Starfleet Command III Updated Preview
The Starfleet Command series sees a major overhaul with drastic interface improvements, new RPG elements, and a move to the Star Trek: The Next Generation universe.
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See it in Action!
The Starfleet Command series has been around for some time, and to spawn a third incarnation, it has to be doing something right. But the series has been plagued since its inception by controls and an interface that made the game unmanageable for most, difficult to learn, and difficult to play and that overwhelmed many potential players with an information overload. But that was then. Starfleet Command III is now, and it's looking to be the biggest overhaul the Starfleet Command series has ever seen--and the biggest improvement. With Starfleet Command III, the interface is streamlined to a degree that it's nearly intuitive, information is easily accessible and manageable, and for the first time, Starfleet Command is easy to learn and easy to play, and it doesn't drown in its own complexity.
Fundamentally, Starfleet Command III is very similar to its predecessors. At its core, Starfleet Command is a real-time strategy game of Star Trek ship combat. In missions, you control one ship directly, and, among other actions, set the course, fire weapons, send boarding parties, launch shuttles, conduct scans, and warp around the sector fighting enemy ships. In other words, you control the ship and its actions. With Starfleet Command III, however, the series is brought to the current, popular Star Trek: The Next Generation time period, letting you command ships seen in the TV show and current movies. Captain Picard himself makes an appearance, voiced directly by Patrick Stewart.
When you first begin Starfleet Command III, you'll immediately notice the new interface. Stacked along the left side of the screen are most of the controls you'll need, neatly organized into three main sections. Each section has multiple tabs or overlays, but all items in each section are related. For example, the bottom area shows a schematic diagram of your ship. By selecting the various tabs, you can see the arcs your weapons can fire in (each has a specific range of fire), with their readiness and their recharge position, or see the various types of weapons and systems, or you can select the repair tab, which lets you repair the ship systems. All of the represented systems and weapons are shown with small icons--these icons change depending on the tab selected, but the layout remains the same. The result is that there's only one screen to navigate and learn, but much information can be toggled and seen, overlaying the one diagram.
Other new interface and control improvements abound. Though ships potentially have many different weapons, each facing in its own direction with its own firing arcs, you can now fire all available types of the weapon with just one button. Next to the button is an easy-to-understand status indicator. The status indicator is a color-coded representation that shows whether you're close to the arc of an available weapon and whether or not it's ready to fire. Power allocation and management is another key concept in starship command, and now it's very easily accomplished with three interdependent sliders. You decide where to allocate the available power between shields or the primary and heavy weapons. A green indicator shows the minimum power needed for the system to function properly, and red indicates the maximum. In this manner, you can divert power from any system to another to strategically manage your available resources. The power management tab is only one of the many tabs together in the middle section of the interface stack.
Another tab is for the new helm controls, which can be used to yield a degree of automation to ship movement, if you find yourself busy with other matters. There are six commands you can enable, which set the ship to fly "steady as she goes," to "orbit your target," to "follow your target," to "match your target's speed," to power to "maximum speed," or to enable "erratic maneuvers." Many commands are interrelated. For example, you can choose "steady as she goes," "orbit your target," or "follow your target," to work in tandem with either the "match your target's speed" order or the "maximum speed" request. Enabling "erratic maneuvers" is separate and sets your ship to perform evasive maneuvers, making it harder to hit. When erratic maneuvers are engaged, because your ship is harder to hit, hitting the enemy is also harder.
Taking the Helm
The chances of success with actions like erratic maneuvers are based on the skill of your corresponding ship's officer, which is another new facet of Starfleet Command III. For example, the success of avoiding enemy fire in erratic maneuvers depends on your helmsman's skill against the enemy's weapons officer, and successfully hitting an enemy while in erratic maneuvers is dependent on the skill of your own weapons officer. Officers act much like a role-playing game element in Starfleet Command III and help to attach you to your ship. There are six officer posts in all, and you can assign officers to your ship based on their skills and experience. Each officer has abilities that apply directly to the success of various ship abilities. For example, the skill of the security officer determines the power of the marines used in boarding parties; the engineering officer determines the engine power output; and the operations officer handles the use of sensors, probes, and the like. The success of each component is based on the officer's skill. Officers gain skills and experience as you complete missions and accumulate this game's version of experience--prestige points. Among other things, prestige points can be used to lure better officers to your ship.
