Video Game Tie-In to New Movie More Dreck than ’Trek’

by Rhuaridh Marr

Metro Weekly

Friday May 17, 2013

Video Game Tie-In to New Movie More Dreck than ’Trek’

"Star Trek" is one of America's greatest exports. Revered by millions worldwide, the sci-fi pop-culture phenomenon has dazzled fans for 50 years -- and with good reason. From the original series with its automatic doors, turbo lifts and transporters, to the Next Generation, which gave us the concept of handheld computers long before Apple made them a commercial viability, "Star Trek" has inspired something within those who enjoy it.

The escapism, the idealism, the glimpses of technology beyond our reach, the vision of man as a pioneer in expanding the known universe -- millions of viewers have wished they too could boldly go where no man has gone before. It's why the concept of a "Star Trek" game is so perfect. To be able to create something that offers players the chance to step into the shoes of a Starfleet officer, to command a starship, to explore the galaxy and interact with new races is a level of interaction no book, film, or convention can offer.

"Star Trek," the game, is the latest in a long line of attempts to capture that dream, and, unfortunately, like so many games before it, it fails miserably. A bloated, buggy, badly-designed experience, "Star Trek" is shameful not just for its failure as a piece of "Trek" canon, but for its failure as a game.

At first glance, it seems to tick every box. Based in the universe of J.J. Abrams's new "Trek" films, with its alternate timeline, "Star Trek" finds itself situated between the first film and the latest, "Into Darkness," enjoying the rare privilege of being considered part of the official canon, given that the plot was developed in conjunction with the film's producers. As such, the narrative plays a heavy role in the game, and seems to offer fans reason enough to play just to explore further the alternate universe Abrams and company have crafted. Deeper character insight and additional dialogue and canon-padding knowledge? That's alone worth the price of admission for any serious "Trek" fan.

Aiding this are appearances by the main cast, with Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, Zoe Saldana, Karl Urban and others returning to play their respective parts. The level of comfort the actors have with each other has increased notably since the first film, and even in voice-recordings they sound like a seasoned crew and less like the fresh-faced newcomers they were back in 2009. Pine and Quinto turn in the strongest performances as Kirk and Spock respectively, with their constant back-and-forth likely to delight fans who were waiting for the relationship made famous by William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy's representations of the characters.

Simon Pegg should also be noted for his turn as Scotty, with the Brit providing much of the comic relief outside of Spock and Kirk's often playful bickering. Witty retorts, emotional speeches, reassurances of support, condemnations for ignoring advice -- they're all here, and the writing is one of the game's strongest points. The characters feel real as they navigate the game's worlds, commenting on environments, events, and one another.

It's matched by one of the most appropriate scores I've ever heard in a game. Rather than craft brand new music, the developers took Michael Giacchino, composer of the film's score, and handed him a 100-piece orchestra. The result? Every crashing symbol and dramatic violin sting feels as if it's lifted straight from the film, and every sequence as though it's playing to an audience of hundreds, with the player as the director. Running through the hallways of the Enterprise, the orchestra belting out an incredibly dramatic, bombastic rendition of the new theme, as phaser-fire bounces off walls, doors hiss open, boots clank on the ground and crewmen scream for help is the definition of immersion. Never before have I felt so much like I was playing a movie, just from the score.

Until, that is, I opened my eyes. Abrams's films are incredibly polished. Lens flare, shallow focus, a clean, glistening sheen over everything -- a visceral treat. "Star Trek" the game is the opposite. Yes, there is lens flare. Yes, the camera plays with depth-of-field. Yes, cutscenes are skillfully directed. The Enterprise is clean, clinical, with light bouncing from every surface. Standing on the bridge, watching the various screens dance as they throw information at their operators appears exactly as one would expect.

That is, of course, if one were expecting it to look as though it had been dipped in vaseline and then trampled on. To say "Star Trek"'s graphics are bad would be slightly cruel were this four years ago, and the game was released to tie-in with the franchise's rebooting. In 2013, though, they're bad. Really bad. Everything, and I mean everything, looks muddy. Characters, textures, environments, surfaces -- all look out of focus and lacking in resolution.

