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April 27, 2013

2

Xbox 360 – Star Trek The Video Game (2013) Review

by Master Pillow

Considering that most licensed video games based on movies turn out to be utter trash Star Trek The Video Game from developer Digital Extremes and publisher Namco Bandai attempts to buck the trend but alas the overall product feels far too undercooked and filled with annoying elements to prevent it from becoming truly compelling.  That’s too bad as the core third person shooter mechanics work well enough yet there’s just not enough variety or replay value to recommend someone purchase it at full price.

Star Trek The Video Game picks up almost exactly after J.J. Abrams’ reboot left off as the Enterprise receives a distress signal from a Vulcan science station that is under duress.  Needless to say there’s something afoot going on here which soon leads to the game’s reveal that the villainous Gorn have invaded the Federation through a convenient rip in the fabric of space.  Once again, it is up to the crew of the Enterprise to beat them silly and send them packing although there’s not a hint of a bad green rubber suit this time around.

Then again perhaps it would have been a good idea to throw old fans a bone by placing some sort of Easter Egg whereby the original rubber suit Gorn could be found somewhere or better yet, appear as a talking character.  However, even if it isn’t included the redesigned Gorn certainly take their design cues more from the Star Trek Enterprise TV show rather than Classic Trek and developer Digital Extremes at least manages to differentiate the species into separate classes.

While this isn’t exactly mind-blowing it allows the Gorn to be seen in a different light so now you have the huge but slow lumbering brutes which pack a substantial melee wallop or the more feminine Gorn snipers.  As I said, nothing Earth shattering but at least the Gorn race is beginning to be more fleshed out rather than the stereotypical image of a rubber suit.  Not fairing as well are the Gorn starships which surely must have won the top prize for ugliest vessels imaginable as they are truly heinous to look at resembling blocky Lego ships in the general form of a bee.

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All these shots in this article are from the PC version of the game. I can assure you that it doesn’t look anywhere this decent on the Xbox 360…

Star Trek The Video Game has the appearance of a first generation Xbox 360 title and the texture work varies from good to downright ugly.  The Gorn themselves look simply ghastly in close-up with remarkably blurry textures and an overall angular look that is jagged in all the wrong ways.  From a distance the effect is not as noticeable but it really stands out like a sore thumb when juxtaposed with the competent environmental work.  All the major characters more or less resemble their real life counterparts with obviously the best work done on Kirk and Spock to look like Chris Pine and Zachary Quinto.

Nonetheless, don’t expect something like the graphical goodness found in 343’s Halo 4 yet that is hardly an appropriate comparison considering the vastly different budgets.  For a movie tie-in game the graphics in Star Trek The Video Game are serviceable but it also makes one wish developer Digital Extremes had more cash to expand the scope involved.  You can tell their resources have been constrained in other avenues such as the usually out of sync facial movements especially during spoken dialogue where character mouths rarely match the voice overs.

Right from the get go the game tasks players to choose to control either Kirk or Spock but unfortunately there is negligible difference between the two so it is merely a cosmetic choice.  Gameplay is basically your standard third person shooter with a few Trek twists, namely the use of the tricorder to not only scan environments but also as a handy dandy type of sonar that can expose cloaked enemies.  In between long bouts of shooting the game has many mini-games all linked to hacking terminals or other consoles in order to unlock doors, chests or other doodads to allow gamers to proceed.  None of these mini games is compelling yet they serve to break up the monotony of shooting things in the face.

The game’s big marketing push comes in the form of co-operative play as one player can be Kirk and the other Spock.  Tackling the Gorn becomes a breeze with two humans at the controls but alas the game’s co-op mechanics are a bit of a letdown and pigeonholed into menial tasks such as forcing one player to boost the other one up a high wall or to both pry open a door.  There are quite a few puzzles involved but they are incredibly basic such as finding a power cell to turn on a console or to scan the environment for a hidden floor panel.  It’s too bad the co-op play isn’t more fleshed out or more difficult puzzles involved that require deeper analytical thinking.

The third person shooting mechanics feels as if you are playing Commander Shepard in Mass Effect but it lacks the overall polish of Bioware’s series.  Yes, I’m making a bit of a joke as Mass Effect can also be glitchy but Star Trek The Video Game just does not play in the big leagues.  Ordering a character into cover is hit or miss but the big offender is the game’s propensity to not calculate what is solid or not well enough.  There will be more than one occasion when your character is clearly in cover behind a wall or conveniently overturned table where you get hit anyways yet the upside to this is that you can often miraculously shoot through walls with impunity.  There were even times when the enemy AI would get stuck on an object and stand there like a statue soaking up phaser fire with reckless abandon.

