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Some time ago I made it my business to learn everything that I can about the video game industry. In the intervening time, I've been caught with my nose in many a magazine or web site. If it's happening, I've probably heard about it. One of the consequences of this is that very little surprises me anymore. Starfleet Command (SFC) was a surprise. I didn't expect much, what I got was the best Star Trek title I have ever seen, and quite possibly one of the strongest candidates for game of the year that I have been seen yet.
Reviewed by the jaded critic
In the mists of history, some unknown group of Star Trek devotees got together and created a strategy board game called Star Fleet Battles. The purpose was to give players a chance to participate in large spaceship battles, ala Star Trek. Star Fleet Battles very quickly earned a loyal following, and generated sets of rule books thick enough to squash many a spider with complete ease. SFC is Interplay's attempt to bring Star Fleet Battles to the PC, and in large part they've succeeded. This means 2 things. First, though this game is real-time strategy, it is virtually nothing like any form of Warcraft or Command & Conquer that you've seen before. Second, this game has a level of depth to it which I have not seen in months. Here's a simple test. If you know what the difference is in-between a freighter and a q-ship, you ought to be able to dive right in and start playing right away. If you don't, keep the reference materials handy, you're going to need them.
SFC contains six separate Star Trek species to choose from: the Federation, the Klingons, the Romulans, the Gorn, the Hydrans, and the Lyrans. Select your species, and you will be given a commission and a ship (albeit a small one). From this point on gameplay consists of a series of missions as you wander the galaxy. The missions are individual battles. (Can't we all just get along?) Complete each mission, and you are awarded prestige. You can then use your prestige to, earn promotions, get new ships, request new officers, or requisition supplies and ammunition. As your prestige increases, you are given more difficult missions, and so the loop pretty much continues.
SFC's graphics aren't top of the line, but they certainly aren't hard to look at. Space is vast and expansive, and contains all manner of objects. Asteroids, nebulas, and planets are all rendered beautifully. The ships themselves look very much like the Star Fleet battles miniatures that they were more than likely modeled after, and is always a pleasure to watch them swooping back and forth pitching chemical and mechanical death at each other. In large part, Starfleet Command sounds as good as it looks. I knew I was in for a treat when the game opened, hit me with the paramount logo, and treated me to the enterprise running away from three klingon cruisers in surround sound. Most all the Star Trek effects from the movies are reproduced to exceptional detail. Frankly, one couldn't ask for a whole lot more.
However, SFC's biggest asset is easily its addictive, immersive gameplay. Every mission you will ever do, success or failure, could probably be accomplished a thousand different ways. SFC has an amazing tendency to leave you thinking, "well, perhaps if I did that last one just a little differently?" A confrontation between the same 2 ships can conceivably play out a hundred different ways. Additionally, most of the species have an "elite corps" that will begin to notice your rising military star. Accept their offer to join, and you may well find yourself getting sucked into a completely separate chain of events.
SFC is not without disadvantages. There are some stability issues at work. Crashes and Lockups do happen from time to time. They happen too often to be completely forgiven, but not often enough to detract seriously from the game. Presently, Interplay does have a beta patch available, but it is still in the testing phases, and not completely reliable.
SFC is not for the easily deterred. SFC is heavily rooted in Star Fleet Battles, and Star Fleet Battles is an enormous, complex game. Consequently, SFC will present the casual gamer with a mammoth learning curve. (This isn't your parents' Warcraft.) I had the benefit of advice from an "old school" Star Fleet Battles player, and it still took me quite a while to get used to the flow of the game. SFC does have some interactive tutorials that cover the basics, and that's a good start, but considering the game's depth, I think more is called for. Interplay would be well suited to create downloadable missions, tailored for the gamer with no star fleet battles experience. There are those among us who do not know what the difference is between a freighter and a q-ship, or why my photons won't fire at seemingly arbitrary times. Software companies have never quite mastered the fact that it is a rare gamer who completely reads the instruction book. (Particularly when the instructions consist of years of old Star Fleet Battles material.)
With that behind us, the big picture remains constant. SFC is a beautifully addictive mix of fast paced action and strategic depth. In a season that's chock full of endless sequels, re-releases and expansion packs, it is amazingly refreshing to find a title as deep and unconventional as Starfleet Command. Hats off to you Interplay, this is one of the best offerings of '99 and the best Trek title I've seen yet.
<< Rating: 95 >>
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