To boldly go. (Star Trek: 25th Anniversary computer game) (Software Review) (Cover Story) (Evaluation)
by Paul C. Schuytema
While it seems as if it's been around forever, the original "Star Trek" television series never came close to finishing its five-year mission. Now, 25 years after the first episodes on that cardboard and primary-color set, we have the chance to return to the helm of the Enterprise and experience the fourth year of exploration and wonder. But this time, instead of living vicariously through the actions of one James T. Kirk, we have the opportunity to be Kirk. Interplay Productions' Star Trek: 25th Anniversary gives us the chance to sit in that Naugahyde center chair, lean hard into the turns of a mighty starship, and experience seven episodes of the continuing voyages of the starship Enterprise.
Hero Without a Name
Interplay's Star Trek is lovingly faithful to the look and feel of the original television series. The game is played in episodes which have the same sense of closure as the original episodes. And we have the opportunity, as Kirk, to continue our work with our trusted colleagues at our side: Spock, Bones, Scotty, Chekov, Sulu, Uhura, and, of course, the nameless postadolescent security guard dressed in a red velour top.
Bruce Schlickbernd, Star Trek's producer, wanted a game with the episodic look and feel of the television series. Star Trek is a precious commodity, one that Paramount guards carefully, and Paramount spends a great deal of energy making sure that the myriad of Star Trek products remain true to the Star Trek mythos. Bruce's team would run its scripts and videotapes past Paramount for approval for each episode. There was never really any major conflict between the game's development and Paramount's Star Trek universe. Most of the corrections, Bruce told me, were details that needed to be ironed out. In one episode, Paramount felt that the shields of the Enterprise were weaker than they should be, and in another, a writer inadvertently referred to Bones by his given name, not his quintessential nickname.
Bruce told me that Paramount did set some limits as to what Interplay could not do. The Klingon home world was off-limits, for example, because a future "Next Generation" episode was going to be dealing with that. Also, the planet Vulcan was off-limits--but that still left Interplay with a lot of Federation real estate to explore.
When I asked Bruce what he considered the most enjoyable facet of working on the game, he told me that it was the characters. The original "Star Trek" was built on the foundation of the bridge crew, and it was their interaction as much as their individuality that made the fantasy seem real. For Bruce, getting the characters right was the major victory. After that, he said, "the episodes would almost write themselves."
The characters do seem alive in this game. Spock and Bones trade verbal barbs, and that no-name security guard always has some down-on-the-farm innocence to bring to light. Also, each episode ends with the familiar bridge banter and a cerebral observation by Kirk. The first episode of Interplay's Star Trek is Demon World, and the story is slightly reminiscent of the science-fiction movie classic Forbidden Planet. Kirk sums it all up by stating. "We all have demons of our own, Bones. The ones that we can't confront are often the hardest to deal with."
When I asked Bruce what his crew did to reply was immediate. "Oh, that's easy. Just watch 'Star Trek' endlessly." And what bits and pieces did they glean from their Trek-fests? For one thing, the color of the Enterprise's phasers and photon torpedoes changes. Bruce explained that the first episode to feature really heavy space combat was episode 11, The Balance of Terror. In that episode, the Enterprise used blue phasers and red torpedoes to battle a Romulan Bird of Prey. But by the 16th episode, the colors had been reversed.
Mudd in the Shadows
One of the interesting development snafus came near the end of the design process, according to Bruce. The character of Harry Mudd was well rendered and looked just like the Mudd in the television series. But Paramount insists that all detailed character art must be approved by the actor or actress who played the role, and the actor who originally played Mudd had passed away. There was no time to go through the lengthy channels of approval. The solution? The dialogue was tweaked a little, and the designers placed Mudd in shadows, obscuring the carefully rendered details of his character. But it's still Mudd--and he's a character who should be lurking in the shadows anyway.
It would be hard to classify the Star Trek game. It's not really a space-combat simulator, though skill in space combat plays a vital role. It's not a true role-playing game because you are bound to the conventions of the established characters (one of them being that if either Kirk, Bones, or Spock dies, the game is over). It's a sort of hybrid that is extremely playable, and what makes the game so playable is the episodic format. We focus on a very specific mission, and since all of the puzzles and challenges relate to the ultimate goal of the episode, it's very easy to stay edge-of-your-seat involved.
