Starfleet Command III Preview
The next game in this strategy series will have a new campaign system, plus powerful starships from Star Trek: The Next Generation.
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For 14 years, the second generation of Star Trek TV shows--The Next Generation, Deep Space 9, and Voyager--have shown us interstellar adventures, personal conflicts, and grand battles in a galaxy rather different than the one Captain Kirk and the original Enterprise crew inhabited. Kirk and crew kept their adventures going with major movie releases, and while new movies--like Star Trek: Nemesis, which is due out this November--promise to do the same for Picard, Worf, and Data, they'll probably also live out a long career in games. So it's no surprise that Activision has picked up the Starfleet Command franchise and moved it into the Next Generation setting.
Starfleet Command has been the only series to try to re-create the feel of Star Trek space battles. The games' success reflected not only the appreciation of the show's fans for this sort of accuracy, but also the fact that the intricate tactical combat was really quite good. Star Trek ships are huge and powerful and serve multiple purposes, and that translates into battles between a relatively small number of ships with lots of maneuvering. In addition to primary weapons like phasers and torpedoes, the door is left open for tactics involving mines, shuttle craft, and away teams that beam over to wreak havoc inside enemy ships or even capture them. Starfleet Command III is the work of Taldren, the same team that produced the earlier games, so it's understandable that those games' best elements are intact, but there's more to the new game than the addition of the more powerful ships from The Next Generation and a deeper story-based campaign. Starfleet Command III will also feature the ability to customize ship configurations, officers who improve with experience, much more detailed graphics, and a streamlined interface.
The game is due out at the end of the year, around the time of Nemesis movie debut, and Taldren wrote the game's story with some crossover in mind. The single-player campaign will have more of an emphasis on story than the previous games. There are three campaigns, in which players sequentially belong to the Klingon, Romulan, and Federation sides. The campaigns are still fairly free-form, allowing you to move from sector to sector on a galaxy map, but now you'll always have a good idea of your objective at a given moment, whether it's one of the dozen or more story-based missions in each campaign, or a more general mission, like patrol or defend, that helps you gain prestige (the game's currency) and experience for your officers. The campaigns create an overarching story that takes place before Nemesis, and the developers have hinted that some events of the movie will be foreshadowed in the game, though not enough to give anything away. As the game starts, the Klingons and Federation have just finished constructing a major star base called Unity 1, and it's been placed near the neutral zone where its strong cloak detector will keep the conflicting sides honest. The star base is attacked by an alien race, and you naturally have a role in dealing with the consequences. In addition to the three playable sides, players will encounter the Borg, Cardassians, Ferrengi, and a couple of original races.
The Starfleet Command games have a rather slower pace in combat, in keeping with the fact that players command huge capital-class starships, but there's often a lot going on at once. With the new game, the developers have worked to streamline the interface to make things more accessible for new players, simplifying the way ship data is displayed, adding a tactical mini map, and making AI-controlled ships in a task force more autonomous, rather than giving total control--and responsibility--of all ships to the player. Energy management is greatly simplified, so you only have to deal with the energy levels for primary weapons, heavy weapons, and shields. Subsystems and impulse engines now draw constant power, so it's no longer necessary to slow down just to recharge weapons and shields.
Photon Torpedoes at the Ready
The planetary systems where missions take place take on a whole new scale in Starfleet Command III. Suns appear absolutely huge on the screen, with a glowing gaseous corona surrounding their surface, even when you're quite far away. To get around such large environments, ships now have the ability to go to warp. The signature visual stretching effect kicks in as a ship hits warp, and the movement speed seems to be several times that of standard impulse engines. Even though shields and phasers are down during warp, it does still introduce new tactical options, such as strafing runs while firing photon torpedoes.
It's hard to imagine that a complex starship could be run by just one person, and the game's addition of officers makes particular sense. On one level, the officers reflect a player's progress, leveling up to gain bonuses to standard abilities and special skills. There are currently four levels in the game, from "skilled" to "legendary," and while officers have a primary focus--tactical, engineering, medical, helm, or security--they can hold skills in other areas. This is particularly useful when an officer gets killed in battle, since it's usually better to transfer an established officer rather than have a red shirt take a critical post. Taldren has added a few game features that revolve around officer skills, like the fact that an experienced tactical officer can target subsystems and can fire a full volley of photon torpedoes. Additionally, there are a lot more voice alerts in the game, and it makes battles more compelling to hear officers shout out that the shields are down or that a group of enemy ships has just dropped out of warp on your flank. In particular, the Klingon officer voices do a lot to establish the tense, aggressive atmosphere aboard a Klingon bird of prey.
The graphics engine for the tactical portion of the game has seen a major overhaul. The ships are many times more detailed than those in the previous games, and they look quite good even while zoomed in close. The game's scale is made much more dramatic with the addition of much larger ships, like the giant Borg cube, which literally dwarfs even the biggest conventional ships, so it really is possible to re-create scenes where many Federation ships struggle to take down a single cube. Smaller enhancements include effects like localized damage decals, so you see appropriate phaser burns where your weapons hit. At this point, the game doesn't look as good as Activision's own Bridge Commander, which was developed by Totally Games, but this version represents a solid visual improvement.
The Starfleet Command games have been such an enduring success with the series' fans in great part due to their strong multiplayer modes. The new game introduces Dynaverse III, a revision of the persistent online campaign system that lets players join forces online in battles. This new version will be hosted by Activision, which promises a smoother launch than the previous version and will add notable features like the ability to create specific groups of ships so friends can be sure to battle together. The AI has also been enhanced with a goal system, so AI ships will group together on territory defense or expansion missions and will gain experience over time just like players, so it's possible to run into very strong AI groups that have survived on a server for weeks. Players will encounter these new features in the single-player campaign, as well as a new "conquest" solo mode that lets you play the Dynaverse mode offline.
Starfleet Command III improves on the earlier games in a number of ways, and those who may not have been as interested in the previous setting, with the older Star Trek ships dating from the original series, will enjoy the power of ships like the new sovereign-class Enterprise E, as well as the challenge of facing the Borg. The dynamic campaign system should provide quite a bit of replay value, even though the simple strategic elements and visual presentation still might not be as well developed as the core tactical combat. Taldren is now nearing its beta milestone for Starfleet Command III, and the game is on track for a November release.