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You are going to be doing A LOT of shooting in this game…

Although in Mass Effect 3 enemies would occasionally get the case of the stupids by charging the player often times they would attempt flanking moves or at least have the smarts to go into cover.  Not so in Star Trek The Video Game.  Once your character is spotted chances are 99% of the time the enemies make a straight rush at you and the scant times that they attempt a flanking move usually results in busted AI where they come at you from the sides and then inexplicably turn around during pirouettes as if they were somehow auditioning for the New York ballet. One time a Gorn managed to flank my Kirk but instead of taking potshots at me it instead ran right up to my side and then immediately spun around to run away.  Kirk’s machismo must have scared him off.

Friendly AI is however, just as dire.  When presented with a horde of rampaging Gorn headed straight at most players the first reaction is usually to quickly get in cover which is no problem for humans but seemingly a foreign concept for the AI which stands rooted in a wide open space.  Other times the AI seems to have a death wish especially during the segments where stealth is required or finding a safe path around a powerful guardian turret that will blast you to smithereens in a second.  Once again the AI doesn’t care in the least and there was more than one occasion where my virtual Spock partner deemed it best to run up to the turret and shoot it in the “face” resulting in a quick death and screams for help.  The player can also use the tricorder to order your AI partner to attack certain enemy targets but alas mashing the command usually results in non-action as your companion stands there like a store mannequin striking a pose even if the enemy in question is right next to them.

To add some depth to the gameplay the developers have added what they call commendations into the mix which are simple tasks that force the players to act more pacifistic in the vein of original Star Trek where the goal was, you know, not to shoot people in the face.  Therefore, these commendations will usually ask players to go through a stage without killing anyone, done by using a combination of the stun setting on weapons followed by knocking the target out with a melee move.  Successful actions reward players with points which can then be used in the game’s simple RPG system to upgrade weapons or tricorder skills.

These points can also be gained if players take the time to use the tricorder and scan everything around revealing hidden items such as dropped communicators that add to the story.  For instance, you can find tape recordings from a scientist that provide additional information on what he/she is working on that adds backstory to the larger events of the plot.  While all this tangential information adds flavor the downside to all this tricorder scanning is that it feels like a massive slog as it forces players to scan everything they find in order to discover these hidden messages.  When using the tricorder players cannot utilize their weapons and the characters suddenly move at roughly 50% speed.  It is just not fun to enter a new area and spend extra minutes scanning everything ad infinitum. I’m going to guess that most impatient gamers will skip scanning altogether and concentrate on mowing down anything that moves.

Make no mistake, this game is full of bugs and glitches that will either make you laugh or hurl your controller at the wall.  There are far too many of these instances that pop up from time to time to excuse Digital Extremes here considering the game was initially meant to launch last year and only postponed because the feature film, Into Darkness, was pushed back to its new May 17 2013 release date.  The overall lack of polish and the barebones package included speak volumes about the sad state of movie license games that have limited budgets and production time, a toxic combination that results in less than desirable titles.

My play through was punctuated with a ton of clipping issues where Kirk and Spock would essentially phase through themselves or through a piece of the environment.  While I never got stuck on any object it certainly made for a laugh watching Kirk and Spock appear as if they had been the product of a massive transporter failure.  There was another time where I just burst out laughing during a stage where Kirk and Spock automatically jump off a cliff and basically glide down into a canyon.  The sequence actually was quite cool as I had to navigate Kirk back and forth will avoiding environmental obstacles yet the reason for my laughter stemmed from the fact that for some bizarre reason the exact moment where I saw the cut scene of the duo jumping the AI Spock fell to his death right to the bottom of the canyon while Kirk flew away.  This prompted the AI Spock to continuously ask for help because he was wounded while Kirk kept flying along like Peter Pan without a care in the world.

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When in doubt…jump off a cliff!

Let’s think about this for a moment.  How did this happen?  I could understand this occurring if a player was in control of Spock and forgot to press a button on his controller ordering Spock to glide yet this is impossible because the AI is in control of the character plus the fact that the sequence forces both characters to glide AUTOMATICALLY.  In other words, a bug popped up where the game thought Spock fell to his death even though the stage was forcing the player to glide anyways.  Yeah…hilarious.

However, this could be excused if not for other more heinous bugs such as one where my Kirk died and was revived by the AI Spock yet inexplicably found himself not being able to use his tricorder and worse, had no weapons.  Instead, my resurrected Kirk had his weaponry mysteriously disappear from the character model.  At the same time mashing the tricorder button did nothing either. Making matters worse I could not pick up any dropped weapon so you can imagine how “amazing” my game turned out to be for the next ten minutes as I decided to go around trying to punch Gorn in the face seeing as I couldn’t do anything else.

