Star Trek: Gaming’s Under Utilised Franchise – Part Two: The Present

Welcome back Around The Bonfire as we look at the current offering of games and software from the Star Trek franchise, an eclectic and diverse mix of online games, mobile titles with built-in transaction packs, obscure gambling releases and web browser software and contemplate what the future holds and what direction this franchise will take. In our last release we looked at the past, from the more obscure niche titles through to the more recent console and PC releases, today we look at the current generation of titles and measure their strengths and merits and whether they are a true reflection of the Star Trek legacy as defined by the Great Bird of the Galaxy himself, the late Mr Gene Roddenberry. Certainly from where we began gaming has continued to evolve and adapt to consumer demand and requirements, two of the latest iterations of the franchise appearing on mobile platforms but the continual success of Star Trek Online and the methodology of how the developers have continued to treat the series as a game as a service type software with regular expansion packs and events allowing the game to survive beyond its competition and rivals. In addition this has allowed the series to take its first steps in attempting to recapture some of the magic and direction of its original vision through the Bridge Crew VR title.

The expansion of mobile devices and handheld gaming in the last decade has seen detrimental effects on both hardware and software sales figures with a greater demand for so-called ‘Freemium’ games, those with no entry cost but then containing a substantial amount of items with an a fixed price and timed missions and criteria that the effectively become ‘Pay to Win’ software, those willing to spend money gaining a substantial advantage over traditional users. Some balance the payment thresholds and requirements, better or more evenly than others rewarding dedicated users and players to a high degree in contrast to other titles which have high level thresholds and experience requirements making the games effectively useless unless you wish to invest a lot of money to play. One of the more successful and ongoing titles has been Star Trek Timelines, available on both iOs and Android handsets and presenting an interesting mobile friendly take on the Star Trek franchise where all the various legacies and crews come together to undertake basic missions. These effectively come down to stat based dice roll missions which of course require trained crew, that training is achieved through upgrade packs and building equipment. Dedicated playing does yield sufficient progress rewards but as your crew reach higher levels progress and promotion becomes more difficult presenting the allure of the paid for packs and item management.

There is a substantial amount of content although seemingly as the expansion packs release these are often sold immediately at cost before becoming available afterwards through special promotions or ongoing competitions. The price of these packs range from the curious to the more eye watering and as ever raise the prospect if you are going to charge these varied scale of prices then release this game as a paid for title where these expansions would work in a traditional sense. I struggle to believe anyone would be willing to pay close to £100 for an expansion such as this and unfortunately this isn’t the exception to the rule, events and expansions such as these launch on a regular basis. This I find a little tedious but there are often rewards for long-term players and in short order you can find yourself exploring the universe with a crew of legends aboard a Borg cube. Objectively these types of games could be problematic with those of a certain disposition towards collecting or gambling, the necessity to buy one more pack to try to obtain a random selection of characters, real money for virtual rewards. But thankfully, as noted the balance works just in its favour and does reward play with ships and characters to a greater extent than other games.

The ship to ship combat, for a mobile game, looks impressive with the different ships rendered correctly and firing appropriate weapons and technology consistent with the lore of the series. The Borg cube firing green lasers, the various Federation ships their red phaser beams and the blue photon torpedoes again all consistent with the established lore of the television series. There is a small element of tactical planning with your trained crew adding bonus elements to the ship attacks, and each vessel has specific bonus attacks and features that just adds different elements. In short it’s an aspect that feels like it probably could be a bonus or added paid for feature given the scope of the battles and contrast to the other graphics in the game. With other features such as the deployment mission added in it adds some characterization to the software although certainly not to the extent of a full-scale release such as Mass Effect or the narrative found in older games such as a Final Unity. But for a free game, its one of the better titles released for the mobile platform and certainly for me the best of the current offerings.

In contrast, the entirely divisive and abhorrent new title Star Trek Fleet Command that has seemingly taken the best elements of Timelines and stripped away any virtue and goodwill presenting a bland, expensive shell of a game that misrepresents itself within its trailer almost to a deceitful level in comparison to its final form. Lets look at the graphical presentation where we find some merits and positives, the different environments are consistent with the worlds of the recent film series, clearly some money has been spent on licensing a number of tracks from the score of the film series and the likeness of the films stars in the same cartoony style as seen in Timelines. Given the separation of ownership of rights between the films and television series, seemingly this title only features the likeness of ships and characters from the rebooted franchise only, and noticeably absent in Timeliness which in contrast has those from the older films and television series. As a result, its hard to recommend this game to fans beyond those who truly appreciated and enjoyed the Kelvin Timeline films. A noticeable absence is that of the late Anton Yelchin, who died tragically before the release of Star Trek Beyond. Whether this was a license issue, a request of his estate or even out of consideration with the entire crew available it is noticeable his character is missing from the line up featured below.

