Game Over Online ~ Starfleet Command Vol. II: Empires at War

GameOver Game Reviews - Starfleet Command Vol. II: Empires at War (c) Interplay, Reviewed by - Fwiffo

Game & Publisher Starfleet Command Vol. II: Empires at War (c) Interplay
System Requirements Windows, Pentium II-300, 64MB Ram, 550MB HDD, 3D Accelerator, 4x CD-ROM
Overall Rating 90%
Date Published Sunday, January 7th, 2001 at 06:19 PM

Divider Left By: Fwiffo Divider Right

Star Trek, as an idea or concept, has pervaded throughout popular culture, at least in North America. The franchise generates an incredible amount of fanfare, paraphernalia and profit, so it comes to no surprise Star Trek has always tried to lodge itself into games. Starfleet Command 2: Empires at War (SC2) is a follow up to what people previously touted as one of the first "true" Star Trek games aimed at simulating combat between those behemoth ships you see on TV. The year 2000 heralded many Star Trek games including first person shooters and even a card-trading game based on the Star Trek universe. Surprisingly enough, many of these Star Trek licenses are used well, finally creating games worthy of the Star Trek name. SC2 continues this tradition, developed by Taldren, the crew in 14 Degrees East that created the original Starfleet Command, and published by Interplay, no small stranger to the Star Trek world themselves (a la the Star Trek 25th Anniversary adventures).

The basic premise behind SC2 is to put the player behind a starship from several races, including the Klingon, Romulan, Mirak, Lyran, Gorn, Hydran, ISC and of course the Federation itself. Each race comes with its own set of voices, menu art, interface and ships. The developers are able to handle the diversity of all these mainly because all the races derive their power from starbases, perform the same missions and use the same classes of ships namely: frigates, light cruisers, heavy cruisers, dreadnaughts and starbases. From race to race, the differences are cosmetic but each race also has a specific preference for outfitting their ships. For example, the Gorn have extremely immobile ships but make it up with their heavy armament, while the Mirak prefer to launch barrages of missiles instead of the usual phaser or energy weapons of the Star Trek universe. Make no mistake about it, this game is not about away missions, human drama or engineering creative solutions to problems, its focus is directly on combat. Thus, all missions, be it patrol, convoy escort, encounters, or otherwise, will eventually rest on combat. That is not to say this game is limited in any way because the developers have managed to make combat in this game fun. Previous attempts at modeling Star Trek have turned sour because either the crewmen do everything for you (which makes for a very boring game) or the ships control like fighter craft from Wing Commander. SC2 is the first game I've played that has got the Star Trek feel right. There are many references throughout the game towards the navy. The game uses terms like port, bow, aft, stern, and for good reason: SC2 plays very much like a WWI or WWII naval battle. Combat rests on jockeying for good positions, like lining up your rack of unexpended guns alongside your target. There are also times when you want to manoeuvre your vessel in order for your strongest shields to bear the brunt of the enemy attack. Often you'll suffer damage or need to launch sensor probes to seek out the enemy. SC2 allows you to directly command up to three vessels that can be paired up with allied craft.

What makes SC2 interesting is not the WWI/WWII juggernaut vs. juggernaut battles but the variations that are added by each race. The Federation have the best balanced ships and their sensor range is remarkable. Most people will probably stick with the Federation since sensors, believe it or not, are incredibly important in hunting down the enemy. Without sensors, one is almost blind in space. Luckily, each ship is outfitted with a deep space scan (at the expense of extra power) or you can launch manual probes to sweep out the area around you. Quite simply put, if you can't see the enemy, even a behemoth dreadnaught can be taken down by a mere frigate. Once you take down a ship's shields you have the option of launching hit and run operations on specific components, like destroying specific weapons or ship subsystems. Moreover, you can attempt to board and capture the ship with a cadre of marines. Finally, SC2 adds a new wrinkle to Star Trek combat by including shuttles and fighter craft that harass, defend, attack or even make suicide runs at the larger craft. Once you see the full range of carriers, frigates and destroyers in action, you'll appreciate why SC2 seems to be inspired by WWI/WWII naval combat (as opposed to present day, where we just launch 50 missiles from 5000 miles away).

As captain in SC2, you are primarily responsible for issuing orders like firing weapons, prioritizing repairs, transporting mines/space bombs into open space, thus you have some control over the actual ship that is intuitively manipulated entirely through the mouse alone. There are keyboard shortcut keys to help you manage through the sometimes-frantic pace of combat. SC2 combat is really about power or energy management. Should you divert more powers to reinforce shields at the expense of turning off those photon torpedoes? Should you attempt to run away by putting more energy into your engines instead of your weapons? These are the questions that are pressed onto the captain of the ship. What I missed most though was some sort of autonomy in the various crew members. True, there are crew voices that notify you if the hull is damaged, or which side of your shields are gone, but I would have rather preferred them to offer suggestions at various points of the game. Or even better, it could help me manage the ship better. There were many times when I queued up assault shuttles but just plain forgot to launch them because you can't launch them all out in succession, rather you must do it one by one. If these tedious tasks were done by the computer or, at the very least, the crew could notify me if the shuttle bay or transporters were ready, then I think I would have had a much easier time. Part of the reason why the crew should be more responsive is because you are constantly switching between the different sections of the ship: science, weapons, transporter, shuttle, damage, etc. There is no one comprehensive panel that provides the captain with all the essential information he/she needs to know. I thought this was sorely lacking but perhaps all the flipping around makes the game more challenging. The AI in the game is often competent but I found it rarely was aggressive enough, for example, they never seem to sacrifice power to other systems for that extra edge.

