicators don't appear until you're relatively close to the object. This makes it easy to run into objects like asteroids or miss enemy ships because you're not on the same plane.
The depth-level controls are fine on their own, but once you add the power controls to the mix, carpal tunnel ensues. You can divert power to different systems like shields or weapons with the D pad, but doing so while battling on the high or low plane requires you to use the left thumbstick, shoulder buttons, and D pad at the same time. Unless you have a third hand, it's annoying and somewhat painful, particularly since your right hand will also be twisted, aiming your targeting beam, switching between weapons, and firing at enemies.
The rest of the gameplay is a mishmash of mediocre game design, simply stretching the combat as far as possible. In fact, cheap deaths and empty periods of absolutely nothing extend the missions longer than necessary. It's a short campaign, but it wears on seemingly forever since there just aren't a lot of fun activities to do. There's no exploration in the game, yet you'll be flying for extended stretches to get from point A to point B without anything new to see or eye candy to gawk at. Other attempts to break up the tedium are hit or miss. Objectives requiring you to beam crew members elsewhere or use a tractor beam to escort a damaged ship to safety are fine. Others, like following a rogue enemy's warp trail, are boring and frustrating. Losing the trail for more than a few seconds ends the mission, and the random minefields that just happen to be littering the path provide cheap deaths.
Once you complete the episodes, there are the skirmish and multiplayer modes. There are three different game types. Head to head is a simple two-player deathmatch, which is as unexciting as it sounds, even with the various power-ups on the maps. Battlefest is more interesting and functions like the same mode in Star Trek: Tactical Assault. It's a basic deathmatch in which you start with the lowest class ship of your race. The first player destroyed returns in the next best ship, and the match continues until someone runs out of spawns. Onslaught is a cooperative mode in which you and your companion defend against wave after wave of progressively tougher foes. You can play these modes against the artificial intelligence or another player in split-screen, but neither option is very satisfying. In single-player skirmish, we watched several times as our head-to-head competitor circled us without ever firing a single shot. In split-screen, your own ship often disappears offscreen so that you can't see what you're doing unless you look at your opponent's screen.
A talented composer tried his best to lend a Star Trek vibe to Encounters, but it isn't enough to lift the production values from the funk plaguing the rest of the game. The ship models lack detail, possibly because they're so tiny on the screen. The galactic backgrounds are nondescript, and the occasional badly textured asteroid or colorful nebula isn't enough to break up the expanse of blackness. The soundtrack is fittingly dramatic, but the noise of battle is nothing more than the same disruptor and photon fire over and over, and it gets old fast. The only voice acting is William Shatner's, but it's simply terrible. It's not the kind of so-bad-it's-good dialogue you'd expect from him--it's just awful.
No Trekkie wants to hate a game based on his or her favorite universe, but it's impossible to expect even the most stalwart devotee to like Star Trek: Encounters, even at its low price point. It fails at almost every conceivable level, both as a game and as a licensed product. If you've been waiting for a Star Trek game, spare yourself the frustration and keep waiting, since your imagination is bound to be more appealing than this budget-priced fiasco.