I was never the biggest Star Trek fan growing up. I loved science fiction (and still do), but I was always firmly on the Star Wars side of things. That’s not to say that I wasn’t exposed to a ton of Star Trek growing up. My mother was a big fan from all the way back to when the Original Series aired. Because of that, growing up I was fed a steady diet of Star Trek movies, saw the Original Series in its entirety, and even saw an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation here and there. I still never really considered myself a fan, and I never got the faintest whiff of Deep Space 9, Voyager, or Enterprise. Heck, I wasn’t even that impressed with J.J. Abrams’s reboot. It seemed to lack a certain epic-ness that I require in my science fiction. The cast was good, and it looked great, but it just didn’t really do it for me.
Now we havethe release of another J.J. Abrams Star Trek film. However, because of his recent attachment to the mythic Star Wars sequels (or at least the first one), its profile is much higher for me because chances are his Star Trek films and Star Wars films will have certain--mainly visual--similarities. Of course, whenever a big new science fiction sequel comes out, so does an obligatory army of tie-ins. Unfortunately, for me, as a video game critic, that means the inevitable licensed movie tie-in video game.
Star Trek: The Video Game is not quite the movie tie-in you might think it is because it has nothing to do with the story of the film, which means my only chance to bring up the greatest name to ever grace another human being--Benedict Cumberbatch--is to shoe-horn it in right here for no real reason other than I love saying it, typing it, and just looking at it. It’s wonderful, but I digress. Anyway, instead of rogue Starfleet officers, the threat in Star Trek: The Video Game is the Gorn. You remember the Gorn don’t you? Kirk fought one in the OS episode called "Arena," and now they’re back thanks a rift in space-time and it’s Captain James T. Kirk’s job to stop them before they take over the galaxy--or whatever; what they want isn’t made abundantly clear.
Now comes the awkward part. It’s the part most of you have probably been expecting given Star Trek: The Video Game’s status as a licensed movie tie-in. This is the part where I have to tell you that Star Trek: The Video Game is pretty awful. If I could get away with ending this review right here, I would. Unfortunately, I’m expected to tell you why it’s awful and “because licensed movie tie-in games are almost always awful” isn’t a good enough reason.
So why is Star Trek: The Video Game awful? That’s an interesting question because as I played it, I could detect the kernel of a good game hiding within; however, it was always covered in layers of sloppy controls, potluck game design, and a sort of soft disdain borne of low expectations. Maybe the disdain was only mine, I can’t really say for sure, but they were so close to making a fun little game about shooting lizard men with laser guns that it almost makes the fact that they missed the mark that much more bothersome.
Don’t get me wrong, it does have its good parts, just not that many. The art direction is sharp and really captures the clean, antiseptic vision of the future Star Trek always portrayed. The bridge of the Enterprise especially looks like an operating theater in a hospital instead of Battlestar Galactica’s gritty and dark CIC, for example. The voice acting is also good. The main cast from the film all show up to provide the voices for their characters, so at the very least that makes the experience seem much more authentic than it would otherwise. Most of the dialogue is fairly neutral, however. There’s a lot of stuff like, “Opening hailing frequencies, Captain.” There’s also the obligatory “Dammit, Jim, I’m a doctor not a something that’s not a doctor,” and Mr. Scott says everything you’d expect him to short of “I can’t do it Captain, I don’t have the power!” The banter between Kirk and Spock can be pretty funny from time to time, however. So there’s that, at least.
Too bad that’s really the extent of the good. Graphically, for example, anything that is not directly related to art design is pretty below average. Kirk and company look pretty much identical to their real world counterparts, but they’re mannequin-like and stiff. The Gorn on the other hand are just flat out ugly with a capital freaking UGLY. I don’t mean ugly in some kind of strange alien way either. I mean ugly as in they’re a mess of blurry textures and generic lizardman-ness, and they’re portrayed as basically nothing but snarling monsters. That’s not exactly the behavior of aliens smart enough to build giant warships and advanced weaponry. There are many different classes of Gorn soldier also, from lowly swarming melee Gorn to giant Gorn commanders that melee you and throw stuff. In between, you get some Gorn that seem to have something approaching a tactical mindset. However, they really only have two combat styles: melee and shoot. They also have a tendency to simply line up and run at your weapon. That’s not exactly great AI, if you ask me.