The game basically takes place on the bridge or with the actions of an away team featuring Kirk, Spock, and Bones (as well as the security officer--what was his name?). The bridge feels like a set right out of the television series, but with one major exception: Most of the blinking lights and bars of color actually mean something. Spock leans over his mysterious periscopelike scanner, and Uhura holds the receiver to her ear for better reception. We have control, through Sulu and Chekov, of shields, weapons, and navigation, and we can even order Sulu to "increase magnification," just as in the series. In the game, Scotty is on the bridge (he was there sometimes during the series), manning the engineering, furiously repairing damaged systems, bringing up emergency power, and chorting lovingly that Romulan ale will never beat a good Scotch.
One of the most entertaining aspects of the game is the ship-to-ship combat. In the original series, the battles were often a means to an end, but in Interplay's Star Trek, we have control of the helm. Kirk controls the phasers and photon torpedoes (though, ostensibly, through Chekov). We maneuver the ship, control the impulse engines, roll the Enterprise, and bark repair priorities to Scotty. The battles can get furious, and if Kirk isn't up to snuff, the Enterprise explodes in a tumbling ball of flames.
To prepare Kirk for the battles, every time the game begins, the Enterprise must duke it out in simulated combat with the Federation ship Republic. Do well, and the Republic's captain sends congratulations. Do poorly, and Kirk shouts, "It's only a simulation!"
When the away team beams planetside, we have the familiar array of equipment at our disposal: scientific tricorder, Bones's weird little medical wonder, communicator, and phaser (with stun and disintegrate settings). Through an ingenious icon-driven command system, Kirk can use any of the capabilities of his crew, as well as converse, manipulate objects, and pick up items.
While it's always important to remember the Federation's Prime Directive and to recognize that Kirk is a servant of Starfleet, it's nice to see that he still has a bit of the cowboy left in him. His banter can be as crass as we remember, and he slings his phaser more like Jesse James than a dignified Starfleet captain.
Back to the Future
The graphics in Interplay's Star Trek are superb. The colors are bright and overvibrant (just as in the television series), and the scientific gizmos (accelerators, synthesizers, and so forth) all look wonderfully mysterious and gadgety. When a foe stumbles back from a phaser blast, the animation is realistic and properly theatrical. Even the wounded seem to convalesce at that odd angle (up on one arm) that was so peculiar in the original series.
One of my favorite features of the Star Trek series (both the original and "Star Trek: The Next Generation") is the characters' serious attitude toward science. I don't mean real science, because most of the science in either series is hokum; but it's taken with a great deal of seriousness, as if it were real and true in their world. And Interplay's Star Trek maintains this tradition. It would have been easy to gloss over the litany of scientific terms that were so colorful in the series, but Interplay didn't. You can access medical databases to learn how to synthesize TLTDH gas, laughing gas for Romulans and Vulcans (their physiology is similar, remember?). You can use a cryptic and mysterious tool to repair a broken transporter, only after you jury-rig a "comb bit."
One of the hardest design tasks is to create new adventures in such a familiar universe. Paramount has made sure the universe is solid and consistent while allowing Interplay to be wonderfully creative in its scripting. These episodes are at once familiar and all new. Familiar because the fabric of the original "Star Trek" series remains intact, and all new because the challenges are fresh and exciting.
The game can be played in comfortable chunks, thanks to the episodic design, and you can save the game at any time. The entire game should take a player around sixty hours to complete, but there's no rush, since there's plenty to look at and interact with. Interplay designed the game for a Star Trek enthusiast, but not necessarily a Trekkie (though Bruce did admit to putting in a few extra goodies that will be apparent to Trekkies' eyes only).
Outside of Time
So what's the future of Star Trek? I'm sure that it will still be vibrant after another 25 years. Spectrum HoloByte is working on an interactive entertainment center based on "Star Trek: The Next Generation." There is Task Force's strategy board game, Star Fleet Battles, and, of course, you can find Star Trek letterhead at any Trekkie convention. But what about Star Trek for our personal computers? We can now experience Star Trek as a screen saver (available from Berkeley Systems) and hear the voice of Spock coming through our sound boards. Bruce told me that Interplay has just signed a contract with Paramount for a continuing series of Star Trek games based on the original series, and while he couldn't give me specifics, he told me that a new adventure game is just over the horizon.
Like the Republic serials and Hal Roach's Our Gang comedies, Star Trek has become lodged in our culture, to be enjoyed through the generations. It may still be with us when real science has surpassed the fictional science of the Starfleet world. The catch phrase for Star Trek is truly "Live long and prosper."