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    With a Week 'Til Christmas, TrekWeb Reviews Activision's Star Trek: Armada II RTS Game!

    Posted: 12:21:41 on December 17 2001
    By: Steve Krutzler
    Dept: Reviews - Games

    Written by Steve Krutzler

    The biggest problem with the original STAR TREK: ARMADA was that it wasn’t very addictive, and when it started to be, it crashed your system. Both of these problems are remedied with the long-awaited sequel, though not without a hefty price.

    There isn’t anything very groundbreaking about ARMADA II that makes you think you’re playing a more advanced game. In fact, it seems more like what the original ARMADA was supposed to be, just that this time they mostly got it right. The game is a traditional RTS in the vein of COMMAND & CONQUER and it’s incredibly addicting and fun to play.

    Each mission in the single-player campaigns is essentially a base-building/attack the enemy routine that manages to stay challenging and interesting with various additional tasks thrown in to make each level sufficiently different from the previous. Whether it’s rescuing a derelict vessel, rebuilding an already-established starbase, or capturing a Borg transwarp conduit, the missions are tied heavily into the story that has Starfleet mounting the offensive against the Borg that you’ll never see on-screen from the franchise. Most of these tasks boil down to simply beating the enemy enough so you can press a single button and use one or two special features (like Starfleet marines or a “data miner” unit) to complete the mission objectives, and sometimes it can become annoying when your fleet destroys a capture target after you just spent an hour paving the way for the final move.

    But the core of your time will be spent fighting the battles, and in this arena there are some impressive improvements over the original. One major problem with all the COMMAND & CONQUER copycats is that a lot of the time victory goes simply to the force with the most units. This was the case in the original ARMADA, but has been sufficiently circumvented in this sequel to make the game more challenging (you’ll find the “easy” difficulty setting to be quite time-consuming). The major feature here is that you’re limited in your construction of starship fleets not only by the number of crew (and hence Starbases) you have, but by the number of officers, which is set at a maximum of 600 for each mission. This means that even if you have multiple starbases and colonize a few planets if your map is lucky enough to house one, you’ll be lucky to be able to build more than three or four full-stocked 16-vessel fleets. Of course you choose between less advanced and more advanced ships, thus expanding of contracting the number you have, but the bottom line is that you simply cannot build ten fleets and go wipe out the enemy from sheer longevity.

    In fact, at some point or another, you’ll encounter a situation where your fleets of advances starships aren’t being very effective against the Borg (the main adversary here) and you start to wonder why. Enter research. ARMADA II seems to have a much more advanced research component than its predecessor, requiring you to build several science-related stations and then use resources to research various unit upgrades such as shields, weapons, sensors, engines, etc. When you research several of these, you’ll find that your fleets can stand a lot longer in a fire fight and can do a lot more damage. One of the more interesting “special weapons” is the Aegian Class (an advanced starship) shield generator, which will extend extra shields around other ships in your fleet during a battle. The Sovereign Class retains that Corbormite Reflector from the first game, a weapon that for a few seconds redirects enemy fire back at its originator.

    But one of the major problems with special weapons in the first ARMADA was the relative inability to use them due to the fact that wading through a menagerie of starships during a battle in order to click on one, click its special weapon, and then select a target is impractical. Don’t expect ARMADA II to have come up with any brilliant solution to this, but at least the addition of limited AI helps make special weapons a factor in the game. You can set your fleets, or individual ships, to various levels of AI, low, medium or high, across three categories: alert status, movement autonomy, and special weapon autonomy. Turn the last one to “high” and your ships will unleash their special weapons during a fight at will. If you want to keep your ships from automatically proceeding to the next available target without your input, set movement autonomy down to “low” and you’ll have complete control—but be warned, you better set the game speed down as well otherwise your computer-guided enemy will blast you to pieces while you’re desperately weeding through fleet buttons and trying to select targets. Also, if you want a fleet to guard your base, set its movement autonomy to “medium” so it can at least pursue approaching enemies marginally; don’t set it to “high” or after a few skirmishes your fleet will end up pretty far from home as it follows fleeing invaders to score the last kill.

