Balance of Error.
You gotta hand it to Interplay, 14 Degrees East and Taldren - in many ways, the Starfleet Command experience gets the Star Trek brand of naval starship combat down cold. You may well wonder what the hell the phrase 'naval starship combat' means; basically, it means giving starships the kinetic respect they deserve. These aren't zippy little T.I.E. Fighters whining around with the skeletal nimbleness of gnats on crank; these are hulking, lumbering, big-ass capital starships that turn like cows on a cold morning.
Starfleet Command II, like its predecessor Starfleet Command, is a computer translation of the massively complicated 80s hex-board wargame Star Fleet Battles. At the time of this writing, it's still the only way to go for Trek-flavored ship combat despite its problems...which are considerable.
For you pointy-eared, tricorder-carrying geeks who know the drill, the Organians have returned from Roddenberry-knows-where, bringing their special brand of enforced galactic peace in the form of the Interstellar Concordium (ISC), a new race charged with promoting amity throughout the galaxy by beating any and all potential combatants into submission. Can't we all just get along? Also new to SFC2 is the Mirak "Don't Call Us Kzintis" Star League, brought in to counterbalance the Lyrans (hard-core SFB fans, don't get too happy - we're two games into the franchise now, and there still aren't any playable Tholians, an unforgiveable crime).
The threatening reappearance of the less-kind, less-gentle Organians and their extragalactic ISC muscle has thrown the galaxy into a state of total military chaos, conveniently like that occasioned by the General War in the first game. Only this time, the constantly-evolving online campaign universe promises to give the player a real sense of scheme and purpose. At least, that was the plan. We'll chew that turd in a few paragraphs, so we will.
Players take real-time, follow-cam control of individual starships in isolated tactical engagements or through the (very) loosely linked missions of sprawling campaign games. Visually, SFC2 is a stunner. Deep-space battles take place on a vast, scaleable, scrolling Einstenian space-grid with flaring nebulae, tumbling asteroids and screen-filling planets as dramatic backdrops. Explosions are among the most gratifying to be currently found in computer gaming. We're talking spectacular fusion fireballs and expanding rings of debris. Chunks of superstructure everywhere. You can almost see the little flying bodies, but of course in space no one can hear them scream. Maybe next sequel.
True to the game's Star Fleet Battles roots, SFC2 gives players almost intimidatingly detailed control of every last system and subsystem on board their ships. If you've seen it on the TV show or the movies, you can probably use it: Traditional weapons like phaser-beam bursts, photon torpedoes and disruptor salvos make up the bulk of the shots that are exchanged. There are also exotic alien weapons systems, like the Lyran Expanding Sphere Generator (which throws a shell of dangerous, crackling energy around the generating ship, damaging any object which comes too near), the vicious Hydran fusion beams (which can absolutely lacerate a ship at short range), and 'gatling' beam weapons which rapidly whiffle off numerous low-intensity beams (very handy for point-defense anti-missile purposes).
Ships are composed of more than just guns, however, and a plethora of subsystems encourages armchair starship captains to Kirk-worthy levels of resourcefulness. You can jam a superior starship's targeting computers with electronic countermeasures (or jam the jamming with counter-countermeasures!), catch and hold off incoming guided missiles with tractor beams (rather like a long-armed bully keeping a rabid smaller kid at bay by grabbing his face) or even dump nuclear space mines directly in the face of a hotly-pursuing ship. Feeling desperate? Then pack shuttlecraft with antimatter suicide bombs, jerry-rig scientific probes with impromptu warheads, or even push offending vessels into minefields, asteroids or black holes, if you're in that kind of mood.
SFC2 is engineered to bring out the crotch-kicking, eye-gouging dirty-fighter in PC gamers. Done properly, a starship duel turns into a kind of high-tech sailing-ship war, the players methodically maneuvering vessels for long, raking broadsides, devastating, all-guns-forward alpha strikes or repeated bouts of irritating, long-range sniper fire. If you were really into the old hex-board game and want the closest approximation to the experience (in which a single turn could last hours if shots were fired), you can crank the game-speed way down until it approaches a turn-based crawl. Aren't you glad you paid through the loaf-pincher for a high-end gaming machine?
As ships take damage, available energy for movement and weapons dwindles and the situation gets desperate indeed - two crippled ships, s-l-o-w-l-y circling each other like punch-drunk brawlers, each keeping the tattered remnants of their shields toward each other, each looking for that final cheap opening where one finger boink in the eye can be the straw that cracked the camel's antimatter core. Tactically, it's brilliant...tactically.
On the strategic level, alas, it's the same hastily-assembled crap we saw in the first SFC. The campaign structure simply falls apart. Theorectially, you're a budding young officer of one of the various races, starting off with a lowly patrol ship and working your way up to greater prestige and bigger, tougher ships through contiguous missions as you patrol a constantly-evolving game universe. Yet sadly, all the nice immersive touches that make the actual tactical, ship-to-ship action so fun are absent from the structure of the overarching 'campaign' game.
Players can and will wander aimlessly from sector to sector, choosing to 'accept' missions or not. Hello? It's called Starfleet Command? More often than not you'll be running into lamely-explained scenarios which replace the tutorial's audio dialogue (done by George Takei) with dashed-off silent text, repetitive goals (presented with exactly the same static-screen briefings) and arbitrary assignments.
I'd be remiss if I failed to mention SFC2's considerable bug-factor, which includes such scintillating gameplay jewels as desktop crashes, anomalous weapon-system failures, victory-condition misfires and audio glitches.
Speaking of which, here's some surreal fun: turn off the wonderful, soaring music, get a streaming-audio comedy routine from Live365 running in the background, then flip back to SFC2 and fight your space battle with George Carlin riffing about farts in the background. Highly illogical, but fun!
Still, the game is worth the attention of Trekkies, due in part to the fact that the multiplayer action quite simply kicks alien ass. When two players of relatively equal skill go at each other, each carefully bringing their ship's unique abilities to bear, each misering the last nanojoule of energy for best effect, the experience is unparalleled...and oddly, very faithful to the tense, armrest-gripping feel of a Star Trek duel.
Now, if only we had hotkeys for the pithy ship-to-ship Shakespeare references....