Star Trek: Starfleet Command Volume II - Empires at War
Games based on the Star Trek universe have always found their way to the top of the sci-fi genre, thanks to the popularity of the TV series and films. However, there's no huge void out there - in fact there are plenty of decent space combat simulations on the shelves from 3D extravaganzas like Homework1 to detailed resource management and trading games like X -- Beyond The Frontier. There is certainly no room for duds.
The original Starfleet Command was a superb conversion of the board game Starfleet Battles, a tactical space combat sim that lovingly recreates the Star Trek atmosphere. However, its flat, two-dimensional approach and the incredibly complex command system kept it as a niche product played only by die-hard Trekkies in vast online campaigns and skirmishes.
Starfleet Command Volume II: Empires At Uteris a huge leap forward in almost every department. Not only does it look gorgeous but the sound effects and music tracks are superb. And while the game engine considers itself to be turn-based, it looks and feels like a real-time game, thanks to the unique way it has been implemented.
The Next Generation
To the existing six empires, namely the Federation, Klingon, Romulan, Gorn, Hydran and Lyran ones, SFC2 adds the Mirak and the Interstellar Concordium (ISC). More than 100 hundred new 3D objects are included as well, along with many new ship and starbase types and hull variants.
There are new weapons too, like the plasmatic pulsar device, anti-missile defence systems and rearward-firing point-defence plasma torpedoes. Better still are the fighters and pseudo-fighters (basically small fast starships) - and in order to use them, carriers and tenders. Carriers can be lots of fun, although enemy point defence systems can make mincemeat of thoughtlessly-deployed squadrons.
The game's 3D engine has been completely overhauled with new dynamic lighting, true-to-life explosions and weapon blasts and beautifully-modelled torpedoes and missiles. Progressive damage textures also indicate how much damage a ship is taking. The interface has been strengthened too, and while it's vastly more complex, veterans will appreciate the new levels of control given to players with more than one ship. A player can start with up to three ships in a fleet and capture three more to make as many as six at a time, so flexible fleet control commands are essential. Add additional camera controls, better energy management - including priority setting - and a raft of new shuttle types and you've got a real challenge on your hands.
SFC2 is supplied on two CDs, but the 270-page manual is only barely adequate, relying too heavily on the reference section rather than explaining all aspects of the game in a logical order. Thankfully, there is a quick reference card listing all the (fully-configurable) keyboard shortcuts and weapon arcs.
Hard Day's Flight
The interface hasn't changed that much in the step-up and it still relies on a control panel to the left of the main window. If necessary you can remove it for a better view, but frankly it's so complex, with so many layers, that learning the keyboard shortcuts is essential in multiplayer games and the more advanced missions and skirmishes, especially as only the Federation control panel is marked in English.
The other races' panels are done in strange scripts, so if you don't read/speak Gorn or Hydran you'll have to get used to the Federation ships first, learn the interface and then switch. It also makes playing the Romulan or Klingon empires considerably harder with quite a steep learning curve. Even the half dozen introductory tutorials only deal with Federation ships.
Controlling a single ship is tough work. You need to monitor the basics like energy levels, weapon recharging, shield strength, repairing damage systems, course and speed, as well as taking care of electronic counter measures (ECM) and counter-counter measures (ECCM), shuttles, probes, sensors, and even fighters and pseudofighters if you have them.
Weapons include five types of Phaser, five types of plasma torpedo, disrupters, fusion beams, hellbore cannon, photon torpedoes, two types of missile, the plasmatic pulsar device and the expanding sphere generator or ESG. Dull it certainly isn't -- particularly as you have to simultaneously guide your ship around planets, asteroids, black holes, suns, nebulae, dust clouds as well as other spacecraft.
You can also tell your marines to capture damaged vessels or carry out hit and run attacks, order mines to be dropped from the shuttle bay or transported into open space, set your tractor beams to hold enemy ships or repel seeking weapons, such as missiles and torpedoes, prepare shuttles for launch or tell your defence officer to use the phasers for point defence rather than attack. There are several shuttle configurations to make use of, from 'Wild Weasel' decoys to suicide and attack shuttles, transports, admin and 'scatterpacks' which contain up to six missiles.
If you have more than one ship you also have to monitor the fleet controls which let you order different formations, weapon configurations and strategies. To watch the action you have four distinct camera views including an overhead view of the battle, as well as controls to slow down the game (in single-player mode, anyway) and even pause if it gets too hectic.
But before you get too carried away, there's a major problem -no usable multiplayer features. While US players can play on the Mplayer Internet matching service or play dynamic online campaigns using the Dynaverse system, UK editions of the game have had these two features disabled. Interplay claims this was due to complaints from UK customers about the cost of logging on to US servers but this seems rather a thin excuse. Surely online gamers over here know how to get on the Internet using local calls or all-inclusive access? Whatever the reason, Interplay and developers Taldren have promised a UK patch very soon to re-enable the Mplayer and Dynaverse features. Actually the Dynaverse servers were still in early beta as we went to press, so if you're thinking of buying SFC2 for its online element, check before you buy it.
There have already been two major US-version-only patches (to 2.0.03 and 2.0.04) inside the first few weeks, proving that the developers are on the ball and my own feeling is that UK users will be online fairty swiftly. As we were given a US copy, we can confirm that the multiplayer features work but bear in mind that a UK-sourced game won't. Not yet, anyway.
SFG? still has a wonderful range of single-player options - including skirmish and dynamic campaign modes-as well A as LAN and direct included before release. It's certainly not a game to dip into lightly and it'll take hours of play before you come to grips with the job of captaining a starship successfully. Whether that's a plus or a minus depends entirely on you, but it'll no doubt have wide appeal for dedicated Trekkies and space sim fans.
Leaving the multiplayer mess aside, there are still major disappointments. The manual is average and contains no ship descriptions, while there are lots of'technical' bugs still remaining to be fixed. For example, some weapons can fire outside their arc, while others cause incorrect amounts of damage. That said, this is a challenging game, and while it doesn't boldly go anywhere other games haven't been, it will give many gamers months of enjoyment It looks and feels awesome and when it all comes together online, it could well be the best space combat sim in the universe. Well, this bit of the universe anyway...
Download Star Trek: Starfleet Command Volume II - Empires at War
- PC compatible
- Operating systems: Windows 10/Windows 8/Windows 7/2000/Vista/WinXP