Star Trek: New Worlds is the third Star Trek-licensed game from Interplay's 14 Degrees East division, but after you spend several mind-numbing hours with it, you'll think it's the first game the developers have ever undertaken. The laundry list of flaws in New Worlds is long and assorted, but there's one significant problem that should be mentioned right off the bat. The only connections this boring real-time strategy game has with Star Trek are the logo on the box, the names of the races, and the types of weapons that your units use. You could easily get the impression that New Worlds started out as any old 3D strategy game and that Interplay later decided to stick it with a Star Trek license. And although that's not actually the case, the fact remains that once you get into the incredibly tedious missions, you might well forget that the action's taking place in the Star Trek universe.
Since just about any astronomical phenomenon can occur in the world of Star Trek, the game's story is perfectly acceptable: A Romulan weapons experiment causes entire star systems to appear out of thin air, and of course they're just loaded with dilithium and other goodies that the big three - the Federation, Klingons, and Romulans - want to lay their hands on. As an officer of one of those factions, you're assigned a series of missions that require you to build full-blown colonies capable of building vehicles and structures. To do that you'll need resources like dilithium and lesser-known commodities like magnesite ore and kelbonite. You've also got to build power generators to run your base, construct housing to accommodate more colonists and crew, and... you get the picture. It's typical real-time strategy, but unfortunately 14 Degrees East decided to ignore nearly every advance that's been made in the genre over the last several years.
As in other 3D real-time strategy games, Star Trek: New Worlds portrays 3D terrain and objects from an isometric perspective that can be panned and zoomed. While the lighting effects are sometimes impressive, the buildings and vehicles are merely adequate, and it isn't easy to distinguish the units from one another. In fact, it's nearly impossible to visually identify a unit when the view is zoomed out enough to get a good command perspective, so you wind up either clicking on it to hear its signature response or zooming in for a close-up look. The advantage of zooming in is that you can actually scroll the main display at a reasonable speed; the disadvantage is that you no longer can tell what's going on or even get a good sense of where you are.
But that's something you can live with. What might be more frustrating is that none of the keyboard commands can be reconfigured, so you must keep your left hand perched on the left-hand side of the keyboard to move the camera, no matter what. There's an option to double-right-click on the strategic map to jump quickly to a new area, but amazingly it doesn't work if your cursor is resting over a unit or building.
The lack of formations and the inability to set waypoints makes unit control even more problematic, and what tops it all off is that the game plays incredibly slowly. Send some tanks to a distant point on the map, and you'll have time to go make a sandwich and eat half of it before they get there. There's no option to adjust the game speed, just like there's no option to pause the game to reevaluate the situation when things get busier later in a mission: Pausing freezes the entire game, including the mouse cursor.
There are even more problems with the interface design in New Worlds. Each building is assigned a coordinate, and over the course of the game, you'll be informed - for example - that a particular mining station has exhausted its resources. But if you click on a mining station, its coordinates aren't actually displayed! Instead, you must gingerly move the mouse near the building, rather than directly over it, and use those coordinates to deduce whether the building you're about to tear down is the one that's no longer productive.
An intuitive interface for building units and structures is one of the linchpins of a good strategy game, but Star Trek: New Worlds' resource management and production are just a smoke-and-mirrors system that initially seems deep but soon reveals itself as shallow and contrived. For one thing, there's only a tiny window from which you select units or structures to build: Only three items are displayed at a time, so you must click and scroll your way through a list of icons just to reach that photon turret you need to defend your base - and then you must do it again and again for each one you want to build.
You'll want to start mining dilithium as soon as possible, and to do so you need a resource processor. But then, you also need to upgrade it to actually process the dilithium. Since everything from the warp core to the food replicators runs off this stuff, you'd think a Federation-class resource processor would come outfitted to handle dilithium by default. Perhaps the only real reason you're forced to upgrade your resource processor is to make the game seem more sophisticated. But once you realize you can simply fire off all six upgrades for the resource processor in rapid succession, you'll see how arbitrary the system is. As another example, if you want to build a phaser tank, you'll need a vehicle yard to build the tank and a science center to build the phaser to go on it - but this time you'll need four different upgrades before the science center will give you the phaser. This is busywork of the first order, and soon you'll wise up and simply upgrade every facility immediately - you might as well, since even before the first mission is over, the game's entire tech tree will have been revealed.
Fog of war is a given in most real-time strategy games, but in the world of Star Trek it just doesn't make sense. Think of all the times that a starship's sensors spotted someone's location on a planet or gave a full report on the topography, geology, atmosphere, and every other important aspect of a world. But in New Worlds, you've apparently been given outdated technology: You must actually have a unit in an area to know what's there, including any available resources. That's right, your science vehicle can travel all over the map uncovering resources, but once it moves on, the area turns dark and you're back where you started. Line of sight remains a key component of intelligence gathering in this version of the Star Trek universe.
Furthermore, as you fumble about the map cursing the snail's-pace scroll speed, you'll receive vague messages from crew members like, "We have found the plague epicenter" or "Construction cancelled - assign crew to this building." This information is helpful in theory, but it never explicitly refers to anything. You might get a warning from an alien race that you've trespassed, but it's up to you to figure out where you've wandered that you shouldn't have.
Star Trek: New Worlds has even more problems - the race you choose to play as automatically sets the difficulty level; the program forgets your audio settings when you exit, and they can't be accessed during play; colony sound effects are minimal and uninspired; and the missions seem to end before you even know why. But what's most frustrating of all is that there's no way to save your game during a mission, so you'll end up having to start them all over if you happen to lose.
New Worlds is playable online against human opponents via the Mplayer service, but the game supports just three players at a time. There were never any players seeking competition in the Mplayer lobbies as of press time, but that's just as well because the game's lack of a single-player skirmish mode means you can't practice the multiplayer game anyway.
Star Trek: New Worlds promises to let you "witness colony life at the most fundamental level," but if that's true, then colony life isn't very exciting. In the end, the derivative action in New Worlds does only one thing well: It reminds you how exciting a well-designed real-time strategy game can be by comparison.