    The reality is that even on high speed a mission takes an hour or more to complete, so if you’re anything like me, you’ll take the rapid approach and let your fleets hammer it out on their own. You can still direct fire to certain targets during a fire fight, but your fleet will mostly take care of itself and you can be left to determining who needs to be sent back home for repairs after the encounter and how many new ships you need to build. Building is easy in ARMADA II, since you can designate fleet assignments to your shipyards so your fleets are easily replenished.

    Another useful addition to the game is warp speed. Now your fleets can warp around map at high speed so that when you need to send them back to the shipyard for repairs after a battle in a far-off corner of the map, just press “R” and they’ll all warp back home for automatic repair. If your map is laden with dangerous nebulae (such as radioactive nebulae) your ships will sometimes annoy you when they take what seems like the longest, most dangerous route back home, usually through a few of these nebulae. But you don’t have to press “R” and forget, and you can warp back home on a route of your choice with a few clicks and a few seconds. Other nebulae, including metaphasic (green) ones, help your ships rebuild their shield strength and hide from enemies.

    There’s also the added dimension of trade, which the original game lacked. You can establish trading posts that will automatically receive roaming Ferengi ships that pump your vaults full of latinum with which you can buy crucial metal or dilithium should your supply sources run out. The Ferengi will also run away with your derelict vessels if you don’t beam fresh crew onboard to repair and bring them home soon enough.

    The major change here is the addition of a 3D Gameplay feature that can easily be toggled on/off during gameplay, switching you from the familiar flat view to a mostly impressive 3D cinematic view of the action. With your mouse wheel you can zoom in or out from the action and this is particularly useful if you want to see a battle being fought. But don’t expect to be able to actually manage the game from this view or even to fight a battle manually. The view is dependent on an invisible central axis around which the view spins; when you zoom in, for instance, that’s exactly what you’re doing—not actually MOVING forward THROUGH space. So you’ll zoom too far and get stuck with a starship or some other object at the center of your screen and you can’t maneuver away from it without going back to flat, changing position, then going back to 3D. I find that 3D view is just for enjoying the show once you initiate a confrontation.

    The lower right-hand corner of the screen also houses a cinematic window that showcases whatever “action” is going on around the map—from battles to construction. You can click here and zoom right to where the enemy has ambushed one of your fleets or the far end of your base faster than you can scroll there.

    Finally, while the campaigns only allow you to play the Federation, Klingons, and Borg (and I have only played the Federation in a campaign that seems to go on forever), the instant action and multiplayer options allow you to play as Species 8472, the Romulans, and the Cardassians. This is a welcome addition, but you have to wonder why they couldn’t work all these races into the regular single-player campaigns somehow. When you do play as another race, the graphical interface as well as sound effects all change to match in impressive fashion. Clearly a lot of work when into these skins, and while playing as a Klingon or Romulan isn’t that difficult (and listening to the Klingon sound effects is entertaining in and of itself), jumping in as Species 8472 or the Borg will require learning a whole bunch of new terminology for units and base structures that make playing these races without having read the hefty sections on them in the game manual rather cumbersome. Species 8472 is particularly alien feeling and it’s so difficult to learn the units and the terminology that I gave up after a few minutes. But if you’ve got the time to digest the encyclopedic game manual, I suppose this wouldn’t be a problem for you.

    It’s on this note that the major problems of the game begin to surface. Incorporating all these different graphics and sound effects into the program was no small task, and as soon as you read the bottom of the box you’ll be flabbergasted to realize that ARMADA II will demand a sizeable 1.3 gigabyte chunk of your hard drive. What’s more, this isn’t even negotiable—no minimum install option here. Those of you who may be running a two-year old system without a 30 GB hard drive may find this particularly daunting.

    With this in mind, I originally set out to install the game on my brand new Toshiba 1 GHz laptop with 256 MB of RAM and a 20 GB hard drive that would hardly miss the space. What I discovered is the game is almost so slow as to be unplayable on a laptop that isn’t $6,000. While I’m the first to admit I didn’t buy my laptop to play games, and I certainly wasn’t going to pay for any high-powered 3D accelerator, it’s somewhat disappointing that a game like this, which seems only a few steps above city-building in capability, would require so much to run. After installing on my three year old PIII 600 MHz with 384 MB of RAM and hardly any hard drive space to spare, I noticed a significant improvement in performance, most likely due to a superior graphics card. But don’t fool yourself into thinking that the game is fast on this type of system. At 1024x768 and 16 colors, the game still slows down and encounters delays when you get two or more fleets engaged in a battle on screen. This was a major problem with the original game and while it is by no means unplayable, the minimum requirements of a Pentium II 300 MHz with a scant 64 MB of RAM are a joke if not an outright lie. Those of you with SCSI hard disks and an Athlon Thunderbird processor may have a significantly better experience.

