I'm not really sure why Interplay decided to start publicizing Starfleet Academy nearly three years before its eventual release, but one thing's for sure: When you start the hype machine that far in advance, the final product had better deliver all the goods as promised, and then some. Unfortunately for Trek fans and gamers whose appetites have been constantly whetted over the past months, Starfleet Academy just isn't up to the task.
In all fairness to the folks who worked on Starfleet Academy, part of the reason for the long incubation process was that the project was put on hold while the game's producer worked on other titles. But that doesn't change the fact that Starfleet Academy looks and plays no better than space combat games from two years ago - and when expectations are as high as they were for this game, that's not gonna cut it.
Starfleet Academy puts you in the Federation uniform of the sheepish David Forester, who's just arrived at Starfleet Academy's Command College in San Francisco. Forester is the commander of a group of cadets with a lot of potential - and a lot of emotional baggage. Two team members get into a squabble at the very first team meeting, and that's just the first of a series of problems involving each and every member of your crew. Add to this the appearance of a reactionary group at the Academy called the Vanguard, who believe all the Federation's problems with the Klingons and Romulans can be solved through brutal retaliation - and the fact that one of your team members sympathizes with this isolationist group - and you can see these aren't going to be carefree school days.
In addition to keeping your cadets on track, you'll also meet Star Trek luminaries such as Hikari Sulu, Pavel Chekhov, and of course the legendary James T. Kirk. All the scenes involving characters at the Academy are handled with full motion video, something of a letdown for those under the impression that the game would give you a chance to move about your quarters or throughout the Academy. And interaction is limited to selecting dialogue responses and then sitting back to see how well you chose.
The acting quality ranges from highly polished (Sulu, Chekhov, and Kirk) to competent (Forester and his fellow cadets) to downright uninspired (some of the enemies you face during simulator missions). There's actually a pretty decent little mystery that unfolds as you progress deeper into the game, but it's just not that compelling a game because the FMV format makes you feel as though you're watching a story rather than taking an active part in its solution.
This design probably wouldn't be an issue if the Starship simulator got your blood pumping. But here again Starfleet Academy falls short - and it's not just because all the media hype made gamers expect too much. Interplay was faced with a dilemma here: If the simulator were too "realistic," all the captain could do is bark out orders to his bridge crew - not very exciting stuff. The other option was to go for more of a traditional space combat experience, which puts Starfleet Academy up against games like Wing Commander, Privateer 2, Darklight Conflict, and others. And on that level, Starfleet Academy just doesn't pack much of a punch.
For starters, you have to run through the rigmarole of allocating damage control teams and adjusting energy settings in anticipation of combat before every mission. This busywork could have been eliminated easily by giving you the option to save several configurations for damage control and energy allocation (full combat, strong tractor beam, strong sensors, and so forth) and simply load the one you want to use.
Once you get into a scrape, you'll find there's no way to look to the left, right, or rear - a serious drawback in a game that's little more than a cosmic dogfight - nor are there any external views. Because you've only got two weapons to work with regardless of which class ship you're given, it doesn't take long for combat to become little more than a routine. About all that breaks up the monotony is the occasional use of the tractor beam or transporter, or the thrill of being able to fire a four-photon spread instead of just two. True, you have to make dialogue choices and command decisions that determine the outcome of the mission, but with very few exceptions the correct responses are pretty obvious. When they're not, don't bother asking your crew for its input - there's no way to query anyone for his opinion unless it's offered as a dialogue selection.
Another disappointment comes in the visual department. Graphics for ships and explosions are merely adequate in the non-Direct3D version, and though the Direct3D version looks noticeably better, that's not saying a whole lot. In short, it looks good, but not great.
Because this is a Star Trek game, there'll undoubtedly be a few players who'll be more than satisfied with what Starfleet Academy has to offer. But gamers who expect a top-notch game to go along with the Star Trek trimmings are likely to be disappointed.