Other tabs include the controls for scientific scanning (including the new anticloak scan, which reveals hidden enemies), tractor beams, shuttle bays, and cargo transporters. But though the cargo transporters find a home under one of the tabs in these ship systems, the interface for sending away missions and boarding parties has been totally reworked. In the top left of the screen, an entire section has been devoted to strategic transporting--focusing on either hit-and-run missions or boarding parties. With hit-and-run attacks, you select specific systems to disable on enemy vessels, and a team of marines will be transported to the enemy ship to attempt to destroy the targeted system. Boarding parties try to defeat the enemy ship's own defenses and take control of the ship. With both transport missions, the available transporters are shown, as is their status. Furthermore, the success of boarding parties is also represented with an insignia showing which race is in control of the ship and to what degree.
There are plenty of other straight-up simplifications, too. Ship shields in Starfleet Command are handled by section, with each section taking individual damage. The sections and their remaining power can be seen on the aforementioned schematic diagram, but they are also visible in the game by color representation around the ship. But, instead of having six sections of shields to worry about as their were in the previous game, there are now only four. And reinforcing shields is easy too--just click on the shield section you want to reinforce on the ship schematic, and it's automatically done. But of course, you can pick only one section to reinforce at a time, so strategy is key. Repairing damaged systems is also easy--just select the repair tab on the schematic diagram, and click the system to repair it. Right next to the diagram you then will see the total number of repairs available, as each ship has a limited number of spare parts.
Another nice feature is the addition of a goal indicator, which appears right by your ship and points to the current objective so that you don't lose your way in space. Also, being able to cycle through targets by scrolling the mousewheel makes it easy to select which enemy system to attack.
The single-player mode in Starfleet Command III is quite robust. The three main campaigns run in the order of Klingon, Romulan, and Federation. The plot is focused around a new space station called Unity 1, built by the Federation and the Klingons, which can detect cloaked vessels--which unbalances power in the region. The plot picks up a short time after Captain Janeway has returned home with Voyager from the Star Trek: Voyager series but sometime before the forthcoming Next Generation movie, Star Trek: Nemesis. The development team has stated that there will be hints of events that will take place in Nemesis but that they won't give anything away.
Progressing Through the Campaign
The most significant feature of the single-player mode is that instead of tactically commanding a ship on a series of missions, you're presented with a Risk-like hex map of a quadrant with the sectors for you to explore and investigate. You start with a novice crew and a basic ship. With your ship, you are free to fly to various sectors looking for missions in a free-form manner. Some missions are key to the plot, which you must take to further the campaign. But many are random missions found by exploring various sectors in between major plot happenings. Because of these random missions, the campaigns are extremely nonlinear.
Outside of the normal story-driven campaign, there are also single-player skirmishes and a conquest campaign where the sole objective is to take over the entire quadrant. There are no campaign missions in a conquest campaign. The fourth race in Starfleet Command III, the Borg, does not have its own campaign but can be played in either of these two modes, as well as in multiplayer.
As you accumulate prestige points from completing missions, your officers will gain experience and hone their skills, and you'll want to spend the points for upgrades. With prestige points, you can trade in your ship for a better one, trade out officers for those with more experience, and resupply the ship with shuttles, mines, and marines. Customizing the ship works a lot like in the Mechwarrior games: You have a hull with a maximum weight, and you can pick from the available weapons and components to fill available component slots. Base ship hulls for each race run the gamut. For example, for the Federation, the ships range from the popular galaxy- and sovereign-class starships seen as the Enterprise ships respectively in the TV show and the new movies, to the Akira- and Nebula-class ships seen in various episodes, to the defiant-class ships like the Defiant from Deep Space Nine. In all, there are more than 25 ship types, ranging from Romulan warbirds and frigates, to Klingon birds of prey and battlecruisers, to Borg cubes and spheres. Simply, though, Starfleet Command III lets you customize your ship to a degree not seen before in the Starfleet Command series.