The piece de resistance of AI in this game is Dynaverse II, which is the system used both in the single player campaign mode and the multiplayer universe. Dynaverse II puts the player in the middle of an intergalactic struggle complete with hex maps indicating each race's sphere of influence. The Federation is by far the most competent (another reason to play them) in terms of technology, economy and sheer size. When you begin, you begin near the homeworld and you can travel throughout your empire in something that resembles a turn-based game. Other ships are also nearby doing the same thing. Periodically missions will be offered to you in various sectors. If you're towing a starbase (yes you can fight as a starbase too), you'll get missions to erect a starbase. If you are in the neutral zone, you'll get patrol missions so you can claim that sector. If you're in a friendly sector, you might get a convoy escort or base defense mission. These are all dynamically generated and peppered within these are various scripted missions that move the storyline along. SC2 introduces two new campaigns, the war against the ISC and the conflicts of the Mirak Star League. This isn't anything new, earlier Tachyon: The Fringe and even earlier, Privateer, have done this but Dynaverse II creates a living galaxy because not all the actions revolve around the player. Throughout the game, empires will grow or shrink depending on things like the economy. You can buy, refit, re-stock ships depending on your prestige within your empire. This is gained through performance in actual missions, for example, if you protect all ships in a convoy from destruction, you'll get much more prestige than having only one survivor (kind of like Force Commander). Missions can be refused or forfeited but you must take a prestige hit or if you have multiple ships, they will often confiscate one. The combat is never boring because Dynaverse II 'stacks the cards' in the battles. If you are a lone frigate attacking a starbase, you'll often find incredibly strong allies whereas if your fleet is powerful enough to take on an entire planet, you'll find yourself facing down a force many times your size. Scripted missions are preset though and if you cheat in the beginning of the game, you can often gain an enormous advantage in the scripted missions but those missions usually challenge you in areas other than brute strength. One small fault about Dynaverse II is the fact that often I'm far away from any starbase to restock or repair and a scripted mission is given to me. Thus, I have to refuse, take a hit in prestige and drag myself all the way back to a starbase. Other times, I'm aching to go on a mission and can't find one even after traveling through five sectors. After traveling through each sector, there is specific news that crop up: space monsters can invade, empires can lose sectors or alliances can be made.

Dynaverse II however, does not extend to LAN play, which is a big disappointment for me. Regular TCP/IP, IPX, or Mplayer play only includes specific engagements. You can engage in base assaults and tournaments in various locales like nebulae or asteroid fields. There is also an option to play hockey with a tractor beam. Dynaverse II can be played online through although I never had a chance to play it. It supposedly mixes real players with AI in an epic struggle between the different star empires. It is a phenomenal idea but I'm not sure how it is to be executed. Definitely, multiplayer makes engagements more fun, as human players tend to run away from battles and force the players to rely on cat and mouse tactics (similar to submarine combat). Originally, Dynaverse II was supposed to work with the now defunct and it was hastily created to work with, so it has been a rocky start. Nevertheless, it's a wonderful idea.

Technically SC2 is basically the same as the previous Starfleet Command except you get new missions, so for those who already have the original, it may not be entirely worth it. SC2 features a 3D engine that is capable of 800x600 to 1280x1024 but all of the art seems geared towards 1024x768. The graphics are decent but not earth shattering. Though they are all in 3D, this game has little to no Z-axis elevation, meaning that if you look at the game top-down it plays somewhat like a 2D RTS game. This is actually not a fault but a design decision, since I'm sure the elimination of a Z-axis reduces the chances of getting lost. You can still get lost though. For example, on a convoy escort mission, in a ship with poor sensor range, I often lost track of the entire convoy because I was busy chasing off another ship. In the end, the time spent to travel back to the convoy was just not worth it. There are also other quirks, like one where I was protecting a starbase but the structure blew up just about as I was forfeiting the mission. The debriefing for this mission said I still had an "astounding victory" and I could immediately restock at this new starbase. Some of the missions aren't believable. For example, every new starbase construction is challenged even if it's 20 hexes in the heartland of your empire. Sometimes when you're busy fortifying one side of the empire, the other AI players don't seem to be pulling their weight. Often the empires stagnate because each side just wants to continue the status quo.

Although the graphics may not be top notch, the sound effects are incredibly well done. They are truly faithful to the Star Trek license and it made some battles so realistic that I thought I was watching something on television. One minor complaint is the usage of English. I was hoping maybe the Klingons would speak in Klingon so as to make the game more authentic. If the interface panels are all written in foreign languages, I can't imagine why the crew sounds are all in English. Some of these panels are so alien, it takes some settling down to perform some run of the mill tasks (sending you to your doom if you're trying to figure out how to fire your weapons). As my esteemed colleague in Game-Over points out, the zany layout of Star Trek GUIs don't help either.

Besides these minor quirks, SC2 is a deep and complex foray into the Star Trek universe. The sheer amount of acronyms for the different spaceships alone is a testament to that fact. The campaign against the ISC is fun and engaging, although it would have been nice to see the Borg show up but Paramount likes to parcel out their license material among the different developers. The Klingons, for example, are always at war with the Federation, which isn't really the truth on the television show at least. Just as the television franchise is hitting a speed bump with Voyager, the Star Trek franchise in gaming seems to be improving dramatically. Titles like SC2 go a long way in solidifying the Star Trek name in the annals of PC gaming.


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