While main cast character models are pretty decent, with accurate scans of Quinto, Pine, et al, every other character is noticeably lacking in detail. Early on, one of the game's enemies grabs the player from a vent. The camera pans in close, but instead of reeling in fear at the alien, I was instead left both astounded and amused at the complete lack of texture on the character's skin. And this was in a close-up cutscene.

In-game, it's even worse. Standing on the surface of one planet, with its sun-drenched, desert-oasis landscape should be a visual treat -- instead, it's bland, dull, flat. The homeland of the game's enemy is awash in brown, beige and grey. It's deliberately desolate, but the lack of detail in every screen makes it tiring to play through the chapter. Interiors are a mixed bag. Starfleet bases offer the same crisp, clean look of the Enterprise, but again the muddy textures mar any appeal. Enemy bases and ships are repetitive, and follow the same flat color scheme that wear the player down as they work through them. Given the vast expanse of the universe, did the game's main enemies have to be the only ones to live on such a dreary, exhausting, drab planet?

Once you get over the environment, there are some pretty great setpieces to enjoy, with the designers clearly flexing their muscle and crafting several vast spaces in which to experience the action of the missions. Dense corridor networks, towering lobbies, laboratories, computer stations, engineering platforms, cargo bays -- the various places that the game's 10-hour story takes you are a delight to explore.

Well, they would be, were they not crammed full of bugs. Be it doors not opening, characters getting stuck in walls, enemies jumping through cover or across gaps, certain sections simply refusing to let your character through, checkpoints not updating, or, as happened on one occasion, Kirk's weapons and tricorder simply disappearing, leaving me defenseless in the middle of a battle, "Star Trek" is littered with game-breaking bugs. Many are annoying, such as the hit-or-miss nature of the game's platforming sections, liberally and pointlessly borrowed from the "Uncharted" franchise, or enemies detecting you as you sneak past a floor below them in a sealed vent.

Many are simply unforgivable -- enemy AI will ignore you as you walk straight towards them while shooting, NPCs will block doors and ladders, the secondary character -- either Kirk or Spock, depending on who the player chooses to be -- will often run off, leaving you stranded as you wait for them to join you to advance the game. These are all things that should be polished out with testing and further development, but "Star Trek" instead feels rushed, unfinished.

It isn't as if the time not spent on graphics or bug-removal was put into gameplay, either. "Star Trek" is slow, glitchy and often infuriating. It is, in essence, a third-person cover shooter. Right from the start, that's a risky move, as only a few games have successfully managed to master an easy cover system. "Gears of War" got it right first time, while "Uncharted" and "Mass Effect" both took two or three installments to find their groove.

"Star Trek," sadly, falls into the unsuccessful category. In theory, it should be simple -- run towards any object and hold Circle (on PS3; it will vary for Xbox and PC), and your character will automatically crouch or roll or jump behind it. Highlight another area of cover and hold the button to automatically move to it. Easy, right? In practice, however, press that button and any number of things may happen. You could possibly move to the cover you wanted, or, you could simply move round the corner of where you are. Or stand up. Or roll. Or start walking away. Or move to a completely different area. It's really anyone's guess, and too often I found myself being peppered with phaser fire as I accidentally removed myself from cover. Combine it with slow controls, and it makes for an unpleasant playing experience.

The guns themselves are varied, with the trusty phaser combining with a mixture of Starfleet and alien weapons, each with its own primary and secondary abilities. The weapons themselves aren't anything special, with most doing an adequate job of dispatching enemies, but the use of them brings another issue to the front.

If the main purpose of Starfleet officers, which the game constantly flashes on-screen during loading sequences, is to not use lethal force, then why is it so easy to kill enemies? I tried to play the game as I felt it should be, using the stun feature on my phaser before rushing in for a non-lethal takedown, but it became ridiculously laborious. Using stun exhausts the phaser's reactor in two shots, making for a painfully slow experience as you work through a crowded room of enemies all gleefully trying to use lethal force on you. After a while I just went mad and spent the rest of the game gunning down anyone who so much as raised a gun, but it then left me feeling as though I was playing a generic shooter, not "Star Trek." It's a jolting removal from what "Trek" fans will be accustomed to.

