It's beginning to look like there will never be a truly great Star Trek game. Despite the best efforts of design teams from a number of topnotch companies, re-creating the Star Trek experience in a computer game has proven to be an elusive goal. MicroProse's Generations is no exception. While arguably the best Star Trek game yet released, Generations ultimately falls short of delivering what it promises - namely, an immersive adventure that will appeal to both gamers and Trekkies alike.
Generations closely follows the plot of the movie of the same name, and as such, is able to incorporate copious footage from the film (some of which hasn't been seen before) and voice-overs by the actual actors, including Patrick Stewart and Malcolm McDowell. As in most Star Trek titles, the production values in Generations are quite high, and the interface graphics, audio tracks, and noninteractive cutscenes combine to create a fully authentic Star Trek atmosphere.
Unfortunately, the authentic atmosphere is Generations most compelling element - the game itself is solid but unspectacular. Not that MicroProse didn't try its best to make things interesting. Generations features a unique hybrid design, with three distinct game modes. These modes - Stellar Cartography, Tactical Combat, and Away Missions - offer you the chance to take part in three of Star Trek's most popular pastimes, namely galactic navigation, starship battle, and planetary exploration.
Stellar Cartography is the weakest of the three. Essentially a variation on solitaire, this mode requires you to visit and scan star systems in a search for the game's primary villain, Dr. Tollian Soran. This is accomplished by locating the planet that matches an audio clue, such as "Find a planet with a high level of Theta radiation." While this is mildly entertaining the first few times around, it becomes repetitive and tedious as the game progress. The problem is made more severe because the game does not allow you to store the results of your scans, meaning that unless you physically record every result, you'll find yourself scanning the same areas over and over again (an unthinkable occurrence in the actual Star Trek universe).
The Tactical Combat mode is better. Here you take command of the Enterprise's weapons systems, engaging in real-time battles with various Romulan and Klingon vessels. Commands, such as "Close on Target," "Evade Target," and "Full Stop," provide a reasonable degree of strategic freedom in battle, while phasers and photon torpedoes supply the firepower. Depending on your skill and the nature of the opposition, battles can result in a quick, surgical dismantling of enemy ships, or in hectic, toe-to-toe slugfests. While not perfect - the actual display of the conflict is somewhat lackluster - this combat system is the best yet in a Star Trek game, and it provides a welcome respite from the drudgery of Stellar Cartography.
But the real heart of Generations is its 12 Away Missions, and unfortunately, these first-person perspective levels are a decidedly mixed bag. On the plus side, the missions offer you a wide variety of challenges, from rescuing injured scientists to cutting off Solan's supply of Trilithium crystals. The environments themselves are also nicely balanced, including Klingon bases, tropical planets, and sterile cities occupied solely by robots.
Each mission combines action and adventure elements. As with most first-person games, the primary challenge lies in finding certain objects or locations, and in surviving the continual attacks of hostile inhabitants. But Generations takes things a step further, introducing complex, inventory-based puzzles to the mix - in fact, these are among the most sophisticated puzzles ever found in a first-person game. Even better, many of the puzzles are quite novel and require a fair amount of creative thinking to solve.
What, then, is the problem? Let's start with the graphics. While Generations is not attempting to compete with shooters such as Quake or Shadow Warrior, its graphics engine will inevitably be compared to both. And in such a comparison, it does not fare well. The graphic window is letterboxed (similar to Terra Nova), severely limiting the amount of viewable space, and thus the level of player immersion in the game. Yet despite this limited view, the frame rate is quite choppy, even on a 200MHz MMX system. In the indoor missions, the visuals are generally too dark (even with the brightness cranked up) and most of the objects and enemies are rather nondescript. The graphic engine also exhibits an uncommonly high degree of pixelization and image break-up, especially in the outdoor levels.
To accompany the lackluster graphics, the Away Missions use a rather unwieldy control system - notable chiefly for its omission of a mouse-look button - that makes the game much tougher than it needs to be. Experimentation with literally dozens of different keyboard assignments failed to produce a satisfactory control setup (although a number of them were better than the default setting). Even worse than the controls themselves is the intermittent lag between issuing a command and seeing it executed, resulting in an unacceptably high number of deaths that can legitimately pinned on the computer, rather than the player.
These problems become significant in light of the fact that you can't save progress within a given mission. Death (via early beam out) is a common occurrence, one that begs for the ability to save your progress along the way. But this option is not offered, and the result is mind-numbing repetition of the same sequences over and over again.
As 'save while you play' options have been around at least since Doom, one can only guess that the designers willfully chose to leave it out, perhaps viewing repetition as a means of extending the gameplay. Or perhaps they took a cue from Generations the movie, which contains a rather lengthy crash scene that is played once and then later repeated (and even that was a little tedious!). Either way, they made a serious mistake, one that greatly detracts from the overall experience of the game, keeping Generations in line with its predecessors when it should have risen above them.