There is a vast amount of missions available although very quickly you begin to realise they take on a very familiar structure and become fairly repetitive. The game has been structured and designed around a research and development tree with upgrades and progression behind timed upgrades and construction, once more if you wish to progress and accelerate in this game, be prepared to spend some real money for the joy. You are rewarded fairly frequently for playing the game but the currency packs and credits obtained through play don’t seem to unlock or reward the user to any great degree. Without being cynical it does just feel like a cheap bonus for playing the game, any additional or notable progression requires hard money, its simple, ruthless and a price you have to pay if you want to have any meaningful impact on this game. Unfortunately I just don’t see this game having the attrition or durability to stay given the limitations on its content in contrast to the wider spanning Timelines game. With the seeming withdraw of Christopher Pine from the franchise and the film series put on hold for the time being whilst it is enjoyable to play as these characters as visualised by the current crop of actors, having the wider variety and bigger range of crews in its peer title does make this seem the weaker game to play.

Now, lets talk about combat, one of if not the only selling point as advertised and shown so dominantly in the trailers for this game, in truth a positive aspect for me that I was looking forward to seeing how it would be implemented on a mobile platform. The short answer is, it isn’t, in any way shape or form and for me represents some of the worst forms of deception or creative advertisement I’ve seen in recent times when it comes to mobile gaming. It should have a banner across a large part of the screen stating the fact loudly it does not represent in-game graphics. Combat from the default perspective and zoom state is effectively two dots circling around each other firing a dot at each other until you have a winner, it is one of the most simplistic and basic representation of space combat I have been unfortunate to witness, certainly in contrast to that seen in the trailer below. Expanding into the gameplay doesn’t provide any great revelations or surprises, just a slightly more detailed look at your bland and forgettable ship circling around firing a blob of light towards the enemy ship. Perhaps there is a sudden evolution of graphics as you progress and upgrade to more advanced ships but I’m highly sceptical and cannot fathom why the game would launch in this state. Compare and contrast this to the combat in Timelines which at least makes an effort to present an experience similar to its trailers with ships that look like their movie and series counterparts and the difference is night and day.

Are there any elements of strategy or skill involved? no, not especially. You benefit from having your crew slots filled and of course upgraded ships but once you’ve tasked your ship to attack there concludes any input into the engagement. Now fate resides with the two circling dots firing poorly conceived and designed energy dots at each other until a poor destruction sequence and a brief message declaring your victory. I don’t know how far back you have to go to find a more poor example of combat in the Star Trek franchise but I would state with some confidence this is the worst, so simplistic and even worse just entirely conflicting with the grandiose and grand graphics and sequence alluded to in the trailer shown. If they had focused on is strengths, of which there are few but certainly the scope hints at an Elite style adventure with missions provided across the galaxy, dynamic factions competing and shaping the galaxy, development and expansion of crew and space stations would be more suitable. Basing your entire advertising campaign on the ship combat, and this being without a measure of doubt the weakest and poorest looking aspect of the game was shocking. Its embarrassing this is what Star Trek has come to in this day and age which graphics of this nature, a game I have since deleted.

Since its inception and release a substantial number of online role-playing games have launched and ceased operations for various reasons, in its history franchises to name but a few including Star Wards, Phantasy Star, Doctor Who, WWE and The Sims have all attempted to emulate and capture a portion of the user base that has established World of Warcraft as a driving force in the genre. In truth, I wouldn’t have been especially surprised to see Star Trek follow the same fate, at launch the graphics were mediocre in their presentation, the missions and combat limited in scope and certainly it felt like any other game as a service but with the skin of Star Trek applied. However, when it became apparent these titles as a fully commercially priced game would not generate near enough profit or incentive to continue their existence the developers made the move early enough to cut the entry cost to 0 and transition to the new and current methodology ahead if not on the curve of progression to the extent the game is still being actively played and supported a long time after a number of competitors including its biggest similar competition at the time, Star Wars Galaxies At War ceased to run almost six years ago today. In that time expansion packs and episodic content has seen actors return to voice characters they played a number of years pack, specific missions set in the Voyager series featuring a number of original returning members, the stars of Deep Space Nine returning for a quest situated around their program.

