For the last several years, PC games based on the Star Trek franchise have changed from a mostly negative experience to something much more positive and enjoyable. The reasons for the changes are numerous for the most part, but the end result is that fans of Star Trek phenomena have been treated to some of the best PC gaming to be had in years. One of the games that helped propel this change for Trek based titles was StarFleet Command, released several years ago. A Starship combat simulator loosely based on the popular RPG/Strategy board game StarFleet Battles from the late 70's, StarFleet Command allowed players to assume the role of a Federation StarFleet Officer during the Original Series timeline of Captain Kirk and his famous shipmates aboard the U.S.S. Enterprise. The initial game proved to be a success, spawning several sequels, including StarFleet Command II and the Orion Pirates add-on pack. The creators of the original game have warped into the future of Star Trek, opening up brand new avenues of gaming for PC owners with the third installment of the series, entitled StarFleet Command III. The jump from the 23rd Century to the 24th allows for some interesting changes to the overall feel of the game, although most of the experience is reminiscent of the two preceding titles. StarFleet Command III isn't necessarily a rehash of an old school game, however, and does contain many new elements to its design structure and gameplay that should warrant attention from fans of the original releases.
Changing the theme of the game, StarFleet Command III finds itself set in the timeline of Star Trek: The Next Generation, some 75 years after the voyages of Captain Kirk and the rest of the original crew of the Enterprise (where the background stories and gameplay of the previous editions of SFC were set in). Players now have the challenges of the 24th Century before them, with different ships, weapons, scenarios, as well as whole new Empires to compete with in order to control the galaxy. Some of the familiar faces like the Federation, Romulans, and the Klingons make a return to the gaming arena of SFCIII, joined by some new races to the fray: these include the Borg, the Cardassians, as well as the Ferengi.
Although the look and the feel of the game may have changed slightly, the core of this latest SFC title is still a starship simulator, allowing players to take part in large-scale, real-time ship-to-ship combat a la Trek fashion. Solo players can enter the fray via one of the three main single player campaigns, or one of the four 'conquest' games. The campaign styled games allow players to take part in an in-depth storyline with specific goals and objectives, portraying either a Klingon Commander, StarFleet Captain, or a Romulan Agent; the 'conquest' games play out within a free-for-all type atmosphere, without any structured events, goals, or time constraints, save the advancement of your particular chosen Empire. The other real difference between the two single players games is the addition of The Borg as a playable Empire (without the storyline, of course).
At the start of either single player version of the game, players take control of the least powerful starship within their particular Empire's fleet. As they progress in the game and successfully complete the various missions and tasks set out before them, prestige points are awarded (the more difficult the mission, the more points are awarded). These points can be traded in for upgrades to the ships, including more accurate and powerful armaments, more efficient armor, faster engines, etc. Each Empire found within StarFleet Command III contains at least 6 ship classes, including a Frigate, Destroyer, Light Cruiser, Heavy Cruiser, Battlecruiser, and a Battleship. Special variations of certain vessel design classes can also be found within specific Empire's, including the Federation 'Dreadnought' Class, a supped up Heavy Battlecruiser better known to fans as the Galaxy Class Starship. Each of the over 25 vessels found within the game can be completely customized to fit the needs of the individual player: only the ship's class and originating Empire's technology dictates any limitations, such as armament types, upgradeable component space, speed limits, etc.
Each campaign game found in SFCIII revolves around its own in-depth storyline, engaging the player in over 45 missions with specific goals and objectives, as well as a many random encounters and scenarios. Each Empire's campaign has its own viewpoint on the overall storyline within the game's domain, mixing up Role-Play, intrigue, and mystery as the players make their way towards the end of the game. Though combat makes up the majority of the gameplay found within StarFleet Command III (pitting players against aggressors in the various Empires found in the game, as well as some within their own sphere of influence), other types of Star Trek inspired missions can also be found, including system exploration, colonization, cargo runs, spying, etc. We were quite surprised to see the diversity in the missions that became available between the different Empire's as the game progressed: where each empire did have a number of similar mission styles and adventures, they also contained their own unique Empire themed missions that stayed true to either the Klingon, Federation, or Romulan canon.
The control systems for the game are pretty much similar to those found in the previous StarFleet releases. The game is played on a 2D field with a 3D perspective, allowing players to change the angle between the Follow, Chase, Overhead, and Enemy Follow Cameras. Utilizing both keyboard commands and on-screen mouse clicks, players can control the various shipboard functions ranging from Navigation, Tactical, Engineering, and even the Helm. Everything is simplistic and streamlined on SFCIII and planted directly in front of your eyes via the on-screen interface, making such systems as targeting, systems repair, warp speed, and power allocations easy to find and operate. Pretty much the only problem we kept running into with any of the in-game control aspects came from the lack of a decent keyboard map diagram: we'd always end up striking an errant key by mistake, throwing our camera view off or engaging warp by accident, and then not knowing how to rectify the situation without pausing the game and having to thumb through the game's manual repeatedly. A simplistic two-page mapping key foldout would have been extremely useful for this particular title.
