Got a little Captain in you?
“Dear U.S.S. Enterprise-A,
I would like to apologize for my performance at Sherman’s Planet. I did not mean to launch my photon torpedoes directly into your saucer section on multiple occasions. We were all flying around, and I was mashing the trigger button without thinking. I also realize that flying directly into the nearby moon and totaling my ship was less than impressive.”
When your ship is destroyed in Star Trek: Tactical Assault, and I went through plenty of ships, the game over screen is a letter of condolence to the family of your main character Captain Reynolds. It’s a cute gag and a telling sign - a lot of people are bashing this game on accusations of slow gameplay, but I think Tactical Assault is faithful to Star Trek with a bit of much-needed heart.
[image1]Star Trek: Tactical Assault is a collection of intimate space battles set in the classic Kirk era. Like the recent Star Trek: Encounters, the core gameplay revolves around knocking out sections of the enemy shields and then shooting bare hulls into space dust; a tight chase camera and more deliberate handling makes Tactical Assault an entirely different experience than its PS2 cousin.
Story-driven objectives split each level into multiple parts; meet a ship at one planet for a cargo drop, for example, then warp over to the neighboring galaxy for some combat. New leads are uncovered by checking the scanners and hailing other ships - call it mundane, but these streamlined moments help the game feel like a live episode.
Tactical Assault’s gameplay resembles more of a flight simulation game, moving to the rhythm of your constant weapons fire. The warfare occasionally takes a back seat to some interesting decision points: sometimes you’re offered an optional combat goal, other times you have a chance to choose a side to fight for. The game allows players to take a diplomatic, sneaky or cautious approach, with a few chances for betrayal - pretty cool. You can jump in with guns blazing, but there are some pretty sweet reasons to sweep a new area with scans and hails.
The levels squeeze every bit of variety out of the gameplay, starting with fifteen Starfleet missions and continuing into an unlockable Klingon campaign. You get a new ship every few missions, with better shields and a new weapon layout; you’ll take on up to three opponents at once, occasionally working with competent computer allies. Between missions, players can upgrade their ship performance by earning bonus points. Whether you feel the phasers should fire more often or do more damage per hit, the upgrade system does a good job of offering customized gameplay.
Expect a lot of game over screens, however, because Tactical Assault has some bite. I’m getting whipped by the Klingon tutorial stage. Even though you regain some shield strength after every warp jump, sometimes the levels are balanced so your ship can just barely get through alive. The combat does wear a little thin as you try to complete a mission for the umpteenth time.
Defeat sends you back to the mission briefing screen, a constant reminder that Tactical Assault could use some checkpoints in between warps. The hails and scans are cute the first time, not so much the fifth. You can’t grind up your stats on earlier stages until the whole campaign is finished, so be prepared to slug it out.
[image2]An original cast of characters bring personality and humor to the game. Officers chime in with the old cardboard Star Trek dialogue, ranging from the alarmingly nerdy (“purging the engines IS fun”) to over the top nerdy (your Klingon campaign starts, “We will bathe in the blood of our enemies!”). I greatly appreciated this approach, especially after playing the character-less Star Trek: Encounters a few weeks ago; the writing is a much bigger draw than the sparse graphics or the satisfactory musical score.
The most exciting visual in the game is the battle damage on the ships, it’s definitely cool (and appropriately worrying) to watch your last engine fly off your hull. Sure the ship models look fine, and the rendered cinemas look pretty good for the DS, but the in-game graphics are empty. At least Encounters had some vibrant space clouds; Tactical Assault is set in the most empty of space, with only a few giant space rocks. The multiplayer maps are basically every variation of asteroid, planet and dead space possible, though you can spice things up by unlocking bonus alien ships from the single-player missions.
The camera could use a little help; my many shipwrecks happened when the camera was pointed at a target behind me. You’ll want to mentally map out the area as soon as you start a fight and keep an eye out for landmarks. Otherwise the game is visually clear, and players can exclusively use the stylus if they want the experience of operating a Star Trek ship from the signature LCARS touch-screen interface.
There’s plenty of game happening in Tactical Assault, comfortably framed in adequate writing and a fair look and feel - I'm going to call this one good for the DS, call it a day, and start scheming up ways to recover my Starfleet pilot’s license.