Aside from Particle Systems' Independence War, there hasn't been a well-crafted and enjoyable space-combat simulation that focuses on ships larger than X-wing fighters. Other capital-ship space simulations have either been too aspiring and failed to provide well-polished gameplay, or they've too closely emulated fighter sims and failed to provide an experience that logically reflects the more formidable size of the craft being simulated. Unfortunately, that trend continues with Star Trek Klingon Academy, an extremely ambitious simulation that provides plenty of original gameplay but fails to adequately refine its presentation.
Klingon Academy is the long-delayed sequel to Starfleet Academy, a capital-ship space sim that was maligned for essentially just being a remarkably cumbersome fighter sim. Although the Star Trek television series frequently featured large starships maneuvering almost leisurely while attacking enemies approaching from a variety of angles, Starfleet Academy required would-be Captain Kirks to swiftly track enemies and attack using solely forward-facing weapons, effectively transforming the dreadnoughts into bloated fighters. Game players have clamored for a simulation that more closely emulates the slower-paced strategic conflicts that have been depicted in the Star Trek shows, but it was questionable whether or not those battles could be accurately translated into a compelling computer-gaming experience, given gaming's more interactive nature. After all, those battles often unfolded preposterously slowly, given the apparent speed and weaponry of the combatants. Cast members had to issue verbal commands that were comprehensible to an audience, and ample time was allocated to witty retorts. Klingon Academy's developers had the unenviable task of trying to make the spacecraft perform more like the vessels in the series while, paradoxically, ensuring that the battles retained enough action to be interesting.
The developers opted to create a unique style of gameplay that is slower paced than in a typical space sim. Larger ships are still appropriately difficult to maneuver, but it's now easier to deploy a ship's side- or rear-firing weapons. Using a series of extensive keyboard-accessed menus, you can issue appropriate commands for each of the nine ships' command systems. Several key systems can also be individually controlled by abandoning the main viewscreen and pulling up separate command-station screens, permitting you to extensively micromanage craft performance. Not even Independence War provided such an intricate control system, which suitably reflects the complex nature of the enormous capital ships. The space-combat-simulation genre has finally produced a game that grants the same detailed level of ship control that military-flight-sim fans have enjoyed for years through hard-core simulations like Falcon 4.0.
In addition to creating a complex control system, Klingon Academy's developers have created a number of original tactical options. Instead of being forced to bludgeon enemy craft by firing round after round of phasers and photon torpedoes, you can immobilize ships with tractor beams and more exotic weaponry, or capture vessels by transporting marines on board. If you encounter overwhelming odds, you can steer your vehicle into planetary rings or near other interstellar phenomena to encumber your pursuers with various debilitating effects. Other than Derek Smart's problematic opus, Battlecruiser 3000, no space sim has purported to offer as many tactical features as Klingon Academy.
Unfortunately, in practice, control of your ship is too unmanageable to permit you to effectively use all of the potential battlefield options. Although more convenient hotkeys can be set for frequently chosen commands, the keyboard control system still often requires you to tap through a series of menus to issue relatively basic commands. Since you have to simultaneously maintain control of your ship's flight and watch the action onscreen while you're navigating menu options, it's far too easy to erroneously issue the wrong command with disastrous consequences. Inexplicably, the game's interface also prevents you from using a joystick's throttle or rudder function, or more than four joystick buttons, which needlessly complicates ship control. While you may be able to externally program your gaming peripherals to add additional functionality, the action still unfolds too quickly, and the game's artificial intelligence is too inadequate, to permit you to conveniently access all potentially available commands.
Furthermore, while the individual station screens provide the ability to directly tweak the performance of your ship's systems, it's difficult to continue to fly your ship while doing so, and handing helm command over to the computer usually just speeds your ship's destruction. While the developers attempted to compensate for these problems by providing options to further slow the speed of the game (either generally or just when you access the separate station screens), the pace of the game is still too fast. As a result, battles seem to devolve into cumbersome turning matches that are made even more annoying by the tendency of computer-controlled ships to collide with virtually any nearby ship or obstacle.
