I'm giving her all she's got, Captain!
As a patient fisherman of the digital river that flows through the GR compound, I commonly catch the bottom feeders of the gaming industry. Women's combat boots, broken action figures, and stolen goods perpetually pollute these gaming waters, making it a fine day indeed when a big, strong fish with a full compliment of phaser banks and photon torpedoes lands on my hook.
Totally Games' success in making outstanding space-shooters set in elusive pop-cultural universes distinguishes them from all those developers who kidnap heroes and force them into dubious platform games and adventure titles. Activision was right to hire these guys, and as a result their new Star Trek Bridge Commander is, at its warp core, a very cool game. But like any classic warp core, this one is often breached by technical difficulties.
Bridge Commander starts you off in the first officer's chair on a Galaxy class vessel under Captain Wright. The Captain is introduced as a soft-spoken, humble leader with ideals of exploration and peace after the violence of the Dominion Wars. Then he gets blown up by an exploding star, and you take command.
I don't want to make any assumptions about your character, but I pilot starships with the bold plan of reducing everything I come across to interstellar dust. Clearly, the folks at Totally Games knew this about me, because they stacked epic battle on top of epic battle, and then covered it in epic battle gravy.
The gameplay can be divided into two categories: going places and killing things. The going places aspect involves taking orders from Admiral Liu (who's pretty stern and officious for someone whose lips are out of sync with her speech), and then giving orders to your crew.
Each crewmember represents an element of the starship (tactical, scanners, navigation). By simply clicking on a crewmember, you access a menu that contains a list of functions. For example, clicking on your First Officer brings up a menu that allows you to put the ship on Red, Yellow, or Green Alert, receive a damage report, and ask for a reminder of the mission objectives. This interface is extremely intuitive and accessible, and puts all the basic functions of a starship at your fingertips.
The first couple of missions are comprised of tutorial material and serve to familiarize you with your crew and their functions. Unfortunately, there's plenty the tutorial leaves out - especially in regards to combat - which you'll have to figure out on your own. The rest of the missions are totally linear and ultimately end in you destroying everything in sight.
Once you become familiar with your ship, you're ready to go places and kick ass. Usually a mission involves about three minutes of travel and speech, and then juicy combat. Unfortunately, if you wind up getting your ass kicked, you have to start the mission over, as saving is automatic and takes place between missions.
Two aspects of Bridge Commander make this auto-saving feature brutal. The first is the aforementioned light tutorial, which is a little sparse in its description of how to damage subsystems. In one level you've got to disable a Ferengi Marauder before it goes into warp. You don't have much time to act, and no matter how much damage you cause, if you don't wipe out its warp drives it's game over. By the time I was able to successfully disable the little sucker I could repeat the preceding dialogue line for line.
The other aspect of Bridge Commander that puts an aggravating edge on the auto-save feature is the fact that the game crashes all the time, especially on High graphical settings. I played on two computers - one at GR (a PIII 733, fully loaded) and the other at home (a PIII 500 with some RAM and a Geforce 2). It crashed repeatedly on both.
On the GR comp the game committed more illegal operations than the CIA, and on my computer it just flat out crashed the system. While the problem can be partially solved by lowering the graphical quality, 1) Who wants to do that? and 2) No matter how low the settings, if you play this game long enough (my comp maxes out at about an hour on medium settings), it will crash.
However, once you get past all the empty dialogue and mission objectives, and assuming your computer isn't deep-sixed by the graphical demands, you get to fight. In mission mode you pilot a Galaxy class vessel and a Sovereign, which, according to this game, are two of the baddest ships in the Star Trek Universe. While you can engage other enemies from the bridge perspective and even let your tactical officer handle the battle, you should never, ever want to.
By pressing the space bar you switch to the Tactical View mode. In this mode the camera is behind and above the ship, and you are in complete control of movement, aiming, firing, and all other aspects of combat. The ship's thrust is controlled by adjusting the impulse engines with the 1-9 keys, while the A,W,S and D keys are used to maneuver. Aiming and firing are in the domain of the mouse.
Combat in Bridge Commander is deep and engaging. Basically you have to try to take hits with your strongest shields while jockeying for a shot at the enemy's weakest shields. Federation ships have phaser banks which slowly diminish upon being fired, so another task is to constantly have a fresh bank of phasers firing on your target.
Once you've depleted an enemy's shields sufficiently, you'll begin damaging subsystems. Through a simple targeting interface, you can lock onto any subsystem or even systems within that subsystem. Generally though, with total annihilation the goal, you'll want to pick a piece of a ship (usually the underbelly) and hammer away until the hull collapses.
A great way to familiarize yourself with the strengths and weaknesses of the other ships is to fight Quick Battles. Pick a battlefield, the friendly and enemy ships you want on it, your ship, and then you fight until everyone on one side is dead. However, due to certain problems in the crashing-all-the-time sector, I recommend one on one or two on one showdowns.
In Quick Battle (and Multiplayer mode), you can choose from several famous Star Trek ships like the Klingon Bird of Prey and the Cardassian Galor-class starship. All of the ships have weapons configurations unique to their race, and most are a pleasure to play with. However, nothing comes close to the Bird of Prey, which is really the best experience Bridge Commander has to offer. It's a great example of how perfectly the Star Trek universe translates into a video game, with its brutal cannons, great speed and diabolical cloaking device. Buy' ngop!
The multiplayer is somewhat bland, but if you find good pings you can have some decent fun. Just hope the game doesn't crash before you have a chance to kill anyone.
Graphically, Bridge Commander pleases with great ship models, appropriate lighting effects for the weapons, and impressive, stellar backgrounds. Inside the ship things get pretty shaky with awful lip-synching, mediocre character models, and weak textures, but as the bulk of the action takes place outside, it's not a big deal.
The game sounds fantastic, with Brent Spiner and Patrick Stewart supplying the voices of Data and Captain Picard. The sound effects are all perfect, and the score is so good it lingers in your mind hours after you stop playing the game.
Even though Star Trek Bridge Commander has some wicked crashing issues and the single player is a little too linear, there's a very cool game in here. If you have the patience and a great rig, give it a shot. Peace and long life, Totally Games.