Obviously, that did not last long.  Why?  I also realized at that moment that I couldn’t melee anyone this way either.  The game only allows players to first stun enemies with a weapon and then a follow-up melee punch attack can occur. Thus I found out the hard way running up to a Gorn and then mashing melee punch resulting in…nothing happening.  I suppose in an ironic fashion this bug that removed my weapons actually resulted in learning more gameplay intricacies like this but it is surely not the optimal avenue in which to educate gamers. The only way I could fix the bug was to quit the game and restart which thankfully allowed my Kirk to use the tricorder and be armed with his phaser once again.

Even if one could excuse all these bugs the gameplay itself has a few annoying niggles of its own the worst of which is floaty jumping where either Kirk or Spock don’t jump the way you’d expect.  Case in point was one section of a stage which required Kirk to jump over a broken bridge which had me cursing to no end as hundreds of virtual Kirk’s fell to their doom.  It was so frustrating that it actually convinced me that the jump was impossible so I wasted almost thirty extra minutes backtracking and scanning everything with my tricorder to see if there was another solution to the problem.  Exasperated I went back to the broken bridge and completed the jump no problem except the animation made it appear that Kirk did not manage to grab the bridge at all but merely hung in midair as if he was holding an invisible ledge.

In fact any sort of platforming element is near ghastly because of the broken jump mechanics and I kid you not by stating that there seems to be a very minor delay between giving the command on the controller and your character actually jumping.  This is obviously not much of an issue during combat as a delayed jump won’t usually result in your death yet when tasked to make precision leaps it is simply annoying to no end.

If everything I’ve said sounds ghastly let me pause for a moment and say that the game itself can certainly entertain if one knows exactly what one is getting into.  The constant shooting flies in the face of original Star Trek yet this is clearly J.J. Abrams’ universe where things are more action oriented.  Yes, there’s simply too much shooting but if taken in small doses the game is competent enough as long as a game breaking bug doesn’t pop up.  The enemy AI might be dumb as a rock yet it doesn’t mean you can’t have some degree of fun mowing them down with the various different weapons.

There are a ton of weapons to use ranging from your standard issue phaser and plasma rifle to more exotic Gorn devices some of which bear remarkable resemblance to Halo/Gears of War weaponry.  Each weapon has a primary and secondary firing mechanism and in grand Trek fashion the standard phaser has unlimited ammo as long as you don’t overuse it causing it to overheat and temporarily shut down.  Once you begin to upgrade weapons some of them become highly useful in specific situations plus the fact that their attributes change quite significantly.  Your standard phaser works like a laser pistol shooting off bursts of energy at a slow rate but once you invest in the full automatic upgrade the shots come out in torrents.  If that is not to your liking you can upgrade to a more powerful shot where each fourth burst is super powerful proving a nifty sounding boom that accentuates the force.

What isn’t so hot is the fact that both Spock and Kirk have separate upgrade screens even though they are exactly the same.  This means that players essentially have to grind twice the number of points to unlock the same upgrades, one for each character.  It would have been much simpler if you only had to pay once for an upgrade that both characters could use and it seems like a needless gameplay mechanic to force players to grind harder.

What is unfortunate is that clearly the developers have put a lot of thought into some areas of the game which work such as one stage that takes place outside a starbase under siege from Gorn ships where Kirk and Spock have to traverse debris and shattered floors.  This stage has our heroes essentially teleporting from one part of the station to the next which frankly does a great job in reminding everyone that space is three dimensional so you can walk on the sides, on top, or under walls/floors.

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At least the Enterprise looks cool…

Additionally, although it is slightly overused, the segments where Kirk and Spock have to fly through space much like the shot you see in the Into Darkness trailer where Kirk is hurtling through space are actually cool as they allow the developer to throw in giant space battles happening in the background or litter the screen with obstacles.  It certainly gets your blood flowing navigating our heroes through space while the Enterprise is in the background but the downside is that these sequences are far too short.  Not to mention the lack of attention to detail as it is near hilarious to see Kirk fly at ridiculous speed towards the Enterprise so much so that you’d expect him to splatter himself into a fine red paste as he rams into the side of the ship but instead a cinematic will take over as you get close enough showing him land unharmed.

One area that should please fans is the environmental work especially on the Enterprise as the game allows players to traverse areas not seen in the reboot film such as sick bay or the warp core.  Other areas such as the bridge and the shuttle bay have been expanded upon immensely allowing players a better idea how the ship is constructed and laid out.  Non-fans might not care that they can now see the entire inside of the shuttle bay but Trek fans will certainly feel giddy as the game essentially fills in a lot of blanks left unanswered in the movie.