Visually, for an online title the graphics are somewhat rudimental in parts, the foliage and terrain effects are embarrassingly poor as well as the off world and alien terrains. In contrast in other ways visually the game is impressive, particularly the ship design which is consistent with their appearance in both the movies and television series as well as the Starbase from the motion pictures. The basic character when motionless and static again has a good finish, certainly when I first played the game the character models looked weak in motion and combat, now there has been some work to improve the game graphically and begin to make this a competent experience. With some customization you can change your character to suit your appearance, my avatars tend to share my basic features in gaming worlds with the blonde neat haircut and tall build. From a functionality aspect there is also cross play and platform support, my progress on the PC accessible on the Playstation, again a nice factor that allows you to play between systems again with no charge or cost involved. As for the game itself there are of course charges and costs, if you want the nicer ships, the fancier uniforms you are going to have to pay money, this is a free game, to continue to operate and launch dynamic and actually interesting content does require capital and where the user base was reluctant to pay hard cash to play the game, seemingly there is enough demand and goodwill for the expansion packs to continue to be a profitable and viable product.

The missions themselves tend to be fairly standard and repetitive, go from point A to B, engaging in combat by foot or by ship with some puzzle solving elements thrown in, certainly there is scope and room for improvement. In an idealised world I would dream of seeing a Star Trek title with the depth and characterization of the Mass Effect games for example but in creating forming this game as a long-term project perhaps improved NPC character modelling is the next ambition of the team. The ship combat in contrast to its most recent mobile counterpart works and is effect in both its presentation and depth, modular systems allowing different tactics and methodology. In addition the ability to modulate speed, weapons systems use and shield usage all add to a game mechanic that doesn’t feel tacked on but truly adds a different element to the game, one I appreciated and didn’t grow frustrated with when my tactics proved futile. Instead I recognised my own limitations and came back to the battles a few times unless I persevered and continued on my voyage into the final frontier. There are faults, graphically the age of the game is exposed somewhat with the limited environments, the abundance of packages to buy and spend money on gives the impression of a pay to win model. But through playing the game and experience you do gain a sense of progression. The cross play system with consoles allow you to progress when away from your PC. It does require investment of time, perhaps it could do more to capture my own as my priority lies away from this title and towards more simpler experiences such as Timeline at present but when I have invested time, when I have stopped to give consideration to Star Trek Online it has been a rewarding experience capturing some of the spirit of the game.

So looking ahead, what vision of the future do I see for Star Trek? seemingly the franchise for the time being has abandoned the console market to the same degree of representation witnessed during the previous generation although the release of Star Trek Bridge Crew does raise the prospect of an interesting approach to take. Its reliance entirely on launch of owning the VR headset was a bold decision and one seemingly has been amended or changed now with play available on standard consoles. But regardless of your interface the necessity to communicate and work collectively with other users does pose an interesting dilemma. In the world of online gaming I would be hesitant to work with others in such a way, a group of friends in the traditional sense would have been a joy to experience but this is not the direction of these types of games. To look for a future direction for the franchise given its past predication to emulate its competitors you have to look at its competition and peers, large open world titles are the current vogue, and whilst this would restrict the location to a single planet and remove the need for a Starship as a means of transportation as a hub location in orbit it could serve a purpose, or even have a game begin with the arrival at an alien world you then solve a mystery upon, save a planet. But that requires confidence in your product, I don’t see that in the product just yet.

Quite simply where I see the direction for the franchise in the gaming community is a relatively stale and directionless approach, Online continuing to add additional content but if the release of Fleet Command is any indication, games and software that are seen as a source of revenue with the least effort and expenditure afforded. Where I wish the games would progress is the recognition and acceptance of what made Star Trek a joy to fans all those years ago and is still revered and celebrated decades later. Looking back at the Wrath of Khan, as noted previously the film can be reduced down to the simple premise, 3 planets, 2 ships, 1 intense rivalry. Star Trek worked as a television and movie series when the narrative was simple, tight and structured. A focus on characterization, the Enterprise a graceful ship not a racing car, simple points to follow and get right. What do I want a next game to be? simple, the character building of Mass Effect, the visual scope of Elite, the puzzles and problems of Portal and the structured narrative of Last of Us. Give me a simple story, don’t try to deliver the galaxy, and you’ll have a guaranteed buyer.

star-trek-vi-the-undiscovered-country-uss-enterprise-billboard

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