    Also, while the game doesn’t say it runs on Windows XP, it does, and that’s what I’m playing it on. While I’m sure Activision will be the first to jump in and blame all the problems I’m going to now outline on the fact that the game isn’t officially built for operation under Windows XP, it’s blatantly irresponsible of them to release a game today that isn’t compatible, and in my eXPerience, the OS isn’t much different from Win2k.

    While the game is fun to play if you can make the 1.3 GB sacrifice and stomach the occasional slow down, the infrastructure is infuriatingly inferior. Don’t expect to be able to answer that IM or email that comes in while playing—the game won’t Alt+TAB or Alt+ESC from any screen except BETWEEN SCREENS, and then it usually keeps going and you return to find your mission long since lost while you were in absentia. It takes a good minute to load, and the menus, which require you pressing the ESC key to reach while playing a mission, not only take another ten seconds to appear every time you cue them, but are incredibly slow themselves. Also, there’s no auto-save, so you better ESC and save every 15 minutes if you don’t want to have a three-hour investment go to waste. Also, when a mission is finally completed, there's no option to keep playing, just in case you want the satisfaction of dealing the last blow to that enemy base you've been facing all mission long--and even if you saved a few minutes before losing a mission, you'll have to wait a few minutes for the game to reload where you left off.

    The between-mission animations are somewhat impressive, through they mainly boil down to animations of starships while Patrick Stewart croons as Captain Picard. The actor’s presence is a welcome touch that adds a level of authenticity TREK gamers crave, but after a while it merely serves to point out that Activision was too lazy or didn’t have the money to get a couple more actors to fill in the soundtrack. Picard barks orders to “Mister Data” and “Mister La Forge” so many times without so much as a response that it starts to feel a little cheap. The in-game music is adequate though if you’re anything like me you’ll find yourself turning your MP3 collection on shuffle before you start the game and then turning off a lot of the game’s noise.

    I also want to point out another problem that seems to have carried over from the original: the utter inferiority of the Borg. The television shows and movies have shown us that only ingenuity will defeat the Borg on multiple occasions, not excessive force. But the Borg are a fan-favorite when it comes to a TREK enemy to pit your favorite starships against, so it’s somewhat inevitable that they would be equalized in overall power. The size of Borg units is still a little too small in my opinion, and if you put a dozen or so phaser or torpedo turrets around your base, most Borg invaders will be destroyed before your fleet has to bother. The addition of units from VOYAGER, like the tactical cube, is welcome, and sometimes it does take an incredibly well-equipped fleet to defeat a rather large Borg incursion. All in all, however, the Borg are a lot more like a regular TREK race in this game than the one-cube-does-it-all Borg we’ve been shown on-screen.

    Furthermore, some units—the Defiant comes to mind—are incredibly underpowered as well. The Defiant is little more than a moving target in ARMADA II, as she doesn’t seem to have the tough hull plating you’d expect. In this game, don’t expect the Defiant to pack a decisive punch; in fact, don’t bother building them at all. Finally, for all the hard drive space the game consumes, it seems like there should be a little more. For instance, why not allow players to choose which era of the Federation they want to play, making it possible to build Kirk’s Enterprise or the Reliant? And they included the Cardassian Union here, but no sign of the Dominion? This is a significant oversight, though perhaps it has something to do with the license of Dominion Wars to Simon & Schuster Interactive.

    The multiplayer is impressive in its options—you can choose race, resource levels, AI level, abandon the officer limit, etc.—but even from my DSL connection the game ran abhorrently slow. Then again, I’ve never been a huge multiplayer person so all you multiplayers may be accustomed to this or I may have just had my settings wrong.

    Overall, ARMADA II is a good game that’s fun to play. It’s just put together in a cumbersome framework that demands more than the $44.99 price tag it carries (click the image at top of page to buy from TrekWeb).

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