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TrekWeb Reviews Interplay's Long-Awaited Starship Combat Simulator Klingon Academy

Posted: 17:08:41 on July 11
By: Steve Krutzler
Dept: Features

Star Trek: Klingon Academy // Interplay Productions // Windows 95/98/2000 // $44.99

Written by Steve Krutzler

Not long after seeing famous battles in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, Star Trek III: The Search for Spock, and Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, Star Trek and gaming fans alike clamored for a rip-roaring simulation that they could take control of. But not only did technology, both in personal computing as well as game design, lack the level of sophistication to truly make this a reality, but many attempts failed to truly approximate space combat between Star Trek-style starships.

The linchpin being that a starship from the Trek universe is much larger than a “fighter” ship, which most space combat simulations offered. In fact, Interplay’s first attempt at large scale Star Trek space combat was the over-ambitious Starfleet Academy which was a huge disappointment to gamers. Steering huge ships like the Enterprise or Reliant became reduced to flying fighters which were far more maneuverable than these fictitious starships should be. Furthermore, starships are probably more easily likened to a huge battleship on the ocean: they don’t move very fast, they have a hell of a lot of fire power, and they take a crew of hundreds to manage all their systems. Interplay’s next stab at the apple, Starfleet Command, was actually based on a board game called Starfleet Battles and though the ships became more realistic, they still responded more like fighters. SFC did allow for greater control over the ship’s systems, but flaws -- such as torpedoes that only randomly damage their targets (a hold over from the board game) once every few shots, and mouse-driven management – made the game fun to play for a while but ultimately frustrating because the realism was absent and the computer tended to screw you out of a lot of well-planned point-blank range torpedo shots.

Enter Star Trek: Klingon Academy. Technically the sequel to Starfleet Academy, KA promises to be the best starship combat simulator ever—and in this reviewer’s opinion, it is. Flying Klingon or Federation starships of different shapes and sizes reveals vessels that respond differently according to their size and most undeniably react like a huge spaceship would, and like they’re shown to react in the Star Trek movies. But the real improvement over past games and particularly Starfleet Command is the implementation of a so-called Verbal Orders System or VOS. Instead of being mouse-driven, like Command, which made it difficult to manage your ship’s system’s with the same efficiency of your computer opponent, Klingon Academy has placed all your ship’s systems into menus on the main screen. To execute commands, you key in sequences of numbers corresponding to the menu options; for example, to cloak you press 7-5, to shift power management into standard battle configuration, you press 1-3-1, and to emergency turn you press 2-5-1. Though initially frustrating because it seems that you are being asked to memorize a ménage of key sequences to handle ship functions, you find that remembering common functions’ sequences is rather easy and the menus are quick enough for you to quickly read the menu options during battle if you don’t remember what number you want. In effect, this VOS system is the most advanced method that any game has presented for the control of a huge starship with many systems. There are nine major categories of orders and you can navigate these menus more in-depth by going to a full-screen view of that station. However, if you aren’t quick with the mouse and the memory, pointing and clicking to micromanage while in these screens can cost you dearly while your ship flies itself waiting for you to return from the station screen. But, with practice, you tend to know where to click and can get out of the screens quick enough. The game designers even allow for game play to slow while in these menus to compensate for their somewhat cumbersome design.

One unique feature to this game which hasn’t appeared in past attempts is the gunnery chair. Normally you are in a standard fly-and-fight screen. However, with this feature, you can order your helmsman to pursue your target while you concentrate on firing at it. In the gunnery chair, you gain access to all your ship’s weapon’s systems, not just those front-firing ones available while flying. The gunnery chair typically maintains a lock on the target and you can keep on firing. You can fly from the chair as well, but your perspective is changed and you must compensate for that when flying. Switching between normal and gunnery chair adds an interesting dimension to the simulation.

The simulation is highly advanced, allowing you to manage a myriad of ship’s systems. You can set power management to pre-ordained settings for battle, stealth, cloak detection, or other tasks. And if you don’t like these recorded power settings, you can go into the engineering station and assign new settings to the menu options. Another feature which adds to the realism is that functionality of terrain. Terrains include nebulae, star coronas, asteroid fields, gas giants, and planets, and you can actually use them to your advantage. For instance, you can tractor your opponent into a star or gas giant or black hole, if you can get a tractor lock on him.

