Star Trek: 25th Anniversary review
Since its surprisingly short-lived television inception, the Star Trek phenomenon has spread successfully over the past forty-odd years to just about every other popular medium in existence. The franchise has spawned six television series, eleven films, and over a hundred novels. It seemed inevitable after such success that computer games would follow – and they did. In fact, dozens of Trek games have been published over the years across a wide variety of genres, from first-person shooters to tactical strategy games to graphic adventures. Which brings us to Star Trek: 25th Anniversary, a hybrid point-and-click adventure and spaceflight simulator, so named because it was released on the 25th anniversary of the airing of the original program.
25th Anniversary is an honorable effort to place the player inside the Star Trek television series. From the very first few seconds it feels spot-on, and this feeling of authenticity – the result of art direction, writing, and sound design that emulates and respects the venerable source material – continues through the entire game. It does a fantastic job of putting you in the uncomfortably-tight mustard yellow shirt of Captain Kirk. Or rather, it would, if it the game were not such a pain to actually play at times. Unintuitive puzzles, inconsistent design issues, and even the occasional game-stopping bug can make progress a chore rather than a delight, so the game should really only be of interest to those who are willing to slog through the problems to get a quality dose of Trek. For those dedicated few, the game will probably be worth the effort. For everyone else, the flaws are likely to prove too much.
The game is split into seven chapters, each a self-contained story akin to a single episode of the show. Most chapters follow a soon-familiar pattern: Starfleet orders the Enterprise to investigate a distress signal/derelict/anomaly, and the player selects the appropriate star from the star chart and warps to the destination. At this point, a space battle usually ensues in a style reminiscent of the first two Wing Commander games: real-time, first-person dogfighting in a pseudo-3D environment. The space visuals look quite dated now, but when compared to similar efforts of the early ‘90s, are very good. The sprites used for enemy ships are distinctly detailed, and the planets feature animated rotation, which is a nice touch. Actually, the now-dated graphics (likely unintentionally) evoke memories of the shoddy special effects in the original series and make the space combat feel true to form.
During these combat sequences, using either mouse or keyboard controls, players switch between direct control of the Enterprise and a command mode wherein you issue orders to Spock, Uhura, Chekov, Sulu, and Scotty. I preferred the mouse controls, which restricts the cursor to the Enterprise viewscreen (about half the computer screen). Moving the mouse to the left edge turns the ship left, moving it to the top pitches the ship up, and so on. It takes some getting used to, but works well enough for the pacing of the battles in the game. You are rarely pitted against more than two enemies at the same time, and since Star Trek is a world of massive, often lumbering starships, the handling can be rather deliberate and slow for both sides.
The command mechanic is clunky, however, requiring the player to abandon control of the ship in order to click on characters scattered around the bridge. In a heated dogfight, this can mean certain death, but thankfully orders can also be issued via keyboard shortcuts, allowing the player to raise shields, power up weapons, or analyze a target without losing direct control of the ship. Technically, you can also give some rather complex orders to Scotty to repair various subsystems on the ship, but while the option is there, I played through the entire game without once using it.
The battles themselves, which comprise only about twenty percent of the game, are generally not very difficult for anyone with action game experience, but some adventure gamers could find these sequences loathsome, as timing and maneuvering are essential for victory. Defeat in battle will give you the familiar “restore, restart, or quit” options, so always save right before a battle, just in case. If you can manage them without too much trouble, overall the space battles are engaging and fun, feeling like an integral, fully-realized part of the game, rather than a poorly-realized minigame.
Eventually, you will reach a point in each chapter where you must beam to a planet or ship with a landing party and continue your investigation. This is where the point-and-click gameplay kicks in and adventure gamers everywhere can breathe a sigh of relief. The landing party consists of Captain Kirk, Mr. Spock, Dr. “Bones” McCoy, and a token “redshirt” Ensign whose only purpose is to say things like “Wow! This ship sure is big!” and die in a blaze of glory (not a spoiler, I promise). At this point, players control Kirk through a very traditional third-person interface. Moving around is done with left-clicks, while right-clicking brings up a “verb coin” (think Full Throttle or The Curse of Monkey Island) to choose between “use,” “get,” “talk,” and “look”. When in “use” or “look” mode, the inventory can be opened by clicking an onscreen icon. Interestingly, though the player is in control of Kirk, he can, and often must, order his teammates to interact with objects by “using” them as inventory items on the environment.
