A Tactical Combat Game Worthy of Star Trek

by Benjamin Fitzgerald

 

***To continue my coverage of Star Trek computer games, I turn my attention to one of Interplay’s most critically acclaimed titles, Star Trek: Starfleet Command.***

Except for the latter half of Deep Space Nine, Star Trek has never really been about space battles. Starship battles played a prominent role in only four or five episodes of the original Star Trek, and only two episodes – “Balance of Terror” and “The Doomsday Machine” – revolve around them. Improved technology and superior budgets meant that the movies – The Wrath of Khan in particular – and later television series could incorporate more impressive battles, but it simply wasn’t the critical emphasis of the show.

That being said, starship battles are awesome, and everyone knows it. That’s why the board game Star Fleet Battles was released in 1979 – people wanted an opportunity for tactical Star Trek combat! Although it was never officially licensed as a Trek product, it had the blessing of Gene Roddenberry and bore all the familiar ships and races of Star Trek lore. This was made possible largely due to the fact that Star Trek wasn’t the huge franchise that it is today – it was little more than a cult classic with a devoted following, a lá Firefly or Farscape.

Twenty years later, Interplay Studios had the rights to develop video game titles for the classic Star Trek license, and their games remain among the best Star Trek titles ever made. In 1999, Star Trek: Starfleet Command was released to critical acclaim, and it was a video game overhaul inspired by and based off of the old Star Fleet Battles board game. Although the Star Fleet Universe of Star Fleet Battles was by this time quite different from established lore and canon, the developers did not let that hinder them from making an awesome game.

Part of the pre-rendered opening cutscene

Part of the pre-rendered opening cutscene

Starfleet Command is a tactical naval combat game wherein you take direct control over a starship through a series of harrowing battles. The game features six playable races, with a seventh, the Orion pirates, being a non-playable faction. The game offers a ton of options. You can play through the main campaign as any of the six playable races. You can play in one of three different eras, which affects the types of ships available for play. There is also a difficulty option, with Captain being the easiest and Admiral being the hardest. Admiral is brutal; trust me!

Each of the races have a special task force you can join that offers specialized missions of greater difficulty – the Romulans have two. Many of these missions contain expository information on the disappearance of the Organians, famous for their appearance in “Errand of Mercy” where they manipulated Kor and Kirk into forming a peace treaty neither of them wanted in what is one of Captain Kirk’s most badass moments in Star Trek. Other special missions give further insight into the individual cultures. One of the Hydran missions, for example, involves aiding a number of space-born creatures the Hydrans seem to revere as gods.

The game offers play as the three principle races of the original Star Trek: Starfleet and the Klingon and Romulan Empires, as well as the canonical Gorn and two non-canonical races from the Star Fleet Universe – the catlike Lyrans and the tripedal, methane-breathing Hydrans. Each of the races has access to different technologies and weapons, forcing the player to adapt their strategies accordingly. A Klingon warship bristling with weapons can rush into a firefight full speed where a Romulan bird of prey needs to take a more calculated approach.

Select Race

The game really excels in creating ambiance. One of the ways this is accomplished is by the excellent musical score. Each of the six factions have completely different music associated with them, which helps to set the mood. The music for the Federation is typically bright and brassy, while for the Klingons the brass sounds like a war march rather than a herald. Lyran music sounds tribal, with a heavy use of percussion, and the music for the Gorn is slow and brooding.

The aesthetic of the game is also really nice. Although the game features the same HUD throughout, they redesign it for each race to match the vibe and the culture of the different empires. The Federation and the Klingon HUDs both fit in with the established aesthetic for those races, and even for the less-well-defined races, the designs are clear and inspiring. The Hydran HUD seeks to emulate their unique appearance, for example, whereas the warlike Lyran HUD represents their tribal culture.

Klingon D7 about to lay the beatdown

Klingon D7 about to lay the beatdown

The United Federation of Planets

The starships of the Federation are probably the most balanced in the game. They are not as heavily armed as some of the more militaristic races in the galaxy, but they have more power to allocate to engines, shields and other primary functions. A people of exploration, Federation vessels have more science probes than any other race in the game. Their ships are generally armed with phasers and photon torpedoes, and some vessels are equipped with missiles. Never underestimate a drone light cruiser; their firepower is impressive.

Playing as the Federation, you have access to the Constitution-, Miranda- and Excelsior-class starships seen in The Wrath of Khan and The Undiscovered Country, as well as several other models to balance out the armada and add diversity. I would have liked to see Oberth- and Stargazer-class vessels as they were period with Enterprise-A era Star Trek, but since those were seen in The Next Generation, I don’t know if Interplay had the rights to use the models.