The ship and the crew stay with you as you progress through the campaign. Furthermore, as you gain prestige points, you progress in rank. Many missions will feature small groups of ships all engaging in combat in one sector. Though you can't directly control more than one ship, if you are the highest-ranking officer in the battle, you will have control of the fleet. You command the fleet through your communications officer, and you can issue commands to other ships, such as to attack or defend specific targets, to join a formation, to move, and the like. If you don't take direct control of the ships, they will act under AI control with their own orders.
The missions themselves ring very true to the Star Trek universe, and range from answering distress calls, scanning planets, patrolling shipping lanes against pirates, and disabling rogue vessels, to more standard destroy-the-enemy-fleet scenarios. The story is conducted in-mission through interstarship communication. Messages from other vessels will appear, and an RPG-like dialogue tree with responses becomes available. The major communication is all voice-acted and seems very true to the series--the accents of the different races are accurately portrayed. The writing and plot, from what we've seen, seem very authentic and true to the series.
Furthermore, to add to the feeling of commanding a starship, your officers will constantly give audio feedback, reports, and alerts. For example, after sending a probe to a planet, the communications officer might report back that it is "a typical M-class desert world, sir." Or if shields are severely hurt, you might hear an officer shouting "Shields dropped below 50 percent, sir!" The voice work for all of these responses reflects the race you're playing--Klingons will bark reports back, while Federation officers keep their cool. The voice acting, writing, and missions go a long way toward making you feel as if you're in the universe, but the audio reports and updates help keep you very informed about what's going on at all times.
Multiplayer has been a major component of the Starfleet Command series and continues to be so with Starfleet Command III. You can play a skirmish game online with friends, where you can play as any of the four races, including the Borg. Skirmish games can be run as free-for-all games, with teams, or in capture-the-base mode, where either one or both teams must defend a space station against the opposing team. But more interesting is the new Dynaverse 3, which will establish a persistent world where players can join together in fleets to travel and battle together for control of the quadrant. The Dynaverse 3 mode will feature a hex map just like the normal single-player game, and as you win battles, you will win the corresponding hex on the map for your race.
The game looks a good deal prettier than previous games in the series. Textures are very detailed, and the ships themselves look sharp even when seen up close. Lighting and effects also look very good, and phaser blasts or photon torpedo explosions will illuminate the surrounding area. The damage blasts on the ship's hull are also very visible and detailed, and a ship's condition can be determined at a glance.
As if the redesigned interface weren't enough to improve ease-of-use, Starfleet Command III includes very complete, interesting, and fun tutorials to teach you all the specifics. Called Starfleet Academy, this mode walks you through various tutorials step-by-step, making it easy to learn and understand all of the many components of the game. The tutorials are even narrated by Patrick Stewart, and they actually let you play the game quite a bit while learning. There are also race-specific tutorials that teach you about each race's unique strengths and weaknesses and special abilities. Now, not only is the game easier to play, but it seems easy and quick to learn as well, which is no small feat for a game of this complexity.
Starfleet Command III is at its core similar to its predecessors and holds very much to the same basic gameplay the series has been known for, yet it's hard to imagine any greater transformation, since the game's look, sound, control, and interface have all seen extraordinary changes. If you've played a Starfleet Command game before, you'll know what to expect, but this latest game in the series transforms the game into something that seems easy to pick up, learn, and play. And on top of that, from what we've seen, it does a good job of putting you in the shoes of a starship captain, is ripe with Star Trek details, and seems to capture the Star Trek spirit. Starfleet Command III is due out in early November.