Bad Games Played Badly Report: Star Trek

I started watching Star Trek when I was seven years old. The year was 1992. I didn’t know it at the time–or if I did, I didn’t understand the significance–but Gene Roddenberry had died just a year before. Star Trek: The Next Generation was winding down its heyday, Deep Space Nine was months away. I was immediately hooked. I devoured new episodes, re-reruns, previous films, and VHS tapes that I could rent with a couple of episodes from the original series. Back then, it was all great. I even read the licensed books. God help me, I read the licensed books.

I know exactly when I stopped caring about Star Trek. I can put a year on it–1998–because that the year Star Trek Insurrection came out Voyager fully committed to its bizarre obsession with its new character, Seven of Nine. Those were my breaking points. I kept watching Deep Space Nine through its end in 1999, but after that I was done with the franchise.

My instinct is to say that I grew out of Star Trek, but I don’t think that’s fair. That instinct is based on a positively inexplicable embarrassment I still have about being a former trekkie. It’s hard for me to admit how much I liked Star Trek, and especially that I’d probably still like it if I went back and revisited the right parts.

NervePinchI say that this embarrassment is inexplicable because I’ve gleefully admitted to enjoying far worse things than Star Trek.  My top 10 games of 2014 included Drakengard 3. I’ll defend Resident Evil 6.  I genuinely think Final Fantasy VIII is a meaningful commentary on Japanese RPGs at the time. I just wrote the phrase “meaningful commentary on Japanese RPGS.” All of this should be way more embarrassing than Star Trek, but for whatever reason Star Trek is stuck with some internal stigma.

It’s a shame because up until recently, Star Trek as a franchise has been full of interesting and progressive ideas. It presents a future that is sincerely utopian, rather than the depressing dystopias of modern science fiction. Violence, though sometimes necessary to keep the show entertaining, is always a last resort. Science and diplomacy are always better solutions. The heroes–Picard, Sisko, Janeway and even Kirk–aren’t soldiers. They are explorers and leaders.

Objectively, old Star Trek is something I should want to see more of in the media. But here’s the thing: I wouldn’t watch it and, apparently, I’m hesitant to admit that I ever watched it. Unlike Resident Evil 6, there is no couching my appreciation for the series in a greater irony. To like Star Trek, you have to buy into the idea that it is genuinely presenting the better angels of humanity. The sincerity of Star Trek is what makes it special, but it is also why it barely made it into the mainstream.

Simon Pegg should really avoid being made out of polygons.

Simon Pegg should really avoid being made out of polygons.

I’m not the only one who realizes this, as evidenced by the dark-and-gritty Star Trek reboot that began in 2009, which was instantly more popular and profitable than any Star Trek movie that came before. The new Star Trek revisited the characters of the original series but in a new timeline that lacked the relentless optimism present in its predecessors.

As someone who abandoned Star Trek, I can’t begrudge Hollywood for doing the same. And the first reboot movie was fine. Despite turning Star Trek into an action franchise, it didn’t stray too far from earlier attempts to capture the same audience. Jokes about lens flare aside, was the Star Trek reboot that much more of a departure from the spirit of the series than First Contact or, god forbid, Nemesis?  However, all subtlety was thrown out the window with Into Darkness and, especially, its movie tie-in game, Star Trek: The Game.

turbolift

Star Trek is a direct sequel to the 2009 reboot set before Into Darkness.  The plot deals with the destruction of Vulcan at the end of the reboot and Federation’s attempts to re-settle the survivors. In an attempt to terraform a new planet, the Vulcans open up a rift to another galaxy and stumble upon the Gorn, a massive empire of colonial lizard people who decide they want to add the milky way to their list of conquests. The Gorn are capable of infecting people with a brainwashing venom which turns them into zombies. Kirk and Spock have to shoot their way through several different locales–including New Vulcan, the Enterprise, a Gorn ship, and the Gorn homeworld–to stop the invasion. Which, of course, they do. We already know that because the only lizard in Star Trek Into Darkness is Benedict Cumberbatch.

Now, a few points:

1. After this game and X-Files: Resist or Serve, 2/3 of the games I have played have featured zombies and lizard aliens as the primary enemies. And I can count on one hand the number of X-Files and Star Trek episodes featuring zombies or lizard people.

2. Zombies keep appearing in games for a reason, which is that you don’t have to program AI for zombies. If you walk into their line of sight, they run at you and attack you. I want to say that it will be a while before we see zombies again because the next few games I’m going to play are Reservoir Dogs, 24, and CSI. But I won’t guarantee anything. CSI was made by Telltale, after all.

3. The Gorn. If you are a trekkie or a lapsed trekkie like myself, that name should sound familiar. The Gorn were a species of aliens (and, yes, they were lizard people) from one of the most famous episodes of The Original Series, “Arena.” However, they were not the inhabitants of another galaxy. And they were not a massive, evil empire that colonized every world in sight. In fact, that was kind of the point of “Arena”, which saw Kirk pitted in a battle to the death against a Gorn captain at the behest of a godlike race called the Metrons after the Federation and Gorn clash over a colonized world. In the end, Kirk impresses the Metrons by realizing that the Federation might have been in the wrong and refusing to kill the Gorn. The fucking theme of the episode was that weird lizard people were still people, and had their own reasons for being aggressive, and weren’t simply a malevolent force just because they were on the other side of a conflict.