Outside of gunplay, there are a few gameplay items that do actually work. Tricorders are used to scan the local environment, hacking doors and security terminals, scanning people, plants and technology to gain information and offer up little nuggets of detail -- "Trek" nerds will love these, as I spent ages scouring each room to learn more about the different races, guns, structures and technologies being used in the game's universe. It's ripped straight from "Arkham Asylum"'s detective mode, but it feels appropriate in "Star Trek," as exploration is a key theme and the tricorder gives legitimate reason to explore each setting, seeking out fresh details.

Each item found also grants experience points which can be used to upgrade the tricorder's abilities, granting additional firepower or extra healing capabilities, for instance. That experience is gained by exploring and not by killing others somewhat redeems the gung-ho attitude of shooting sections. Aside from exploration, there is lots of hacking in "Star Trek." Doors, turrets, computers, fire extinguishers, lights, power grids -- you name it, you'll probably hack into it at some point over the course of the game. Each time you do you'll be faced with one of three minigames, each offered with no tutorial, and each proving, at first, to be a fun distraction. Unfortunately, they are used so often that any semblance of fun is soon eradicated, and they rapidly become a tiresome grind that pulls you from any action the main story creates.

One addition that actually enhances the game is multiplayer. As the game is primarily a two-person action adventure starring Spock and Kirk, the ability for two-player fun is included to allow for each player to control one half of the famous duo. It's a lot of fun playing with a friend, zapping enemies, solving puzzles and doing the two-person actions the game AI often struggles to complete in single-player. Of course, the same bugs, graphical atrocities and weak gameplay are all there -- except now you can mock them with a friend.

So it sounds great, looks bad, and plays poorly. What's left in "Star Trek?"

The story. At the end of the day, it's pretty good. It's standard "Star Trek" fare for the most part -- powerful enemy seeking to rule the galaxy, experiments gone wrong, political intrigue -- but it's compelling nonetheless. It creates some truly dramatic moments, such as space-diving down a Starbase as it explodes, or flying through crumbling canyons as enemies shoot at you. There's even an epic space battle between the Enterprise and an alien armada -- though even this can't escape the ruinous hand of the gameplay department, being transformed from what could have potentially been an incredible opportunity to captain the Enterprise in combat into an on-rails shooter that has zero excitement and suffers from the same low-detail graphics as the rest of the game.

And really, that's the main flaw of "Star Trek." It never lives up to the potential of the world that's been crafted for it. A powerful alien race should lead to incredible firefights, but they instead become laborious chores. Multiple worlds should lead to dense exploration as you learn more about the places you've entered, but you'll instead find yourself wishing you were back on the Enterprise. Epic set pieces are laid before you, offering up suitably dramatic moments, but are then ruined with bugs, control glitches and gameplay annoyances. It's compromise after missed opportunity after compromise. A game set in such a richly detailed universe, with the backstory, canon, and fan expectation should not be this mediocre, this generic. If it weren't a "Star Trek" game, and lacked the excellent cast, it could just be another sub-par alien shooter.

What really makes "Star Trek" such a bad game, however, is that it feels like it really could have been something great. If the developers had stripped it back, cut off the fat, buffed the graphics, ironed out the bugs, fixed the gameplay and removed the minigames, it could have been completely different. What if I could have actually controlled the Enterprise during the space battles? What if the sky-diving and space-walk sections hadn't had such terrible controls? What if I didn't have to engage in such repetitive gunplay? What if there was no stupid cover-based gameplay system? What if there were more exploration, more character development, more interaction with other races? What if, what if, what if?

I shouldn't be playing a game and wondering what it could have been. I should be playing a game and thinking ''This is as great as it can be.'' "Mass Effect" proved that space exploration and gunplay could be mixed with incredible storytelling, deep backstory and beautiful graphics. It did all that in 2007. Why don't we have it here?

"Star Trek" is a bitter disappointment, a shameful cash cow, hulking its bloated carcass onto the scene in time for the release of the movie that the game's lazy ending tries to segue into. It's a half-assed, annoying, unfair experiment in testing how far fans will go to get more Trek in their lives. Paramount need to give "Star Trek" to a studio who gives a damn about what they're doing, so that fan can finally realize their dreams of stepping into the shoes of a Starfleet officer. All this "Star Trek" game does is force players to step into a turd.

"Star Trek"


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