The on-foot portions of the game consist of a healthy mix of inventory puzzles, exploration, and dialogues with a decidedly Trek feel. For example, objects can not only be examined, they can be scanned with a tricorder, usually accompanied by an appropriately didactic explanation from Spock. There is a smattering of phaser combat throughout the game, which is essentially a timed “puzzle” in that you select your phaser from your inventory and click on the target within a set time limit. Failure means game over, and a quick trip to the ‘Load Saved Game’ screen, but the time limit you are given to attack is quite generous – making for some comically stilted phaser-fights – and victory is easily achieved. This setup for combat is awkward but rarely difficult, and does little to either add or detract from the game.
The graphics, while true to their age, retain a timeless VGA charm, and though this game was made after several Star Trek films had been released, not to mention more than a few seasons of The Next Generation, the art style remains purely that of the original series. Everything from the minimalist architecture to the reliance on gray walls with splashes of primary color in the set design screams ‘60s Trek, though translated into early-‘90s graphics. Familiar locations such as the Enterprise are re-created with respect, while new planets or ships are consistent and well-integrated with a similar look.
The character art won’t blow anyone away, but within the period's technological limits it is nicely done. Characters are easily identifiable because of their iconic costumes rather than detailed facial features: Kirk’s in yellow, Spock and McCoy are in blue, and the “redshirt” is in... well, red. I occasionally found myself having to look closely at the relatively tiny sprites in order to differentiate between Spock and McCoy, as they are both dark-haired and wearing blue, but other than that, the art is quite detailed. You can even see Kirk’s six-pack – which, now that I think about it, didn’t exist on the show. The backgrounds are mostly static, but characters are decently animated, whether climbing ladders or being disintegrated by phaser fire. Graphically, the game easily matches (but does not surpass) its contemporaries in the adventure game scene of 1992, so if you’re a fan of that look, you’ll feel right at home here.
A charming MIDI rendition of the Star Trek theme song plays over the game’s intro, a perfect reproduction of the original series’ opening, and sets the mood right away. The rest of the soundtrack is generally fitting, though rarely outstanding. It never draws attention to itself, and you won’t find yourself humming it days later, but it is never annoying, and is generally quite appropriate to both the current location and level of tension. But the rest of the sound is truly fantastic: 25th Anniversary features the voices of all the original cast members, and it does wonders for the immersive quality of the game. The pixelated blob with the yellow shirt may not look a whole lot like Kirk, but with William Shatner’s baritone speaking every melodramatic line of dialogue, the illusion is complete.
Though the quality of the writing in each chapter fluctuates, the stories are quite varied and much in the spirit of the original series. Most chapters are thinly-veiled morality plays, tackling weighty issues such as justice, revenge, even genocide. In one chapter, you are defending a runaway fugitive from a Klingon court; in another you are exploring a derelict alien ship in search of new technology. Like the television series, the pacing and style of each chapter stems from its premise: the aforementioned alien ship chapter is slow and full of abstract puzzle-solving and exploration, while another chapter on a hijacked Federation ship has you moving from room to room fighting alien hijackers and rescuing Starfleet members from certain death while avoiding booby traps. Side characters are often plot devices more than they are fully-realized characters, showing up for a single chapter and then disappearing forever, but colorful and entertaining writing makes up for their lack of depth. Players will encounter embittered Elasi pirates, typically irate Klingon captains, and even an Aztec god on their voyages.
