Platforms: PC | PS3 (previewed) | Xbox 360
Developers: Digital Extremes
Publishers: Namco Bandai
The Senior Vice President of Paramount Pictures, Brian Miller, took to a stage assembled on the lofty upper floor of London's Science Museum earlier this week to pay tribute a number of games - Mass Effect, Halo to name but two - without which, he said, the upcoming Star Trek game might never have been possible. "They showed us that there was a market for this sort of thing," he said, having declared that Digital Extremes and Paramount Pictures were readying a film tie-in "unlike anything that's ever been done before".
His inference was clear: film games tend to be crap. He's right, of course, cinematic IPs often end up spilling out into other other forms of media around release as part of generating hype and cashing in on a franchise's popularity. Licences are dished out with less than twelve months to go before general release, and corners are cut as dev teams scramble to fashion something (anything!) worthwhile.
But not in this case. Digital Extremes have been beavering away, with assistance from Paramount themselves, for three years on this game. The story has been penned by BAFTA award-winning scribe Marianne Krawczyk in conjunction with the film's writers Alex Kurtzman and Bob Orci and, as Miller noted, this game sits canonically in between the events of 2009's film and the sequel coming this summer.
It's easy to see where the time and money has gone. The productions values are top-notch, and it's an incredibly shiny game to behold. The Enterprise herself is a beautiful ship from the inside, begging to be explored, looking just as resplendent here as she did in J. J. Abrams reboot. Displays and sensor arrays blink and bleep, their lights dancing in a fashion that would put entire discos to shame.
Kirk and Spock look and sound just like Chris Pine and Zachary Quinto, although they do move as if they've arthritically challenged. But, clunky movements aside, they've been characterised exceptionally well as far as we can tell from an hour in their company. The back and forth banter between the two leads is spot on, the script liberally sprinkled with swift one-liners and comic quips.
“I like her," Kirk smirks upon meeting a strong-willed female captain. "There are few you don't," notes Spock wryly.
The constant communication between the two is but one striking feature that hammers home Star Trek's main focus: co-operative play. Miller explains in an hour-long presentation which precedes our hands-on time that the game has been specifically built with co-op in mind, and it shows. Divergent gameplay sequences litter the game's story. Early on, we are shown a scene in which Kirk's brash persona and gung-ho attitude leads to him practically breaking his leg. As with the demo we were shown back in 2011, once Spock gets him to the medical bay, Kirk must fend off assailants whilst Spock completes a little minigame to fix his companion's leg.
During our hands-on section, one such minigame sees me (playing as Kirk) matching four pairs of waveforms together from a list. Nothing particularly complex, just a little variation to render the action of unlocking a terminal something greater than pressing a button. Later on, as Spock clambers up a series of crumbling ledges, I have to shut down a handful of deadly robotic laser arms by targeting them with tricorder and deactivating them. In another scene, surrounded by fire, the nifty little device an be sued to override the sprinkler system. It's not quite as open and awesome as it sounds, this is strictly scripted stuff, but it's good to see the tricorder have its moment in the sun.
The tricorder plays a key part when it comes to progression too, and you can whip it out with a nudge of the left bumper. Scanning your surroundings will not only point you in the direction you should be going, but also highlight points of interest, not to mention secret areas, items, and bodies that might be further analysed to provide the player with boosted points at the end of a mission chapter, to be spent on weapon upgrades and unlocks.
In many ways, the tricorder is precisely the reason that so many Star Trek games in the past (outside of space combat sims) have leant firmly towards the adventure genre, ready made for point and click exploration and puzzle solving. But in this title, it shares the stage firmly with the Phaser.
The gunslinging mechanics of Star Trek see you squaring off against the Gorn - the cunning, reptilian warriors seen in The Original Series' episode 'Arena' -not that we saw much of them during the demo. The Gorn have been expanded in concept to provide a range of classes and diverse weaponry (Miller estimated that there are "well over 20" different weapons in the game as a whole), with every firearm that Star Trek has to offer coming with two distinct firing modes. Snapping to chest-high walls for cover was the order of the day, and though Kirk's Captain's Phaser felt impactful and weighty, the gunplay mechanics themselves lacked both the solidity and responsive nature of Mass Effect 3's well tuned system.
That said, it was nothing compared to a little platforming sequence that would have been fine in any other game, but took ten minutes of hilarious pitfalls and deadly bloopers because of the inconsistent lag between pressing the jump button and waiting for it to respond. The few climbing sections we got stuck into made Uncharted look like a platforming paragon.
All of which makes Star Trek something of a mixed bag. My companion in intrepid spacefaring and I laughed a lot during the demo, but too much of the time that was arguably for the wrong reasons. I laughed when, instead of jumping to a ledge, Kirk simply slipped into a fiery abyss for the tenth time, but only to stop myself from crying in frustration. We were in a public place, after all; had I been sat in my lounge in my pants, there would have been swearing, and hardware would have been in jeopardy. We giggled at Simon Pegg's face, which looked a little like he'd had a stroke. We chuckled at manner in which some of the lip-synching reminded us of some of our favourite, amusingly dubbed kung fu movies.
That said, we also laughed at the one-liners, we talked tactics, we puzzled things out together, and the offscreen fist-bump which came at the end of the first section we played was only partially conducted in irony. If Digital Extremes can tighten up the mechanics to create a more consistent shooter, then the setting, the environment, and the writing may well elevate Star Trek into being an incredibly worthy film tie-in after all and, if Miller's heavy hinting is true, there's even a section à la 'Amok Time', where Spock and Kirk square off against one another.
Hell, if the writing remains as consistently on the money as it was in the demo all of the way throughout the game, everyone's onto a winner.