Elite Force II Preview
The follow-up to Activision's Quake III-powered Elite Force will take place in the same universe as The Next Generation.
Released in the fall of 2000, the original Star Trek: Voyager Elite Force was hailed as one of the few Star Trek games that was actually a good game in its own right, with or without the multimillion-dollar license attached to it. The game was developed by Raven Software, whose experience in the FPS genre helped craft a solid action game that put the Quake III Arena engine to good use. A sequel was sort of inevitable, but with Raven tied up with work on the just-released Jedi Knight II and the in-development titles Soldier of Fortune II and Quake IV, Activision had to find a different developer for the game. For that, it turned to Ritual Entertainment. Like Raven, Ritual is no stranger to the genre. It created the first mission pack for the original Quake and followed that up with SiN and the third-person title Heavy Metal: F.A.K.K. 2.
Anyone concerned about the switch from Ritual to Raven can take some measure of solace in the fact that like Raven's team, Elite Force II's is composed of hard-core Star Trek fans. Level designer Kenny Thompson summed up the team's approach to the game: "We are going all out on the game and taking Elite Force to the next level. The environments are awe-inspiring, massive, and extremely detailed. We plan on having as many key moments and true Star Trek experiences as we can pack in. We want Star Trek fans and gamers alike to walk away from the game as psyched about Star Trek as we are."
But the developer isn't the only major change since the original--as the title reflects, the game no longer takes place exclusively in the Voyager portion of the Star Trek universe. Thanks to Activision's exclusive license for all things Star Trek, Elite Force II will take place in the space occupied by Star Trek: The Next Generation. Fortunately, the concept that Raven created with the original game wasn't tied to just one series and is much more flexible than it would have been had the game centered on a particular member of the Voyager crew. Instead, the first game centered on a Starfleet hazard team assigned to the USS Voyager. Just like in the first game, players will take control of Alex Munro, but they won't have the option to play as either Alexander or Alexandria--this time around, there's just the male character. In Elite Force II, Munro will move from Voyager to Starfleet Academy before being assigned to the USS Enterprise, where he'll be under the command of Jean-Luc Picard, voiced by Patrick Stewart, who of course played the role on all seven seasons of TNG and the movies that followed it.
Just because Picard is being voiced by the original actor doesn't mean he'll be relegated to a minor cameo appearance. Indeed, we were told by an Activision representative that he is "a prominent character in the game and will have a major role in the story not only as the Enterprise Captain but also as a mentor to Munro."
The Starfleet Academy portion of the game will be more than just a pit stop on the way to Enterprise. As anyone who has seen the place depicted on the show will tell you, Starfleet Academy looks wildly different from any other locale in the Star Trek universe, with its bright colors and lush foliage. We were told that the portion of the game that takes place there is "part training, part story progression, and part looking around at [a] gorgeous environment no Trek shooter has ever explored."
Where No Game Has Gone Before
Ritual has been given some measure of freedom with the Star Trek license, and so while the game will feature such well-known races as the Klingons, Romulans, and Andorians, there are also two brand-new races, complete with their own worlds and associated technologies. While specifics of the two new races are being kept secret for the time being, we do know that one of them is described as "a nightmarish race of monsters." The storyline is original and was developed jointly by Activision and Ritual, with the help of Daniel Greenberg, who has written some of the Star Trek novels for Pocket Books and has also contributed to several games, including Star Trek: Starfleet Academy and Vampire: The Masquerade - Redemption.
All the members of the Hazard Team from the first game are back in the sequel (with a couple of new additions to the team), and they will all be voiced by the same actors. We were told that they are hoping to have one member of the Voyager cast reprise his role, but they are still in negotiations and can't say for certain if it will happen.
While the engine is basically the same for the two games, the underlying technology has evolved since the first game (which began its development before Quake III Arena had actually shipped). Ritual's enhancements to the engine have come quite a way since Heavy Metal: F.A.K.K. 2. Since that game was released, the UBER tools, as they're now known as, have been used in other games such as American McGee's Alice and Medal of Honor: Allied Assault, but they have also continued to evolve over time and are now capable of much more than was possible in Ritual's last game. Level designer Kenny Thompson explains: "Our tool set allows almost any possible scenario to take place. Simply moving spaceships along spline paths and watching characters interact with objects in the world, or other characters for that matter, is cake."