A nice touch is the inclusion of branching paths through each chapter. Most episodes have multiple possible outcomes depending on your choices (either through actions or dialogue options) and thoroughness. For example, in one chapter you have to retake the bridge of a captured vessel. You can blast everyone in the room, or you can attempt to talk the hijackers out of their plan. Both are viable options, and both will yield a successful mission. You are graded by a Starfleet admiral after each mission, and your final grade rewards acting according to Federation values: peaceful resolutions are valued over violence, generosity over prejudice, discovery over complacency. Unfortunately, as nice as these choices are, they are far too few in number. Only a couple of chapters offer choices of any real consequence, and often your rating is based simply on the developer’s invisible, arbitrary checklist of the “correct” path through a chapter. Still, the choices you are given add to the immersion of playing the role of a Starfleet captain.
At this point, the game sounds like a Trekker’s dream come true. Unfortunately, to enjoy all of this authenticity, you’re going to have to traipse through a series of cumbersome design decisions, not to mention bugs. The interface is certainly usable, but is rather cumbersome. The verb selection icons are tiny and close together, requiring you to consciously hunt down the correct icon every time you switch options. Every action require several clicks: a click to open the “coin”, another click to select the small icon for the given action, and another click on the object. This wouldn’t be too bad, except that most actions require even more steps (i.e. open coin, select use, open inventory, select tricorder, select object, close dialogue box) and quickly become a pain.
The puzzles, meanwhile, though often clever (such as synthesizing Romulan “laughing gas” based on formulas from another computer’s database), are frequently victims of unintuitive design. The game forces you to guess exactly how the developers wanted you to approach an action, often with no way to tell if you’re way off or very close to succeeding. Using a computer panel might net you a boilerplate “I don’t see anything of interest there.” response, when the solution is to (duh!) use Spock on the computer. Such situations are annoyingly common: on several occasions I unknowingly discounted the correct approach because the game gave no feedback that I was anywhere near the solution.
What’s worse is a major lack of consistency to the solutions. In one case, I knew I needed to have McCoy interact with a computer. Using him on it (a mechanic already used dozens of times up to this point) yielded no results, so I decided to try using it myself – inexplicably, this triggered McCoy to walk over and interact with the machine. In another area, Kirk must retrieve a rock from the ground (which is littered with rocks), but can only do so in the zoomed-out “establishing shot” view of the scene where the rocks are no more than single pixels, rather than the zoomed-in portion where the rocks are actually drawn in. Examples of this kind of inconsistency are not isolated, and puzzles which should be fairly straightforward end up turning into exercises in frustration and confusion.
This ambiguity is apparent all over the place. Exits and important objects are poorly emphasized by the art, allowing the player to easily miss important areas or components to puzzles. The programming is sub-par as well: in one chapter, a character you meet early in one room later falls unconscious in another and must be placed on a bed for treatment. Yet after he has been placed on the bed, you can go back to the room where you first met him, and he’s still there, chatting away as if nothing has happened and with no explanation. The character is literally in two places at once for the rest of the chapter.
Still, the worst example is the final mission, simultaneously the most compelling and the most downright broken. Without doing anything out of the ordinary, I somehow reached an unwinnable state in which Spock would not interact with the transporter system as he was supposed to in order to advance the plot. It was only after consulting a walkthrough that gave exact instructions on how to avoid “breaking” the chapter that I managed to finish the game. These examples of outright broken gameplay are rare – the inconsistent puzzle design is a far bigger problem – but they are common enough to cause concerns for anyone playing.
The strange thing about such evident flaws in the design is that the game doesn’t feel like a typical cheap franchise cash-in. Rather, it feels like a labor of love by people trying their hardest to recapture the feel of exploration and adventure that defined the television series. Indeed, they’ve succeeded in doing so by recapturing the authentic look, sound, and feel of the original series. Unfortunately, they failed to create a polished experience in the process. This makes the game all the more frustrating to play, because the glimpses of brilliance it shows are a reminder of how good a truly well-made Star Trek game can be. In the end, if you’re a fan of Kirk and the original crew of the Enterprise, you will probably be able to soldier past most of the flaws and enjoy an authentic and nostalgic experience, so long as you don’t mind a little space-faring combat mixed into your adventure. For those of you that don’t know the difference between a phaser and photon torpedo, Star Trek: 25th Anniversary just isn’t worth it.
It's an authentic experience for fans of the show, but frustrating design flaws keep 25th Anniversary from being a particularly worthwhile experience for non-Trekkers.