When we received the invite from Paramount to go and check out Star Trek, we weren't exactly brimming with expectation. Licensed products tend to be pretty bad, particularly if there's talk of parallel releases alongside a film of sorts. It's a stigma of which director Steve Sinclair is all too aware, and he's keen to outline right away that Star Trek is going be a pretty big deal, the Ron Burgundy if you will of license games. 'This isn't your typical licensed project,' says Sinclair. 'We're making a game for gamers first and foremost, not necessarily Star Trek fans...though we're anticipating some crossover.'
So what sort of a game is it? Well imagine if you took a buddy-cop movie, chucked it into a pestle with a dollop of Gears of War, Army of Two, the resources at Industrial Light and Magic, and, of course, J.J. Abrams' 2009 franchise reboot you'd have something of an idea. 'We've had access to ILM, we've literally rebuilt sets from the movie and we have some seriously talented writers working on this with games like Godof War on their resume,' continues Sinclair. The game is essentially a co-operative third-person action title, it's been built from the ground upwards to suit interplay between two players, and Sinclair assured us that the two characters - Kirk and Spock - will play differently to one another, before diving into a presentation to show us what he meant.
The demo kicked off with a red alert situation (isn't it always?) - Kirk and Spock have been out on a mission but the Enterprise is in danger of being overrun and they need to get back. Cue a speedy fly-by-wire scuba-sprint through deep space, with James T. and his pointy-eared buddy dodging depth charges while zipping back to the ship courtesy of a couple of LSPUs. The landing is, for Kirk at least, a rough one - he goes careering off into a pile of crates as Spock comes to a halt as gracefully as can be.
Digital Extremes have made certain that the differences between the two characters are not just superficial, though. The banter is firmly in place - although the voice acting wasn't quite yet (there are ongoing discussions, but Sinclair refused to reveal any more information on that topic) - and predominantly Kirk will reveal himself to be the brash and bold character we all know and love, with Spock erring on the side of caution.
This bleeds into their gameplay styles: Kirk is a brazen, strong character and his weaponry reflects that. His captain's issue phaser is a powerful firearm much like a magnum or Desert Eagle. Spock, however, comes sporting the Vulcan cannon - an armament that deals less damage but has a higher rate of fire - with both weapons enjoying a kill and stun/stasis function. As the player takes down enemies, their weapons will gain in XP and upgrade naturally. Kirk obtains a vaporise ability, while Spock enjoys a spot of autofire.
But it's not all just blasting away with the phaser (the Federation rifle offers concussion blasts!), combat has some other elements to make the action far more engrossing. I got a massive kick, for example, from seeing Kirk whip out his Tricorder on a number of occasions. First time around he uses it to scan a dead redshirt (it's always a redshirt) for information on the alien toxin that seems to have depopulated the ship. Sinclair explained that there were around half a dozen redshirts scattered around this bit and that one's diligence to toxin scanning would directly impact on a gameplay event a short way on.
Second time, in the middle of a firefight, Kirk goes and activates a deployable shield before tapping away on the Tricorder and overloading a power conduit. Spock meanwhile, goes tiptoeing around behind an unsuspecting alien and gives him a battlefield mind-meld, turning him against his buddies so that the Federation duo can nip off to safety. You'll be able to help revive your fallen friend thanks to the wonderful hypo spray and it was here that we got to see a bit of the buddy-cop influences come to the fore. Kirk goes down under attack from one of the aliens, and Spock scoops him up and has to make a dash for it to the medical bay as Kirk covers the two of them with his good arm. It's here that the toxin research comes into play. As Spock runs diagnostics on the toxin - the length of time dependent on how many redshirts you scanned previously - Kirk, his vision warped and woozy, has to fend off alien assailants.
The last part of the demonstration sees the Enterprise fall. The aliens move to take Kirk and Spock hostage but, before they can, Kirk overrides the absent shuttle, and pilots it into straight into the ship. The player actually ended up flying the shuttle and naturally this gave rise to a bunch of questions about piloting the Enterprise and the possibilities of space combat. That's not really what Digital Extremes are gunning for, although they did reveal that there would be scenarios that will see players take control of the Enterprise, although as Sinclair stressed, 'it's not a flight sim'.
Although mightily impressed with the demo we saw - the lighting effects look fantastic, the combat looks tight and responsive with smooth animations, lag-free cover systems and some mechanics we can't wait to play around with - we were naturally concerned about a few things, having only really seen shooter elements to the gameplay. Star Trek is, after all, the definitive saga of space adventuring: new life, new civilisations, boldly going where no man has gone before etc. But none of that was in our demo. Thankfully, Sinclair laid our minds to rest with that one. 'Although we created this game to be a good game before all else, of course that licence means a lot to us, we're all massive fans and adventuring and exploration are absolutely essential in any Star Trek related material,' said Sinclair. 'The entire first chapter of the game goes by without any killing [...] and there'll be moments were you'll have to make decision, real ethical choices, that will definitely have a major impact on events later on in the game.'
We're excited, really excited. We probably shouldn't be this excited, there are schools of thought that journalists should be lobotomised drones of objectivity with unfeeling 'opinions' based on critical theory. But we're also gamers and we like surprises, we love to be proved wrong in cases like this . Star Trek wasn't on anybody's radar before that little glimpse at the Sony presser back at E3. Now it should be on everybody's. We had only one question left to ask, which was that considering Kirk's uncanny knack for wooing alien females, would Star Trek be giving Mass Effect a run for its steamy money? 'Oh the hotness is being brought to the max,' replied Sinclair, 'but I can't confirm any hues.'
Star Trek will release alongside J.J. Abrams' sequel in 2012 on PC, PS3 and Xbox 360.