Beyond the combat and Trek styled scenarios that could be found in the game, several other features of StarFleet Command III where also interesting. For example, each ship found in the title has a certain number of shuttlecraft that can be used for support purposes, such as attack, defense, and even hit and run type sniping: a definite boost when it comes to combat tactics. Also, combat teams made up of Marines could also be used throughout the game, allowing players to board enemy craft, planets, and starbases in order to destroy key ship systems (such as power sources, weapons mountings, etc.) in hit and run type tactics, or to overrun the opponents own security systems in order to commandeer the enemy vessel or base. On more than one occasion after finding ourselves seriously outgunned during a critical mission, we were actually able to change the odds in our favor by quickly taking down the shields of several enemy ships, beaming over Marines en masse, and using the enemies' own weapons against them in the battle.
Another interesting feature of the game came in the form of the sound effects and voiceover work, not to mention the incredible visual designs and other in-game aesthetics. The designers at Taldren went far beyond the norm in making this latest StarFleet Command product as authentic and true to its Star Trek background as possible. Every ship found in the game (save for a couple of Romulan and Borg ships) is incredibly detailed and accurately reflects its counterpart from the post-Original series programs and movies, including Star Trek: The Next Generation, Deep Space Nine, and Voyager. The texturing and modeling of all of the ships and objects found in the game are incredible to view and extremely realistic in design. As for the sound effects, those too are on par with the game's graphics design in the terms of Trek authenticity. Every sound effect, from the launching of the Federation Quantum torpedoes, the Klingon cloaking device effect, to the Borg beam-cutter weapon seems as if it was taken directly from the Star Trek audio archives. Adding to this, the game's designers where even able to recruit Trek actor alumni to perform voiceovers for StarFleet Command III: included in the game's roster are Patrick Stewart (portraying Captain Picard, of course), as well as Brock Peters and Greg Eagles (who both portrayed Klingons in ST:TNG as well as ST:DS9).
Though the positive aspects of SFCIII were plenty, the game was far from perfect. For example, although a hefty amount of specialty weapons were available for each Empire (like the Tachyon Pulse and the Polaron Torpedo for the Klingons) they mostly seemed rather useless, and a total waste of Prestige points. More often than not, 'normal' weapons, like the typical Primary Phaser/Disrupter systems or the standard Photon Torpedo set-up worked much more efficiently in combat and had faster recharge rates. Certain ships in specific Empires weren't even worth the time or points upgrading at all, especially if one was close enough in points to purchase the next class of vessel within the fleet, which would usually provide more upgrade space and overall better weapons and support systems.
Another useless aspect we ran across with the game came in the form of the new 'Officer RPG' recruitment system, which apparently wasn't available in previous editions of the StarFleet Command gaming family. Six different officers serve aboard every vessel found in the game, and in every empire. These positions include Tactical, Helm, Security, Ops, Engineer, and Doctor. Every 'character' has its own skill level, allowing them to perform their jobs at a certain level, depending on their experience. For example, a highly trained Tactical officer has a better chance of targeting an enemy vessel during combat, causing less misfires. An equally trained Helm officer can perform several difficult ship maneuvers that an under trained officer cannot, including the highly useful high-speed turn. As a player gains experience during missions, so does his Officers, increasing their skill level. We found that most of the Officers in the game raised their skill effectiveness in their specific department rather quickly, usually within four or five missions. We're not talking about the extremely difficult missions here; even the mundane planet scan scenarios were enough to raise your teams level quickly. With that in mind, it just seemed pointless to recruit expensive officers to your fold, when your own start-up crew could attain the exact same levels in a brief amount of time. Really the only time that this function came in handy was when an officer was killed during combat, which almost never happened during any of the three major campaigns that we played.
From the negative back to the positive, it's time to look at the multiplayer portion of the game. Though nothing completely outstanding, the gameplay in the 'Dynaverse' was extremely entertaining to engage in. In this portion of the game, players work together with other members of their chosen Empire in order to conquer the galaxy and destroy the opposing sides of the conflict. Where capturing territory or 'hexes' was a secondary objective in the single player game, the prime objective of the Dynaverse is to do just that. Claiming and controlling territory allows teams to build more bases and use planets as resources for the games' economy system. Simply put, the more hexes your Empire controls, the higher your economy rating is; the higher your economy rating is, the more bases you can buy, not to mention the better quality and class ships you can build/buy. Players travel the game map in fleets, allowing more than one ship into any given conflict which in turn increases the odds of winning a battle and controlling the disputed territory. One player controls the fleet direction and battle scenario, with up to two other players joining in said fleet operations as support units. Once an Empire's total economic strength reaches a certain level, the game is won, forcing the Dynaverse to reset the server and start the whole thing again from scratch. Logging onto the Dynaverse was relatively easy to do with a quick form of registration, and there always seems to be a gaggle of players on at most peak gaming time, ready to battle it out with each other or the game's AI opponents. Again, the non-stop action was a lot of fun to experience, and the gameplay against a real-life foe was a great change from the single player portion of the game.
Once again, the developers of the StarFleet
Command series of games have scored a positive hit with their latest sequel.
Although the gameplay of StarFleet Command III is roughly the same as previous
releases, the change of identity from the original Star Trek series to its
modern day brethren was an excellent way to breathe new life into an aging game.
The graphics were decent, the storyline well written and along the lines of Star
Trek, and the starship action was non-stop. Simulation gamers looking for
another good Star Trek title to add to their collection will definitely find
StarFleet Command III to their liking even if the overall experience isn't as
challenging as one would like.