Since late last month, I've been playing with the Xbox 360 title Star Trek Legacy. The fact that it is not a great game should be no surprise. Despite some entertaining plot elements, the title's gameplay leaves a lot to be desired. What is confusing, and troubling, is that this is just the latest in a long line of disappointing Trek games. Looking back on the history of Star Trek gaming, games like Elite Force or A Final Unity stand out from a disturbingly large field of titles that over-promise and under-deliver on the well-loved Trek universe. Why is it so hard to make a good Trek game? Why do developers keep trying and failing? Why is there a Vulcan leading the Borg? Read on for consideration of each of these questions, and a review of Star Trek Legacy to boot.
- Title: Star Trek Legacy
- Publisher: Mad Doc Software
- Developer: Bethesda Softworks
- System: 360 (PC)
As so often happens with a Trek title the premise, at least, is compelling. Commanding a task force of up to four ships, you follow a fairly coherent plot from the "Enterprise" era all the way through to the time of Jean-Luc Picard and Benjamin Sisko. You can choose between a number of ship classes to include in your fleet, and gameplay consists of real-time ship-to-ship battles. The actors who portrayed the captains in the various eras make a return, offering their vocal talents and a feel of authenticity to the proceedings.
What sounds like a can't-miss formula, though, inevitably flies past the target at full impulse. Ship and fleet control is the most notable failure, and results in individual combat moments requiring more effort than feels right. I found fleet combat most frustrating, as it is so variable how your actions are interpreted. When you begin a mission, all four of your ships are taking orders from you at the same time. Selecting a enemy for combat (by hitting the right shoulder button and cycling through the available options) is intuitive and quick. When all four ships are following your orders, this results in a focused barrage that effectively neutralizes targets. The problem comes when ships begin 'thinking' on their own.
It was never clear to me what prompted this, though I know that giving individual ships orders via the overhead tactical display (available via the 'select' button) always 'broke up' the fleet's command. This is problematic, as the 2D overhead display is the best way to keep track of the action on the sometimes dauntingly large 3D space maps Legacy uses. Indeed, the z-axis is used in the game (unlike in the show), making it hard to keep track of enemy ships on occasion. These are challenges, though, to be overcome: the frustration sets in when order-less ships choose to sit dead in space and absorb phaser hits without retaliating. That's some extremely poor decision-making on the part of the AI, and can mean the difference between success and failure in a large and frantic naval battle.
Another, subtle frustration is the pathing your friendly ships use when circling a target. While sometimes ships do 'the right thing' and orbit their prey at an appropriate range, trying to keep weapons locked on the target at all times, that's not always a given. Often, ships locked onto a target attempt something I can best refer to as a 'strafing run', where they move directly at a target, allowing firing on the enemy for a brief period of time, before overshooting and swinging around for another pass. Overshot on targets can sometimes be quite some distance, resulting in a long delay between assaults on enemy ships. This style of attack is particularly frustrating when attacking immobile targets like space stations and asteroids, as AI-controlled ships tend to fly right into their prey and sort of bounce off. Given the finicky targeting you're allowed to use, this greatly reduces an AI-controlled ship's effectiveness against such a target. In a pitched battle, which is almost all of them, it just becomes frustrating to have to keep so many balls in the air.
The plot that strings these combat elements together is all the Trek you can stand, and more, crammed into a disappointingly short timespan. There is time travel, Klingons, Romulans, Borg, and one very weird Vulcan. The plot itself is explained in detail in a comic included as an 'extra' on the game's main menu. To give you a horrible taste, it mentions V'ger, from the first Star Trek movie, in connection with the Borg's origin. Looking back on the whole story from the last mission gives you an 'ohhh' moment, but it's not that great a payoff for the amount of time you spend in the dark. Just the same, overall the story is coherently told and entertainingly written. The dialogue written for the captains is especially entertaining; even the stuff written for Shatner (who, predictably, gets the most 'screen time') is enjoyable in a scenery-chewing kind of way. Getting to hear Avery Brooks intone new lines as Benjamin Sisko was especially enjoyable, and the role DS9 gets to play near the game's end allowed me to forgive a lot of smaller oversights.
Visually, Legacy is a competent 360 title. It's certainly not Gears-pretty, but the ships are all well modeled, and it's hard to make space look ugly nowadays. Ships and stations explode nicely, though larger objects tend to look a little odd when breaking apart. Audio effects use official FX from the show, and the score consists of forgettable Trekesque tracks that back the game's sometimes-tense moments adequately.
This leaves us with the question I posed above, though: Why is it so hard to make a good Star Trek game? It could be the difficulty of making licensed games satisfying to players outside of the 'fan' population ... but Star Wars titles like Knights of the Old Republic and Jedi Academy transcend fandom as truly great gaming experiences. Heck, even Spider-Man 2 is a better game than any Trek game I've played, and Spidey's history with gaming is a lot shorter than Star Trek's. Given the dialogue and narration-heavy storytelling that Star Trek uses, it is possible that the Trek universe just isn't a good fit for videogames? What does the lackluster performance of these latest Bethesda titles mean for future trek games? Star Trek Online, specifically, seems to have a Herculean task before it. How do you bring a license that's never seemed to be quite right for gaming to one of the most finicky of all genres, the MMOG?
What do you think? What would it take to make a great Trek game? Are there any Trek games that you think have really succeeded? What will Star Trek Online need to include in order to satisfy you?