Most Star Trek games aren't very good, but Star Trek Armada's an exception. It's an impressive real-time strategy game that borrows action and gameplay elements from many of the genre's classics. It lets you do battle with the fleets of four of Star Trek's most popular races, and while it isn't an especially complex game, it still manages to be highly enjoyable even in spite of some technical problems, thanks to its good graphics and gameplay.
Star Trek: Armada looks superb. Although you play the game from a slightly skewed top-down perspective similar to most other real-time strategy games, Armada's 3D graphics engine lends the game a distinctively crisp and colorful appearance, as well as a pronounced cinematic flair thanks to all the impressive special effects throughout the game. The various spacecraft look and move more or less exactly as they do in the Next Generation movies and television episodes - the smooth curvature of the Federation and Romulan ships comes across just as well as the more jagged Klingon ship designs and the plain geometry of the Borg vessels. Although the spaceships in Armada are depicted to relative scale, the four races' vessels do correlate to one another. That is, while the impressive Federation Sovereign-class is much bigger than anything else the Federation has, it appears to be the same size as the imposing Borg cube, which is supposed to be many times larger, according to Star Trek canon. But aside from a few discrepancies in scale, all the ships in Armada look dead-on accurate.
The ships aren't the only impressive element of Armada's graphics - almost everything in the game looks great. Ships' phasers and photon torpedoes sizzle against their enemies' shields; and once the shields dissipate, a ship's hull will start to melt and burn as the ship spirals out of control and finally explodes. You can throw an awful lot of ships at your enemy, yet the game's frame rate remains steady even on less powerful computers. What's more, although the battles in Armada are set in outer space, the setting is anything but the cold, featureless expanse that's to be expected. Armada's outer space is filled with swirling, colorful gasses and nebulae, dense asteroid belts, bright stars, and huge planets slowly going about their day cycle. And most all of the deep-space geography you'll come across has a direct impact on the gameplay. The various colored nebulae disable or impair any ships within and may create tactical opportunities for ambush or retreat. Asteroid belts form impassable barriers, while wormholes let you instantly transport your fleet to another point on the map. And constructing a space station near a planet increases the flow of additional crew to your resource pool, which you'll need in order to assemble your fleet.
Providing crew for your spaceships is one of the only unique elements of Armada's gameplay, which is otherwise reminiscent of such action-oriented strategy games as Starcraft and Activision's own Dark Reign. A steady influx of crew is added to your surplus, and a certain quantity is required both to construct and to maintain each new facility or space vessel you build. Crew members die off as your ships take hits, and they die off very quickly once the ship's shields are down. A vessel may still survive a fight with few crew members intact, but even if the ship is restored to full working condition, its limited crew will impair its performance. Fortunately, you can replenish a ship's crew by transporting additional crewmembers from other ships or stations. You can also transport your crew onto enemy vessels whose shields have fallen, at which point your crew will automatically attack the enemy's. If your crew defeats the enemy's before the ship is destroyed, you can claim the enemy vessel as your own. Or if you find your ship severely damaged and in danger of being hijacked, you can opt to self-destruct to keep your technology out of the enemy's hands. It's a challenge and an incentive to try to capture enemy vessels instead of destroying them, just as it's important to prevent your foe from turning your warships against you. To field a starship, you'll also require officers (or the race's equivalent), who are available in limited supply from your starbase. It's essentially a constraint that dampens your ability to keep constructing your most powerful ships, since the bigger the ship, the more officers you'll need to staff it. But Armada's most prominent resource is dilithium, which is harvested and refined just like most any other real-time strategy resource. Because Armada revolves around gathering enough dilithium to build additional ships and facilities, and thus trying to defend and expand your resource-gathering operation while hindering the enemy's, Armada ends up playing much like many other real-time strategy games. You quickly need to establish your base and defend it while scouting unexplored territory and gathering information on the enemy through reconnaissance. Although Armada offers some variation to the formula, it's of the sort that only a fan of similar games, or someone inexperienced with similar games, would appreciate.
Veterans of real-time strategy games will note that Armada is a fairly simple game at the strategic level. Each race has approximately five different vessels suited to combat, and each race's vessels have an analogous counterpart on the three other sides. However, each vessel has a unique special ability that needs to be researched before it can be used, and these abilities help distinguish the different races. For example, the Borg Assimilator can rob enemy ships of their crew and transfer that crew into the Borg's pool. The Federation can lay minefields, Romulan vessels can cloak, and Klingon vessels have a variety of debilitating special weapons. Each race also has an expensive vessel with several unique and powerful special abilities. The four races all seem similar enough, and their special abilities all seem powerful enough, that they're all competitive in multiplayer competitions. However, the Federation and the Romulan long-range artillery units are so damaging that they tend to skew game balance in favor of those races. But in general, the distinction between the four races only becomes evident once they've built up their forces, and as such, the initial phase of the most typical Armada single-player or multiplayer scenario can get to be monotonous. Fortunately, you can adjust starting resources in a skirmish or a multiplayer match so that you'll spend less time setting up your base and more time fighting your rivals.
Armada features four interrelated campaigns, one per race, in addition to a final scenario that's accessible only after you complete them all. Though some of the cutscenes between missions are mostly static 2D screens that don't look very good, the involving story that's established in the game's impressive introductory cinematic, as well as the voice talent of Patrick Stewart and Michael Dorn, help keep the campaigns interesting. The campaigns are meant to be played in a specific order, and the missions become much more challenging as you proceed, and they're generally successful in not falling into the straightforward combat missions typical to the genre. Unfortunately, Armada's technical problems may prove to be as difficult to overcome as some of the missions. The game has problems with certain video cards and video modes, and may spontaneously crash or lock up. The readme file provides little consolation: "Armada's unique combination of 3D and 2D technology may cause issues when the ESC key is pressed during gameplay." That and the option to run a safe-mode executable file suggests that Activision was satisfied to ship the game with known bugs, which would be unacceptable if Armada weren't a good game, but it is a regrettable problem regardless.
Star Trek: Armada will appeal to Star Trek fans and real-time strategy players alike, thanks to its exciting graphics and enjoyable, if familiar, gameplay. It's not the most strategically sophisticated game of its kind, but its space battles look spectacular and offer lots of interesting tactical options. The game also lacks the television series' deliberate and diplomatic approach in favor of fast action. But if you can accept that Armada is essentially no different from other real-time strategy games, and if you can deal with the bugs, you'll find that not only is Armada a lot of fun, but it's also one of the few Star Trek games to do the series justice.