06:46:12 on March 26 2001
By: Steve Krutzler
Dept: Reviews - Games
Written for TrekWeb by Ken R. Miller
In the past, the reaction one had when seeing ‘Star Trek’ and ‘game’ in the same sentence was not a positive one. As with many licensed games, ,Star Trek games relied too heavily on the namesake, leaving quality and gameplay out of the primary focus. That trend has begun to change drastically, however, with games like Elite Force, Starfleet Command and Klingon Academy raising the bar not only for Trek-based games, but gaming as a whole. Another game that looks to continue this recent winning streak is Bridge Commander.
Activision contracted Totally Games in early 2000 to develop the next game based on their Next Generation license. While Activision had made successful profits on Armada and Elite Force, Totally Games sought to create neither a real time strategy game nor first-person shooter. Instead, the company began development on Bridge Commander in the field that they were most experienced – space combat.
A look at Totally Games’ history shows not only their expertise in the genre, but provides clues as to the direction that Bridge Commander is taking. Between 1988 and 1991, Totally Games developed and released (published under the Lucas Arts label) three ultra realistic World War II flight simulators. Their Finest Hour, Battlehawks 1942, and the extremely popular Secret Weapons of the Luftwaffe won numerous accolades and awards in their time. The games utilized a 3D environment with flat, plain polygon landscapes and aircraft. Primitive by modern standards, the engine and its very precise physics model stood out when many developers were sticking to sprite based images and full motion video. In contrast, while the engine had less visual detail than traditionally drawn 2D sprites or filmed clips, it was smoother in terms of frame rate, generated a more realistic ‘feel’ and was far less costly to produce.
The engine was so versatile that Totally Games revamped and reworked it for what was to become one of the most popular computer game series ever. X-wing launched in 1993, with two expansions to follow. The game was revered by both Star Wars fans and gamers alike for successfully combining the feel and atmosphere of the Star Wars universe and for its excellent gameplay. X-wing focused on creating the thrills of deep space combat, and accomplished it with incredibly tight control, brilliant level design and mission structure and well-programmed A.I. Enemies would duck and weave a player’s seemingly dead-on shots, power had to be allocated as necessary and one’s wits had to stay sharp – or watch as a TIE Interceptor ripped into you from behind. More than a shooter on rails, X-wing forced the player to take part in the entire battle, something that really gave atmosphere to the game. The basic game remained unchanged in the numerous sequels, the final tweaked and perfected engine giving its swan song in 1999’s X-wing Alliance. To this day, the numerous incarnations and re-releases of the X-wing series remain top sellers, and have also gained a spot on Next Generation’s Top 100 Games of All Time.
One of the biggest complaints with Starfleet Academy was that the massive starships of Trek lore maneuvered and handled like nimble star-fighters, which many fans bemoaned as inaccurate. While there was eventually a patch to correct these oversights, the X-wing lineage that Totally Games has built for themselves is likely to cause the same fears for Trek fans this time around. Looking at early shots of Bridge Commander, it is easy to draw comparisons between it and Totally Game’s previous efforts. Indeed, a quick look at the development team on Bridge Commander shows that many X-wing veterans have been brought in to help create the game. While there will certainly be a heavier focus on combat, Totally Games has stressed that exploration, scientific missions and puzzles will maintain a significant presence in the final product. Controlling away teams and deep space probes are elements currently being developed for the game. The structure so far seems to have an emphasis on strategy and resource management. Each individual officer and bridge station has been represented in the preview clips, and has an important function in combat. Whereas in X-wing one merely balanced power between shields, engines and lasers, Totally Games has made the effort to take that a step further and make it more in-depth. As the captain, managing repairs with your engineering officer, coordinating strategy with your tactical officer, and plotting maneuvers with the helm officer has all been taken into consideration. These factors, combined with the graphical style similar to X-wing Alliance, seem to indicate that Bridge Commander will be a more strategy oriented, slower paced game than TIE Fighter or X-wing before it
Larry Holland, the head of both Totally Games and the Bridge Commander development team, recently displayed newer and more complete builds of the game to the press. The menu system that the player uses to guide the ship was shown to be extremely intuitive and easy to use. For example, charting a course is handled by selecting the helm station, then selecting a destination. Where the real detail lay though, is the very intricate combat and damage schemes that have been programmed into the game. A visual demonstration showed how the shields would weaken after repeated hits, then collapse. Once the weapons would penetrate, the location struck would graphically show the damage. As it is to some extent with Klingon Academy, all damage is apparently location specific, and the tactical officer menus give the option of not only targeting specific sections of the hull, but also knocking out key systems (targetting their torpedo banks, engines, phasers, etc.). While the default combat interface is on the bridge, players have the option of moving to an external camera to view the battle. The team is also taking precautions to avoid the micromanagement nightmares that many players complained of in Birth of the Federation and, to some extent, Starfleet Command. Individual bridge crewmembers can be given assignments in advance, like a queue. If no orders are given, Holland states that the crew will independently act and perform their duties as suited to the moment. Should help be needed, Patrick Stewart and Brent Spiner have lent their voices to their respective characters as they did in Hidden Evil.
Currently, Bridge Commander is in Alpha and moving towards the testing phase, prepping for a Summer or Fall 2001 release. Already the game is coming along quite nicely. The ship models have a high polygon count and the damage model is dynamic and detailed. The sheer amount of detail extends beyond the backdrops and ship models, however. Characters and crew have been modeled with fully articulate bodies and faces. Added touches, like blinking and facial expressions, make the characters seem more natural and life like. Amazingly enough, even with the level of detail achieved, Larry has assured those who have seen the footage that these models are just placeholders and not finished material.
One of the strongest points in the latter releases of their X-wing series was the advent of online play. No details have been finalized as to the specific play modes in Bridge Commander, but Totally Games has promised that at least eight people will be able to take control of Federation, Romulan, Klingon or Cardassian ships and have at one another over the Internet.
Bridge Commander certainly seems to have all the right elements to make an excellent Star Trek game, drawing from the best strengths of the company’s past efforts while maintaining the right feel. It surely seems that Totally Games is committed to making it more than just a TIE Fighter clone. We’ll be covering developments up to the final release as more information becomes available.