Collisions in Klingon Academy are extremely damaging, which is actually refreshing considering how inconsequential they are in some space sims, but the computer opponents seem incapable of navigating around other ships or objects. It's ridiculous how easy it is to destroy enemy ships by luring them near an asteroid belt and infuriating how similarly vulnerable your escort ships are when encountering comparable impediments. Since ships in the Star Trek series almost never meandered close enough to each other to collide, voluntarily or otherwise, it's ludicrous how Klingon Academy's computer-controlled vessels seem primarily motivated to play bumper cars with each other. While battles occasionally unfold in a satisfying manner similar to those depicted in the Star Trek movies or shows, they are just as likely to devolve into a farcical interstellar demolition derby.
Few quality Star Trek games have been developed, and even some of those, such as Starfleet Command, haven't really offered any interesting new fiction for fans of the series. Fortunately, in spite of its flaws, Klingon Academy is a great game for Star Trek fans. Klingon Academy is set immediately prior to Star Trek VI, and both Christopher Plummer (General Chang) and David Warner (Chancellor Gorkon) reprise their roles from that movie, while Michael Dorn (playing as a relative of his series alter ego, Worf) lends his distinctive voice to the mission briefings. Through its abundant and well-produced full-motion-video cutscenes and effective use of scripted sequences within missions (which can conveniently be skipped), Klingon Academy provides an entertaining examination of Klingon culture and motivations. The game also lets you replay just the video clips if you would like to peruse the entire tale at once. In addition, virtually every type of ship that appeared in the original TV series or the movies featuring the original cast reappears during the course of the game, including Gorn, Romulan, and Tholian vessels. Klingon Academy not only adapts its licensed setting relatively faithfully but also offers a plausible and entertaining contribution to Star Trek lore.
The 25-mission campaign eventually expands beyond the academy setting and into Klingon political intrigue. While the game doesn't include a mission editor, the multiplayer skirmish feature lets teams of players fly any of the ships deployed by the six races in the game in either small-scale battles or more strategic base-defense engagements. The campaign is also relatively lengthy, as most missions are divided into different stages, and individual starship battles tend to be drawn-out affairs. Devastating a Starfleet battle cruiser isn't quite as simple as incinerating a fragile TIE fighter.
Campaign mission goals are varied and interesting, and although there are some quirks in the mission scripting, the game rewards curious commanders who explore beyond established mission paths. To succeed, you can't just passively listen to the full-motion-video lectures about Klingon virtues - you have to learn to apply such values during the course of combat missions.
The game's sound and music effectively re-create the mood of the series, even though they don't sound identical to their series counterparts, and the thunderous collision effects are particularly distinctive. The graphics depict damage modeling extremely well, as components can be blown off and hulls shatter into pieces. But the interface graphics are rudimentary, and while ship textures look recognizable up close, they resemble fuzzy 2D bitmaps at greater distances, even at the highest graphic settings. Similarly, while there are some effective nebula effects, asteroid belts and most of the other space phenomena look obtrusively ugly. While most of the graphics appear simplistic compared with recent games in the genre, the engine still occasionally stutters to an unplayable crawl during even relatively small-scale battles.
The interface, pacing, and artificial intelligence make the game needlessly difficult, which is reflected by the fact that the easiest difficulty level is the game's default setting. Those problems are compounded by a poor tutorial and inaccessible manual, neither of which adequately teaches fundamental combat maneuvers, such as when to switch to a ship's gunnery chair or when to use tractor beams or marines. While it's definitely more satisfying and appropriate for you to discover a game's nuances by yourself, the developers should have done a better job describing typical battle tactics and ship operations.
Klingon Academy's developers created a space-combat simulation of unparalleled depth but failed to ensure that the basic control scheme, artificial intelligence, and flight models functioned adequately. The elation of discovering additional gameplay depth through acquiring an elite officer or being sent on a planetary bombardment mission is quickly dispersed when you witness unthreatened enemy vessels taking suicidal plunges into asteroid belts, like moths to a flame. Klingon Academy advances the genre by providing a number of original gameplay ideas, but its creativity is sabotaged by inadequate implementation.