This change to the Gorn not only abandons their original characterization, but the entire point of the Star Trek reboot. JJ Abrams tried to have it both ways when he re-imagined the series. Rather than jettison the entire continuity of Trek, the reboot is staged in an alternate timeline created by the timeline of the Star Trek that I grew up watching. The characters can change, and the future of the series can change, but the layout of the universe should be static. Two dudes going back in time to a few decades before The Original Series shouldn’t turn the Gorn into a Borg-like extragalactic empire, even if one of those dudes is Leonard Nimoy as Spock. But here we are.

gorngif

Of course, that’s hardly the worst way in which Star Trek: The Game abandons the spirit of the franchise. The sins of Star Trek: The Game go beyond nerdy nitpicking of the time travel premise, and emanate from the very core of game.

Star Trek: The Game is a third-person cover-based shooter. I hesitate to call it a Gears of War rip-off, because it was released in 2013 and about a hundred third-person cover-based shooters came between Star Trek and Gears of War. By the time Star Trek was released, the style had become a full-on genre of its own.

I spent most of Star Trek playing through a series of battle set-pieces, hiding behind waist-high obstacles and door frames, popping out to shoot zombie humans or Gorn. There are a few other gameplay mechanics here. Every so often you have to play a hacking minigame and there is a brief (and terrible) section where you control the Enterprise in a space battle. But otherwise this is purely a shooting game.

Throughout the ~9 hours of gameplay in Star Trek: The Game, I probably fired my phaser (and the assorted alien weapons I picked up) more than the main characters of all four television series combined. I killed hundreds of Gorn throughout the campaign, as well as a handful of infected Starfleet Officers and Vulcans. Though to the game’s credit, it encourages you to stun the infected humans then knock them out with a melee attack.

slapultimate

But even that is in the wrong spirit. The idea that the hostile Federation officers deserve more mercy than the hostile Gorn runs counter to the inclusive message of Star Trek. The implicit message is that the Gorn deserve to die. Killing them is perfectly acceptable. Now, I’m no prude about violence in games. Give this game any other name but Star Trek and I don’t care. But this just isn’t in the spirit of everything Trek.

If I can let myself sound like a generic game reviewer here for a moment, the moment-to-moment gameplay in Star Trek is relatively solid. Sure, there are glitches and hiccups in the collision detection. But for the most part Kirk and Spock run where you tell them to run and shoot where you tell them to shoot. This is noticeable after two games (The X-Files and Sopranos) that controlled like a basketball coated in Vaseline.

coop

Okay, there are some bugs.

Part of this is that Star Trek is a PS3 game released in 2013. But some credit should go to the developers, Digital Extremes. If that name sounds familiar to you, you probably play Warframe. After years of being a port house for Unreal Engine games and releasing the occasional B-tier action title like Dark Sector, Digital Extremes finally had their breakthrough with Warframe, a co-op third person shooter that has found its niche as one of the few good PC/console free-to-play games. By this point in the life of he studio, Digital Extremes knows how to make a budget shooter. They aren’t blowing anyone away but, hey, this is a movie tie-in game. It feels strange to be complimenting a game merely for being serviceable but that’s just where I am after three of these damned terrible licensed games.

I’ll admit that I didn’t play Star Trek as the developers intended. It was clearly designed to be a co-op game. Everything about the game design–from the minigames to the layout of the set-piece shootouts–was built with the idea that two humans would be playing. Every time you start up, it asks whether you want to play online. This would open up your game so that someone else, playing as your opposite character, could join up beside you. I choose not to subject anyone else to the horror of playing bad licensed games with me, so I went it alone.  Would Star Trek have been better with a co-op buddy? Maybe. But it still wouldn’t have been good.

oldgorn

Now THAT is a Gorn.

Star Trek is a bad game and I don’t think you should play it, even if it’s approaching some technical proficiency. If it had been true to the license, perhaps I could suggest it to fans of the series. On some level, it’s fun to play as Kirk or Spock just because they are Kirk and Spock (though they aren’t William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy, which is a shame).  But even though neo-Kirk and neo-Spock are faithfully reproduced to some measure of the power of the Playstation 3, these aren’t the characters that I grew up watching. Kirk didn’t call in air strikes from a shuttlecraft with a tricorder. Spock didn’t pick up an alien assault rifle and run around the Gorn home planet engaging in his own personal genocide.

The best part of the game is the first level, when our two heroes are dispatched to save a space station that is getting too close to a binary star. There is no combat in the entire level, just progressing through the deteriorating station, solving rudimentary puzzles, playing hacking minigames and going through a lengthy tutorial for how to use the cover system: dodging between walls to avoid bursts of energy from the star. This sounds boring, but the visuals of the space station breaking apart and a surprisingly good soundtrack make these moments exciting enough. And it felt like Star Trek, because Kirk and Spock risking their lives to rescue the inhabitants of a research station before the station explodes is something that probably happens in 1/3 of all Star Trek episodes.

Would an entire game patterned after the first level of Star Trek: The Game work? I don’t know. Making a game that is purely about exploration is hard. The story would have to be good. The characters would have to be engaging. But think it’s possible.

In a very related note, I’m looking forward to Tacoma.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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