Kirk and Spock's friendship is the perfect setup for a buddy movie. You've got the original odd couple, an all-action space jock who keeps one hand on a phaser and the other on an Orion slave girl, coupled with the ultimate thinking machine. Namco Bandai's new Star Trek tie-in takes our heroes on a brand new cooperative adventure, tying into J.J. Abrams' new canon without overlapping with the films. Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto and Simon Pegg have lent their voices and faces to the characters, and thanks to a close working relationship with Paramount, the game features Enterprise sets taken directly from the movies.
Digital Extremes brought a slick cooperative 3D demo along to E3 2012 in order to show off their work in progress: a third person cover shooter featuring one of this year's most oft-used buzzwords: asymmetrical co-op. Answering a distress call from New Vulcan, Kirk and Spock will face down the ravening Gorn Hegemony, complimenting each other with different abilities while pushing the bloodthirsty lizards off of the Vulcans' last remaining refuge.
What I saw was both impressive and conflicted; a project that seems to be both strengthened and potentially hamstrung by its own ambitions.
As an action-oriented character, Kirk prefers to shoot first and ask questions later. His new phaser has more in common with Harry Callahan's .44 Magnum than a ray gun, allowing him to charge headlong into the fray, leaping over cover and engaging the lizard-like Gorn with fists when up close. His high stamina and penchant for messy brawling makes him a straightforward action hero, and an easy protagonist for players to instantly engage with.
Spock, on the other hand, is the brains of the outfit; preferring to hang back, assess the situation and engage only when good and ready. A nifty Tricorder allows him to highlight enemy weak points for both characters to target, pick locks or to gain valuable intel from the environment. As any Trekkie knows, however, Spock is no slouch in combat - and can use precise phaser strikes, combat mind melds (making enemies run amok) or nerve pinches to disable and debilitate his foes once their weaknesses have been pointed out. Since both characters offer unique gameplay experiences, and are often put into markedly different positions in each firefight, there's potential for at least two enjoyable playthroughs here.
Star Trek fans will probably recognise the Gorn from TOS episode Arena, where a single foe put Kirk through his paces on a barren desert world. The expanded universe subsequently developed this lone combatant into an entire confederation, and Digital Extremes have taken the alien race to their logical conclusion. Descending upon New Vulcan in enormous battle barges, hell-bent on conquest and destruction, these hulking lizard-men are fast and durable, their brutish captains capable of providing a stern challenge for two players. Powerful infectious venom allows them to dominate lesser races, creating crazed thrall armies out of the surviving Vulcans. Their durable hides make identifying thoracic weakpoints a key concern for Spock, though on the flip-side, some of the larger specimens often seem to be unsatisfying damage sponges.
Digital Extremes should be congratulated for choosing a lesser-known enemy rather than focusing on, say, Klingons or Romulans, but the Gorn we've seen so far are very much your stereotypical Lizardmen. Saurians. Kobolds. Whatever you prefer to call them. Considering that Abram's new universe is very much the final frontier, and the canon is ripe for reinvention, it's a little disappointing that one of the major post-TNG races weren't given their time to shine. Perhaps the Borg, for example. Here's hoping that the finished product will further specialise the Gorn into visually different classes or castes, and provide a truly varied selection of foes to fight against beyond rushers, warriors and brutes.
Here's where things get slightly divisive. Strip away the fan service and asymmetrical cooperation, and the third person gunplay suddenly becomes incredibly familiar. You'll take cover and shoot enemies in closed arenas. You'll pick up rifles and engage from a distance, sometimes hunkering down in timed segments while waiting for the Enterprise to blast enemy positions with an orbital bombardment. Cutscenes continually drive the action from one firefight to the next, pulling the narrative along in a laser-focused, rollercoaster fashion. The gameplay certainly looks solid, though as we recently discussed in one of our PWNcasts, third person shooters are an obvious and over-used genre for movie tie-ins. Pleasingly, some witty banter between the two characters and high-octane action sequences should help Star Trek to feel like an epic space adventure, even while it's steadfastly chugging along the rails.
Star Trek will be full of tightly scripted moments, and it's clear that the experience will be extremely linear. At one point, Kirk automatically falls off of a catwalk, helplessly hanging onto a ledge while Spock searches for a means to extend a bridge. It might be fun the first time, sure, but this is an example of the dark side of cooperative game design: forcing one player to idle while their partner scurries to help them in scripted, contrived ways. We hope that these sections will be few and far between, but because several appeared in the demo, we're a little worried that this could impact replayability. Since Star Trek will release as a full boxed retail game rather than a downloadable PSN/XBLA title, Digital Extremes will have to work that much harder to provide players with value, and to deserve, to earn, the premium price point.
It's hard to make a value judgement on hands-off preview materials, and it's often inappropriate to do so. But I was certainly impressed with the shooting mechanics and potential for strong asymmetrical cooperation, with its hyper-linear structure tempered by the fact that you can play it through twice from different perspectives. How linear is too linear, whether the Gorn will actually make for interesting combatants, and whether we really need another third person cover shooter still remains to be seen, however.
We'll find out when Star Trek releases on PS3, Xbox 360 and PC early next year.