Boldly going where many have gone before...
350After three years in development, Paramount and Namco Bandai finally gave the UK games press a hands-on with Star Trek: The Video Game last week.The In Future room of London’s Science Museum was impressively kitted out with dozens of 360s, PS3s and PCs - all set up to play the forthcoming release in combinations of single player, co-op and 3D.
It was an event the organisers were taking seriously. Before we got a hands-on, Paramount’s Senior Vice President Brian Miller spoke for about an hour in front of a large screen on which the game was being live demoed.
It's fair to say many of the gathered games writers were hoping for the best but fearing the worst. And within minutes of taking to the stage, Miller cut to the heart of those anxieties. “I’m sure most of us have had a movie game and taken it home and said, ‘Wait a minute, what happened?’”
We have indeed. With the frankly insulting Aliens: Colonial Marines still fresh in our minds, it’s no surprise Paramount’s Senior Vice President felt obliged to acknowledge that all too often movie tie-ins fail to deliver.
But Paramount seem determined for this one to break the mould. Working with developer Digital Extremes, they have clearly gone to great lengths to remain faithful to the 2009 reboot of the Star Trek franchise.
In our hands-on session, we played an early section in which we were given the opportunity to wander the Enterprise and interact with her crew. The scripting stood out immediately. It felt completely in keeping with the tone of the film, and was helped immeasurably by the movie’s cast lending their voices to their digital counterparts. And although the graphics might not bowl anyone over, familiar environments are recreated in loving detail - not least the unrelentingly glary-white iBridge.
But perhaps the most telling demonstration of Paramount’s faith in the product is that the story is being treated as canonical, slotting in between the 2009 reboot and this year’s sequel.The action kicks off with the Vulcans striving to rebuild their shattered civilisation.Unfortunately, their run of spectacularly bad fortune continues when they're attacked by the Gorn, a race of lizard-people who have previously only featured in one (particularly hilarious) episode of Star Trek's original series.
But Miller was keen to stress the point that as faithful as he believes Star Trek: The Video Game is to the film, at its core it's a project grounded in its gameplay not its licence: “We wanted to make a great game. The fact that it happened to be Star Trek was a big bonus for us - but wanted to make a game that we wanted to play.”
According to Miller, Star Trek aims to be more than just a third person shooter. Built from the ground up as a two player co-operative experience, dual protagonists Kirk and Spock need to work together to solve puzzles and negotiate difficult environments.During the sections I saw and played, it was difficult not to see the gameplay in terms of its influences.The cover-based third person shooting action immediately put me in mind of Mass Effect (a comparison that Miller himself drew). In the demonstration the gunplay looked solid if linear, with agile player-characters - certainly more Commander Shepard than Marcus Fenix.
But the influences run deeper and broader than that: The tricorder is yet another incarnation of the Arkham games’ Detective Mode, Uncharted-esque platforming sections abound, and there was even a variation on that waveform-matching minigame we’ve all endured many times before. I could go on.
But it’s the asymmetry of the co-op that’s intended to set Star Trek apart from its peers. In one section we played, Kirk was required to use his tricorder to deactivate lasers that prevented Spock from platforming his way to safety. Okay - so it's no Portal 2, but there's clear potential.
There’s no question that Star Trek is meant for two players. In single player the AI was a mixed bag. As Kirk I found myself frequently running back to collect Spock and urge him to come with me, like a parent with a dawdling child. Also on occasion, events failed to trigger because my pointy-eared friend wasn’t quite standing where he should have been.
In addition to the AI difficulties, it’s worth mentioning that the authentic voice work isn’t quite matched by the graphics. On a couple of occasions the lip-syncing was horribly out of time, and many of Starfleet’s finest boasted both the stiff movements and dead-behind-the-eyes look of cheap 1980s action figures.
In the course of putting the game through its paces, I spent a bit of time with a pair of 3D glasses on my face. As someone who’s not a fan of 3D in any artificial form, all I can say is that the effect was somewhat more subtle than I’ve experienced elsewhere, and therefore more tolerable. Still an unwelcome distraction, however.
But look, there’s no doubt a lot of love for the source material has been poured into this game, and in the hour or so I played there were many encouraging signs. In the course of his presentation, Miller danced around some plot and gameplay spoilers that genuinely piqued my interest and sounded like a lot of fun.
In terms of the various issues we found, I’d hope that there’s still an opportunity for at least some the kinks to be ironed out before release - it really would make all the difference. In any case, for the writing and story alone Trekkies have every reason to be cautiously optimistic.Star Trek: The Video Game is scheduled for release on PC, PS3 and Xbox 360 on 23rd April 2013
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