Monday, May 18, 2009

demo monday: to boldly go…

the movie was better Something that I was ashamed of up until about a week ago: I am a big-time Star Trek aficionado. Though I would not refer to myself as a “trekkie” as such, I’m definitely a fan, having seen all ten movies and nearly every episode of every one of the TV series excluding the abominable Enterprise. I knew that, to some degree, there was something wrong with or silly about a lot of this campy science fiction, but there’s something about Trek that has always been able to melt my icy, blackened heart and elicit genuine joy.

Last weekend, I was finally vindicated. Much to my surprise, JJ Abrams, the man responsible for bullshit like this, took a franchise that Rick Berman had shot in the head and left for dead and restored it to more or less full health. For a Trek fan, it was pure gold, nearly pitch-perfect and masterfully cast, a movie that took the elements of what made the series fun and ran with them. For non-Trek fans and even Trek haters, it’s a big, fast and fun summer action movie that will be hard to miss.

What I am trying to say is that I liked this movie a lot, and when I saw an advertisement for Naked Sky Entertainment’s Star Trek D-A-C on Xbox Live Arcade, I knew it was the game I would be test driving for my next Demo Monday. Is this a Trek game that captures the excitement of the new movie, or is another quick-and-dirty licensed cash-in?

Star Trek, for whatever reason, hasn’t seen many good video game adaptations over the years, especially compared to other franchises like Star Wars. This is in part because the cowboys-in-space style of Star Wars lends itself better to bang-bang-blow-‘em-up action games than does Trek – it is hard to make an action game centered around the theme of growing old, or of debating the definition of humanity, or of whatever the fuck this is. Another point in Star Wars games’ favor is the fact that they have a fairly respected development studio in their corner, which is certainly not the case with Trek.

So we’ve waited years and years for some game to recapture the feel of battles like those in The Wrath of Khan or the skirmishes of the Dominion War, and though many have tried, most have failed. One of my Trekkie friends and I followed news of Star Trek Legacy feverishly for months before tripping and falling face first into the steaming pile that was that game. In that particular case, Bethesda even teased us with voiceovers from all the Trek captains and beautiful, accurate ship models – if only all of that hadn’t wrapped up in some of the jankiest broken gameplay this side of the Mutara Nebula, we’d have been set.

After all that build-up, I regret to report that Star Trek D-A-C is not the Star Trek game for which we’ve been waiting so patiently. For what it is, it’s a competent enough product, but it’s hurt by being about half an inch deep and having little to nothing to do with Star Trek.

D-A-C (which I hear stands for Deathmatch, Assault and Conquest, though I had to take a trip to Wikipedia to find that out) is a top-down two-dimensional shooter. I know there have been other games like this but I can’t think of a specific example off the top of my head – think of the all-range versus mode from Starfox 64 and squeeze that down to two dimensions, and you’ll be pretty close. Players choose between two teams, the Federation and the Romulans, choose a ship, and blow each other up. In the demo, only the Deathmatch mode is available – if your team gets the most points, you win.

don't let the background fool you - you've only got two dimensions to fly in here Pew pew pew!

Each team has three ships, ranging from fragile but zippy fighters to the better-armored but slower Constitution-class flagships – only the fighter is available in the demo, but based on the behavior of my AI teammates and adversaries, the differences between the three are minimal at best. Power-ups litter the map, and bestow upon you upgrades to your primary laser, homing torpedoes and others – the coolest one creates a doppelganger that draws fire away from your ship. It took me a couple of rounds to figure out what buttons did what, but afterwards I actually found myself having some fun, and if you could get a group of friends together to play it I could definitely see its potential. I was, however, limited to offline single-player mode – both of my attempts to connect to an Xbox Live session met with error messages. Not the best way to sell your game to me, gents.

The game is exceedingly simple, and the demo only offers up an iota of gameplay what with the game mode, team, and ship selection limitations. Still, you can tell that even with the different game modes that there’s just not a lot of meat on these bones. I’d give the full game two or three hours’ worth of entertainment value, depending on whether you can find anyone to play with. The game is also a bit bland graphically speaking – the most impressive visual is the close-up of the Enterprise you see at the game select screen. Not much to see here. The only place where D-A-C gets full marks is for sound, but that’s mostly because it’s really hard to screw up laser noises, and because they took all of the game’s music from the movie’s excellent score.

Buy or pass? What we have here is the kernel of an entertaining arcade game, though one with very limited replay value. It has some virtues, but it makes almost no use of its revitalized license, giving it little extra appeal for fans of Star Trek. Taking into consideration the fact that this game will set you back $10, I’m going to have to pass it up – go spend that money on another game or, better yet, go to your nearest movie theater and pony up for another Star Trek ticket – it’s especially great in IMAX.