Even the “beer” factory look of engineering is kept intact but this time players are allowed to see how all those brightly coloured pipes and discordant structures do make some sense as one area melds into the next.  For instance, those aforementioned brightly coloured pipes can be seen in the shuttle bay as well so you at least get the impression that the design aesthetic is uniform throughout the ship.

One area where Star Trek The Video Game shines is in its sound both in its orchestral score and surprisingly, its voice over performances.  I don’t think I am insulting anyone when I point out the fact that most movie licensed games featuring the real actors usually result in lame monotone performances of nonchalance yet that is not the case here.  Chris Pine does a fabulous job as Kirk as his delivery is spot on and it elevates the material substantially when you feel as if a voice actor is throwing themselves totally into the experience.  Close your eyes and you’d almost expect you were watching the original movie as Pine infuses his Kirk with overflowing bravado.  Zachary Quinto isn’t as successful often times lapsing into said monotones yet in this case it doesn’t really matter as Spock himself isn’t exactly known for overacting.  Everyone else is hit or miss although good old Simon Pegg delivers his lines with as much gusto as Pine.

The musical score is a big surprise as it takes Michael Giacchino’s main theme and delivers a soundtrack that organically feels as if it comes from the same style.  It also makes good use of certain musical cues that Giacchino uses in his cinematic score and incorporates them into new arrangements.  Then again you better have a great appreciation of the main theme itself as it pops up far too often as if used as punctuation.

Star Trek The Video Game is a decent attempt that just does not come together in the end due to the litany of bugs and the rather humdrum repetitive nature of the gameplay.  Shooting Gorn works for a while but the game is laden with a totally uneven pace.  Although gamers will expect the early levels to be small in scope the game has a nasty tendency to over-inflate levels long past the point of relevance.  Stages such as the starbase are far too long considering the narrative that is occurring at the same time.  Having a starbase under siege while our two heroes spend hours traipsing from one end of the base to the other clearly makes little sense.

At the same time I can’t help feel as if the game starts out with its best foot forward and then progressively slides down into the ditch.  The early levels that take place on the Enterprise and then the Vulcan Science Station and New Vulcan seem to have far more variety in terms of the environment plus the fact that all the gameplay mechanics are new.  However, once players hit the starbase everything slowly begins to look the same as one corridor resembles the next until players lose track of where they are.

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It’s unfortunate that the design team went from making cool sights like this to generic corridors and caves…

Take the above screenshot as an example.  Here is an early level within the Vulcan Science Station that visually impresses as Kirk and Spock have to walk on rotating rings trying to shut them down.  Not only does it look engaging but the player is treated to “something different” other than shooting enemies in the face as they have to co-operate to shoot locks and duck into cover as the station’s shielding fails exposing them to high temperatures.  Unfortunately, once the Gorn do appear the game decides to throw armies of them at our heroes and makes matters worse by placing them in boring mundane environments such as never-ending caves that have been done in too many better action titles.

Even if we are to forgive the apparent disconnect between the narrative and the levels the sheer monotony of entering a new area, clearing the enemies and then hitting a switch is far too tedious.  The game even manages to infuriate by perpetually throwing more and more Gorn at you as they mysteriously beam in begging the question why Kirk and Spock just can’t order more red shirt Federation security to do the same to help fight them back.  When our dynamic duo take off by themselves to rectify certain situations you almost want to slap them in their faces for not asking for more help.

Additionally, there is one, yes just ONE, space battle on-rails sequence where the player takes control of the Enterprise’s phasers while pursuing Gorn ships.  This has got to be one of the most infuriating sequences around since the instructions are vague and the radar is next to useless.  It took me forever to realize that I could shoot in 360 degrees which is probably why I got so damaged as fighters were blasting the ship from the back without my knowledge.

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A video game about a man in a rubber suit sitting with William Shatner would probably have been better than what we got…

Since we are in the J.J. Abrams’ universe expect tons of over-the-top action which accentuates visual acumen over common sense.  Although diehard Trek fans might scowl the action certainly works in a video game setting where the impracticality of some sequences is diminished by the medium’s propensity for over-exaggeration.  The overall narrative is about as fresh as month old bread sitting outside under a torrential downpour but at least the witty buddy movie banter between Kirk and Spock is actually engaging allowing for many hilarious comebacks from either character.  However, if witty banter is all you’ve got you’re clearly doing more wrong than right.  In the end Star Trek The Video Game falls prey to being yet another middling movie tie-in and is only recommended if you are a diehard fan and if you can pick it up in the less than $20 bargain bin.

*1/2 out of ****

Published by Namco Bandai

Developed by Digital Extremes

Release US: 04/23/2013

Release EU: 04/26/2013

ESRB: Teen

© 2013 The Galactic Pillow

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