Excelsior

The graphics generally avoid looking too outdated

One of the things I appreciated was that I never felt like playing as the Federation was somehow the preferred race or anything. I think the developers worked really hard to balance everything out so that players would want to try their hands on all the variety available to play. Playing as the Federation in skirmish mode does offer a handful of unique mission scenarios, particularly a reprisal of the Enterprise’s battle with the Reliant and a scenario that allows you to experience the Kobiyashi Maru. It really is a no-win scenario.

The Klingon Empire

The Klingons are probably my favorite race to play, largely because the Klingon D7 Battlecruiser is my favorite ship in all of Star Trek (outside of USS Enterprise NCC-1701), and because the Klingons are probably my favorite alien race.

Worf. Enough said.

Worf. Enough said.

Klingon vessels are armed with phasers, disrupters and seeking missiles. This is actually my biggest complaint against the Klingons. It was clearly demonstrated in Star Trek: The Motion Picture, Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan, Star Trek: The Search for Spock, Star Trek: The Final Frontier, and Star Trek: The Undiscovered Country that Klingons used photon torpedoes. Why their ships are not equipped with torpedoes is a mystery I will never know.

Bristling with weapons, Klingon vessels are probably the most heavily armed ships in the game, though not necessarily the most deadly. Klingon vessels tend to be underpowered. What’s more, they tend to sacrifice their shields, and their aft shields in particular. Moreover, as Klingons prefer frontal assaults, their vessels are not generally equipped with many rear weapons. This means that if you can manage to attack a Klingon warship from behind where their defenses are weakest, you strike them where they are most vulnerable, inflicting massive damage quickly and possibly changing the tide of the battle.

The Romulan Star Empire

The Romulans had seen very little screen time in Kirk’s era of Star Trek, with only three appearances – one of which only their vessels are seen. The Romulans did not appear in the half-dozen movies of the original crew either. Star Trek: The Next Generation revealed far more about these enigmatic enemies than the original Star Trek ever did. However, “Balance of Terror” revealed a number of crucial facts about these aliens: they fly ships “painted up like a giant bird of prey,” they employ a powerful plasma weapon that cripples shields and incinerates solid matter, they utilize a cloaking device that makes them very difficult to detect on normal sensors, and their ships are very underpowered due to the restraints of that cloaking device.

balance of terror ship

With those details in mind, the primary attributes of the Romulan vessels for Starfleet Command were established. Like all other races, Romulan ships were armed with phasers, but most also bore one or more plasma torpedoes. Most Romulan vessels also come equipped with a cloaking device. Romulans can’t fire while cloaked, but their shields take much less damage from weapons fire, and they cannot be targeted by seeking weapons at all. However, their ships come with two huge disadvantages: they are terribly underpowered, and plasma torpedoes are only effective at short range. That said, a Romulan vessel can often cripple – or even destroy – an enemy ship in a single volley. They are very hit-and-miss.

If you’re looking for a challenge, play the Romulans in skirmish mode. There are half a dozen challenges unique to the Romulans, many of which involve the use of their cloaking device. One of them seeks to recreate the Human/Romulan war mentioned in “Balance of Terror,” and another actually does recreate the Bird of Prey’s mission in “Balance of Terror.” These extra campaigns are another reason why I feel the game was not meant to be balanced in the Federation’s favor.

The Gorn Confederation

Although a fan favorite for decades, the only screen time they received was in the first-season Star Trek episode “Arena” and a brief appearance in the non-canonical animated series episode “The Time Trap.” However, the Gorn were featured in several Interplay-era Star Trek video games, with their most prominent roles being in this game and its sequel.

Gorn

As far as a weapons load-out is concerned, Gorn vessels are very similar to Romulan warships, as they are also equipped with phasers and plasma torpedoes. However, Gorn vessels are sturdier, more heavily armed and have more power than Romulan ships. On the other hand, the Romulan cloaking device utilized properly can have devastating effects. I just played several rounds pitting a Gorn destroyer against a Romulan destroyer to compare their power and ability, and it wasn’t until the third match that I was able to outwit the Romulan vessel for the win.

As far as aesthetic design goes, the Gorn heavy cruiser is one of the best looking ships I have ever seen. It’s utilitarian design accents the fact that this ship is tough, mean and not one to be trifled with. I don’t know if they designed the ships themselves or modeled them off of the Gorn warships from Star Fleet Battles, but either way, the ship is awesome.

A Gorn battlecruiser attacking a space entity

A Gorn battlecruiser attacking a space entity

The Lyran Star Empire

The Kzinti are a race of felinoids invented by science fiction author Larry Niven, and are among the most famous alien races in science fiction outside of Star Wars and Star Trek. They actually appeared in an episode of Star Trek: The Animated Series that Niven wrote; they were featured in the earliest incarnation of Star Fleet Battles, and there were even several video games that featured the Kzinti prominently. I’m also willing to bet that the Kilrathi from the Wing Commander series are inspired by the Kzinti. Take a look!