Aside from the weapons they wield, the Gorn deploy many technological aides as well. Mines, auto-turrets, alarm systems, security cameras, and drones all show up. Luckily for Captain Kirk, he has his trusty tricorder, the sonic screwdriver of the Star Trek universe. The tricorder does everything. It scans weapons, enemies, artifacts, communicators, and anything else the plot requires it to scan to fill out the game’s “research data” that’s really nothing but codex-style encyclopedia--a feature becoming more and more common in games. Each level is filled with items to scan--probably too many. To find them all the first time through you pretty much have spend every second you’re not in combat in tricorder mode, but Kirk moves far too slow. You might think it’s worth it, however, because scanning gives you experience points that you can use to upgrade your tricorder, phaser, and other aspects.
Besides being a scanning tool, it can also be used in combat to, among other things, overheat enemy weapons, sabotage grenades, and reverse the IFF designator on turrets and mines. You can also use it to hack doors and computers. It’s a cool idea to have this gadget that offers you a wide variety of gameplay functions, features, and options. However, it’s indicative of what I called “potluck game design” earlier. It enables Star Trek: The Video Game to co-opt features from other games willy-nilly with no regard for how they fit or work. Hacking, codexes, scanning, and sabotaging enemy weapons are all things from other games and, in some cases, a ton of other games. There’s also stealth, because that’s a thing that’s was in a good game once. The tricorder facilitates that as well by allowing you to hack security cameras, create noise distractions, and even hide bodies. It works decently enough, but it isn’t fun and I promise it’s not why anyone is playing the game. I found it to be a real pain, so much so that I just ran in guns blazing because that’s always the best solution as long as you’re not arbitrarily required to remain undetected. That’s in there, too, because it was in another game that people bought at some point.
The game’s system of upgrades also only seems to be there because upgrades are something else that appear in games people buy. But I usually like stuff like that. It’s too bad then that they’re woefully undercooked in Star Trek: The Video Game. There aren’t enough options and many don’t immediately let you know why they’re cool or useful enough to buy. They then go further toward alienating the player by making many upgrades prohibitively expensive. To make matters worse, even if you manage to buy them all, you can only have a third of them active at any given time, and one branch is strictly dedicated to co-op play. So, past a certain point, you cease becoming more powerful--only differently powerful.
Speaking of co-op, it appears to be there only because it was on a list of bullet points. Even at gunpoint, I wouldn’t be able to, in good conscience, call the game co-op focused. The only co-op actions in the entire game are boosting your partner to an otherwise unreachable area and co-op hacking, and they’re clearly only there to justify the existence of co-op in the first place because they add nothing but busywork to the game. In fact, there are several sections and features besides the stealth and co-op that amount to nothing but busywork. Swimming, platforming, ledge creeping, wing suit flying, and even the Trek equivalent of Portal all appear just because. You could make the case that nothing appears in any game for any reason other than just because, but these features feel especially arbitrary and artificial in Star Trek: The Video Game. They just didn’t add anything substantive.
There was one other section that didn’t add anything to the game either. It gets its own paragraph because it is such an epic miscue that it deserves its own paragraph. Let me start by posing a question: What would be the coolest thing you could do in a Star Trek video game? If you said, “control the Enterprise during ship to ship combat,” then you’re pretty cool. And you totally get to control the Enterprise during ship-to-ship combat at one point about halfway through the game. You can log off Amazon and put your credit card away, however, because that section is by far the single-most disappointing section of any video game ever. All you really get to do is aim the guns, and even then, all you’re doing is moving a cursor over targets and pulling the trigger or painting key points on larger warships then launching a generic-looking volley of photon torpedoes and phaser fire at it. On top of that, it just looks bad with poorly rendered explosions, polygonal objects of indeterminate purpose, and underwhelming red streaks and pointy balls of light that represent phasers and photon torpedoes, respectively. The ratio of excitement to actual fun during that part of the game might have been the worst I’ve ever encountered in any video game. Usually those kinds of sections are the best parts of action games. In Star Trek: The Video Game, it’s pretty much the worst.
That one section really sums up Star Trek: The Video Game as a whole. It looks promising and it’s almost fun but it ends up being a drag that’s just depressing to play. It uses too many ideas taken from other games and squeezes them together awkwardly in the hope that something fun and interesting pops out, but the ideas it uses aren’t fleshed out enough to justify their inclusion.