Ritual is also using a new customized version of the Q3 Radiant level editor that id Software developed for the Quake III Arena engine. Level designer Benson Russell described this to us: "Our new version of UBER Radiant is much enhanced compared with all the past versions of Radiant that people have worked with. A lot of new features and enhancements have been added, and they make it much more pleasurable to work in (and anybody who's used Radiant is aware of what I'm talking about)." Ritual's other major enhancement to the already capable Quake III Arena engine is a new terrain system, which is not based on the one included with id Software's Quake III: Team Arena. While it won't allow for real-time deformation like Red Faction's Geo-Mod engine, it will allow for some truly enormous levels.
As you can imagine, these enhancements open up a whole world of possibilities for a Star Trek game. Thompson says, "[This will] allow the player to truly experience the Star Trek Universe. Imagine the ability to get in a turbo lift on the Enterprise-E Bridge, arrive at the shuttle bay, step inside a shuttle, lift off and peer out the window as you leave the Enterprise, entering warp and traveling to a foreign world through its atmosphere and then landing, opening the doors, and finally walking out of the shuttle into the midst of a swamp, all seamlessly. Now you have an idea what we are doing."
Thanks to the engine enhancements of the UBER tools, the game will contain some original sequences never before possible, including one level that takes place entirely in zero gravity. While Ritual is not willing to talk about this portion of the game yet, Russell told us, "Let's just say we think fans will be happy."
Playing with the Trek Toybox
A major part of the success of the first Elite Force was its use of weapons, which Star Trek fans have come to know and love. Realizing how integral this was to the original, Ritual has chosen to include even more of the toys of Star Trek in the sequel. One item familiar to viewers of every Star Trek series is the tricorder, and the development team has some fun uses in store for it, as Russell told us. "We want to incorporate the tricorder into gameplay, very much in homage to the original System Shock. In Star Trek, you always hear terms such as 'modulate the frequency' and 'reroute power' and such, so we're trying to implement a small play off this. Granted, the primary focus is the story and action, so the tricorder gameplay won't require a master's degree to solve."
Along similar lines are Ritual's plans for the in-game terminals that players will encounter. Anyone who played SiN will immediately recall the various computer consoles, which were remarkably detailed. Like that game, Elite Force II will have terminals that act as more than mere buttons, and of course, this will fit right in with the tech-heavy Star Trek universe.
Another welcome addition to the game is the Bat'leth, the melee weapon of choice for Klingon warriors. While Ritual is not saying how it works its way into the plot for now, we do know that it's available in both the single-player and multiplayer holomatch modes. Unlike in the recent Jedi Knight II (which would switch to a third-person perspective when using the lightsaber) or in some other shooters over the years, melee combat with the Bat'leth will be the same in first-person mode as it will be in the rest of the game. The only time the game will switch to a third-person perspective is during the in-game cutscenes.
The biggest complaint raised by both fans and critics alike of the first game was its length, which at around 10 to 12 hours was pretty short, even for casual players. We were told flat-out by Activision that it is working hard to make sure that the sequel is significantly longer--possibly twice as long as the first game. Although it was quick to point out that "of course, depending on the skill of the player, the length will vary." The single-player mode will feature a single, coherent storyline, but the player will be allowed to make some choices throughout the game. Still, these "branches" aren't as complex as they were in a game like Deus Ex or Ritual's SiN. This is primarily a linear game.
As far as multiplayer holomatch goes, we were told that Ritual is working hard to raise the bar set by the original, which focused on FPS standards such as deathmatch and CTF, and its expansion pack, which added an "assimilate" mode in which one team played a Borg collective whose goal was to absorb the other, as well as a class-based mode that worked as a sort of Star Trek-themed Team Fortress. All the gameplay modes from the original and its expansion will return, with some new additions and enhancements that Ritual is not ready to announce just yet.
While Star Trek: Elite Force II was announced only recently, it has been in development since August of last year. The game is currently slated for a release in the first quarter of 2003, and it will be shown at E3 in Los Angeles later this month.
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