Take this Prime Directive and shove it.
Great Roddenberry’s ghost, how things have changed: There was a time, not so long ago, when no publisher would have dared to take the kind of liberties from a license that have been taken with Star Trek: Conquest. If the Great Bird of the Galaxy hadn’t left orders to have himself cremated, he would be doing more RPMs in his grave than a high-performance Tipler Cylinder. And yet, there’s something fond in this oddball, flawed little game.
Star Trek: Conquest proposes a completely uncharacteristic, barely exposited, non-canon, no-holds-barred intragalactic eye-gouger of a war. It features the main-stage Powers of the Trek universe, where even the goodie-goodie Federation suddenly sinks to the level of a warmongering imperium. They cold-bloodedly send entire starship fleets to their pointless front-line deaths and gleefully sling world-killers at any remaining star systems that stand against them. Good times.
It’s a Mirror Universe wet dream, a large-scale conflict seemingly prosecuted by Section 31. It’s enough to give a ‘purist’ Trekker an aneurysm and a rabble-rousing Trekker something disturbingly close to a hard-on. I can easily see Star Trek: Conquest dividing not only Trek fans (I’ve already heard the word “abomination” used in reference to it more than once), but gamers, too.
At its strategic level, Conquest takes the form of a fleet admiral’s-eye board game, in which the Trek Superpowers - Klingons, Romulans, Cardassians, Dominion, Breen and, of course, Feds - have at each other, with a context that uses the canonical Star Trek source material as photon-fodder one minute and toilet paper the next. It makes no sense, and it gets worse the farther in you go. It might sound like I’m way out of hand, bashing the very premise of this apostate space-war, but I’m not. In fact, a sicko part of me rather enjoys it, if only to imagine the impassioned, nerdy arguments it’s sure to engender. it’s like a Penny Arcade strip waiting to happen.
The galactic map shows various iconic star systems and the easy-as-pi travel lanes connecting them. From this vantage point you’ll control the war, controlling up to three fleets of starships, each of which are assigned an admiral who give fleet bonuses in attack strength, defense capability, and movement. If this sounds like “Risk: The Star Fleet Edition”, well, you’re not terribly off the mark.
Conquest is not a character- or even story-driven game, and whatever your race allegiance, your admirals are basically utilitarian, nobody-cares excuses for stats. Don’t expect to hear celebrity voice-work or anything like that, ‘cause it ain’t gonna happen. You’re here to fight a war on a scale that dwarfs the notion of Personality.
On the galactic map - star-system configurations and race start-points do not change, by the way - individual systems can contain one of the following: Starbases, fleets, banks of defensive installations, facilities for scientific research, or facilities that generate war funds. At this point, this is so far off the Trek star-charts that it’s hardly worth arguing about the money-less Federation in the Next Generation. Besides, war games are just more fun when the budget doesn’t rear its ugly head every once in a while.
Aside from the noted, static positions of some sensors and Deep Space Nine - a nice touch, I guess, insofar as it can be captured and used - the only real distinguishing characteristic of any given system is how many credits it rakes in for the war effort.
By now, if you think it all sounds Trek-heretical at best, hold onto your inertia-dampened socks. There’s no diplomacy, no intra-system trade, no lofty negotiation, and none of that troublesome seek-out-new-life-and-new-civilizations happy-crappy here. The entire endeavor is stripped to its military-industrial bones: clog up the interstellar bottleneck-points with your fleets (gotta protect those industrial centers), rock the upgrades until you can start cranking off Genesis Devices at your enemy’s star systems on a regular basis - ah, the soothing, two-ply caress of the Prime Directive! - and don’t forget to keep throwing starships at pockets of resistance until they stop twitching.
System combat can be auto-resolved, or players can opt to go right in there and kick some ass themselves in an arcade-ish hands-on combat mode - taking direct control, maneuvering, issuing basic commands. In either case, the theory is that victory lies in a good mix of lighter, quicker ships and slower, heavier tanks - excuse me, dreadnaughts -but in the end, the practice seems to favor a sustained barrage of super-weapons, heavies, and mop-up fleets.
There are enough fundamental, if not simplistic, differences between the various races to give the game some variety. There are also nice touches in terms of their different interfaces, ambient channel-chatter, etc. But the single-player campaign is pretty much all there is. The skirmish mode simply translates to individual arcade-style battles, ripped away from any larger strategic context, and is therefore woefully thin.
There’s also no online, no multiplayer, no expansive Story Mode - not even the decency of a tutorial. It’s as if Conquest were “the only ship in the quadrant” - as if it was better to throw it out there than nothing at all. The graphics are solid but simple - board-game-like icons on the strategic scale, decent but no-frills in the arcade battles. While the orchestral music is par-for-the-Trek pleasant, the repetitive voice-clips in arcade battles are enough to make you want to break out the self-destruct codes.
And yet in a unassuming sub-space Stratego kind of way, Star Trek Conquest is ultimately playable and even a bit addicting. It’s the damnedest thing: The very same simple, rock-paper-photon torpedo interplay of the various races, the very same stripped-down struggle for the broad-strokes star systems that keep the title firmly down in the B-ware category also make it a kind of Romulan-Ale-and-pretzels pleasure to play. At least until you’ve rotated through a few races.
And quite honestly, part of the appeal - your Trek universe-view may vary - is how boldly and somewhat mindlessly Conquest flies in the face of all canonical Trekdom. It’s refreshing to finally have a Trek game that, just once, treats a territorial war as the ruthless, detached, amoral debacle it should be. This simple, admittedly-flawed, not-terribly-thought-out budget excursion into turn-based/arcade strategy is still closer to a worthy Star Trek endeavor than the much-more-hyped and faithful Encounters ever was. At the end of the day, some of us still want to play a functioning game.
And as long as it’s my review, I’ve gotta cram one more vent in here while the venting’s good. Why do so many developers/publishers insist on continuing to limit the bulk of their Trek games to the ‘Next Generation’ era, ignoring the ‘classic’ and so-called ‘movie-era’ Star Trek? Enough already with the soap-dish ship designs, twinkle-toes diplomats, bleeding-heart ship’s ‘counselors’, endless politically-correct musings, and blah unisex jumpers. Let’s make a concerted, industry-wide effort to roll back the chronometer and Kirk things up a notch! Remember when ‘upper thigh’ was an official part of every pretty young Starfleet yeoman’s uniform-palette?
Anyway, yes, Star Trek Conquest punches gatling-phaser holes in purist Trekdom all over the place, but it still works on its own humble, low-budget, strategy board-game level. Space-warts and all.