Top: Kzinti / Bottom: Kilrathi

Top: Kzinti / Bottom: Kilrathi

The Lyrans are another race of felinoids from the Star Fleet Universe, and they were incorporated into Starfleet Command to create more diversity. They’re also a pretty awesome race. Although their ships tend to be underpowered, they are probably the most savage and heavily-armed vessels in the game outside of the Klingons. Like the Klingons, the Lyrans utilize disrupters as their heavy weapon of choice, but they do not have seeking missiles like the Klingons; instead, they can create a powerful field known as the Expanding Sphere Generator (ESG).

Mastering the ESG is key to utilizing the Lyrans effectively, as the ESG has many uses. It can be used to effectively ram enemy starships without damaging the Lyrans warships, which can be a powerful offensive tool. Perhaps more important, however, is the use of the ESG as a defensive weapon. The seeking missiles used by the Klingons and Federation can deal devastating amounts of damage. There are a number of ways to deal with them: tractor beams, shooting them down with phasers, or launching a decoy shuttle to confuse their tracking (this also works for plasma torpedoes). The Lyrans have another option. Instead of draining their power supply with tractors or wasting their phasers on missiles, they can deploy the ESG, immediately destroying all incoming missiles. The ESG also works to take out pesky shuttlecraft and, more importantly, the lethal Hydran fighters.

The Hydran Kingdom

As Captain Sulu explains, the Hydrans are “one of the more ‘alien’ dominant races in the known galaxy” (see picture). What Sulu doesn’t tell you is that the Hydrans are the most OP race in the game, even more so than the weapon-crazed Klingons.

hydran

The Hydrans utilize two heavy weapons unique to them. The first is the fusion beam. It is similar to the disruptor cannon used by the Klingon and Lyran Empires, except that it is shorter range and even more powerful. It also takes an inordinate amount of power to charge – more so perhaps than even the plasma torpedo. Many Hydran vessels are also equipped with the hellbore, which envelops an enemy’s shields, dealing the most damage to the weakest shield. It can be enough to crush and destroy heavily damaged vessels. Like the Federation’s photon torpedo, however, it is not very accurate.

It is not these special weapons that make the Hydrans overpowered, but their fighters. Almost all Hydran vessels have fighter squads assigned to them, from one to four squads of three fighter each. These fighters are armed with phasers and fusion beams, and they can cripple even significantly more powerful vessels. I had a Federation battleship destroyed by a Hydran light cruiser because of their fighters. The problem is that by the time you’ve taken down the fighters who have been wearing down your defenses, the fusion beams from the Hydran warship will have crippled your ship. This makes the Hydrans quite fun to play, but rather frustrating to go up against. Only the Lyrans with their ESG have an effective defense against the Hydrans – but then, they are ancient enemies.

The Orion Pirates

The Orion pirates are more of a faction than a true empire, as they are pirates and do not represent the Orion government – not that the Orions have any particular reputation for being honorable people. Orion ships are not generally a terrible threat, but they are able to use weapons exclusive to other races, such as photon torpedoes, fusion beams and hellbores.

The persistent presence of the Orion pirates is actually one of the more irritating aspects of the game. Depending on what happens during a campaign, you may end up spending most of the game fighting the same old Orion ships, and that gets old fast. It may be the single biggest reason to skip the campaign and just play skirmish mode, because the Orions offer little challenge. They’re just annoying.

Orion women, on the other hand, are awesome

Orion women, on the other hand, are awesome

What really makes Starfleet Command special is that it isn’t just about having more guns than the enemy ship. There are a lot of factors to take into consideration: engine power, shields, transporters, repairs, probes, ECM, mines, power conservation. Winning a difficult battle often requires you to adapt to your enemies, to develop different strategies to fight different foes, and to manage your resources effectively. If you can’t shake that Klingon warship and they’re blasting through your crippled shield, a high-energy turn can change the tide of the battle. Just don’t try it too often, or you’ll cripple your ship!

Despite a few flaws and graphics that occasionally look dated, Star Trek: Starfleet Command remains among the best tactical space games of the Star Trek franchise. Only its own sequel and a second Interplay Star Trek title, Klingon Academy, enjoyed similar acclaim. This game is very old, however; it was released in 1999 for Windows 98. Unfortunately, this game no longer runs on Windows 7 or later operating systems. The only way I know to play the game on a modern computer is to buy the game at gog.com. It isn’t available on Steam, so don’t bother looking. The game is only $5.99, which is more than reasonable for one of the better Star Trek games. Unfortunately, even with Gog’s fix, it has problems loading sometimes. If you have the patience for it, this game is worth looking into.

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About

Benjamin Fitzgerald has been playing video games his entire life. An avid Star Trek fan, the first game he ever played was Interplay's "Star Trek: 25th Anniversary." He has many other interests as well, including writing music, cooking and spending time with his friends, including his best friend, Shadow.

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