To this impressive combat simulator, Interplay has added the best graphics and sound of any past Trek title. The cover of the game, which depicts Klingon ships ripping the Enterprise into flames, can actually be achieved by the player. Unlike previous games which only showed smoke trails or your opponent blowing up, you can get immense satisfaction out of firing a torpedo into a starship’s saucer section and seeing something similar to that famous underside-shot from Star Trek VI. The ships get damaged and there’s nothing more exciting than delivering torpedoes into a starship and seeing them blow the hull to bits and knock of warp nacelles. Connect your subwoofer and you can feel those hull-pounding jolts as well.

In-game graphics aren’t the only thing that makes this title a visual gem. The game’s storyline, which puts you in Klingon Academy under the instruction of General Chang from The Undiscovered Country, includes over 90 minutes of original footage with Chrisopher Plummer as Chang and David Warner as Chancellor Gorkon. Though the intro movie may seem like Plummer isn’t doing much acting and the makeup looks a bit unpolished, as you play the game and watch the cut-scenes, the General grows on you and it actually becomes quite entertaining. In this manner, Interplay has joined the simulator with a top-notch game environment to offer that plot fix many fans may crave. Even Michael Dorn lends his voice as a relative-of-Worf’s-relative from Star Trek VI. The game’s movie scenes can even be played independently with a utility provided, and during game play all cut scenes can be skipped by pressing either SPACE or ESC. It’s no wonder they gave you a movie-viewing utility: they’re so large that the game checks in at six CDs, enough to make you wish you had a CD-changer for your computer!

But even though you have a large amount of control available to you through the VOS, the plethora of menu options combined with the heat of a battle can lead to mistyped key sequences that often result in mission-ending orders being given by accident. There’s nothing more annoying than playing a mission for an hour, defeating all your opponents, and then accidentally hitting the wrong key sequence which warps you to the wrong system resulting in an expiration of the time limit, making you fail the mission. Be ready to have that Quick Reference Card open on your desk, and don't count on the cumbersome 200+ page manual to be much help about basic strategy. Something else that proves annoying, as other reviewers have mentioned, is the computer’s tendency to collide with you. Sure, you can do a little to avoid such collisions, but sometimes it seems like the computer is trying to collide with you. And collisions are costly in Klingon Academy; occasionally you’ll escape with a slight reduction in shield strength, but most of the time it knocks your hull strength down by at least thirty percent. Most distressing is the fact that because sometimes when you’re in a battle with a few starships all firing simultaneously, the game (even with 128 megs of ram on a PIII-600 processor running Windows 2000) still experiences slow downs in the form of delayed reactions to key sequences or frozen screens for a second or two and then jumping to find yourself in the middle of an unavoidable collision. Sometimes battles are reduced to mere turning battles, with you seemingly turning forever in search of your opponent, who is staying close enough to just piss you off when you can’t find him for what seem like periods of eternity.

Though generally we found the game to run quite stably on our system, allowing for multiple ALT+ESC’s back to the Windows desktop, the best track record of any Star Trek game of late, the longer you play the slower it gets and frequently we experienced a loss of sound effects which we could only remedy by restarting the game. But that’s not as simple as you think… when you quit, if CD 1 isn’t in the drive, it gives you a CD error asking for it. Essentially, the first CD is used only to start and exit the game, and the latter is most annoying. Occasionally the menu screens will go black and not refresh until you run the mouse over the black area and it slowly uncovers the screen as it would in a game like Pharaoh or Star Trek: Armada.

Even with these flaws, the game is definitely a prize (much more so than the Starcraft-copy Star Trek: Armada), and approximates space combat between large capital starships better than any previous simulator without forgetting that it is after all, still a game. You can enter “quick battles” which involve choosing teams of starships to face, basically like a death match with the computer. It is here that you can take command of the Enterprise or replay the final battle of Star Trek II. You’ll find that Klingon ships tend to be more vulnerable and weaker while the Federation ships are less mobile and pack more fire power. It’s fun blowing off the Reliant’s nacelle and watching her burn in space.

Interplay should be commended for their design innovations (the VOS, the gunnery chair) which make commanding a starship as realistic as such a thing has ever been in gaming, and for their high-quality film footage with real actors and Hollywood production values. But ultimately none of this comes without a price, leaving you with an interface in need of polishing for practicality and ergonomics. We found that the game is so difficult due to the complexity of the interface (or maybe a starship would actually be too hard for one person to handle and a real simulation can never be achieved) that to get anywhere you have to be on the lowest difficulty setting; a fact which reveals Star Trek: Klingon Academy is like an overpowered starship threatening to break apart at the seams, but making for one hell of a ride.

TrekWeb's Rating: 7.5/10

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