"Where's that damn torpedo?"
Starfleet Command is based on the pen and paper Star Fleet Battles gaming system where ships from the original Star Trek series face each other in combat. Players choose one of six races, each with unique ships, abilities and weaknesses and can play quick skirmish battles, longer campaigns or select the multiplayer option. Within each of the races, players can also choose level of technology and select from one of three difficulty settings.Like its ancestor, Starfleet Command sets the combat on a 2D plane, but has 3D modeled ships. I was impressed with the game's graphics from the weakest phaser blast to a photon torpedo hit that set a Klingon Battlecruiser flying into pieces. Space itself, is beautifully represented: stars twirl around the battlefield and nebulas offer glorious color. Even better, damaged ships trail luminous plasma.
While the game is combat oriented, there is more to it than getting close to the enemy and pummeling them. Every aspect of your ship: charging phasers, raising shields, maintaining your speed, requires energy. Successful captains will have to find a balance among the various ship systems in order to survive. Ships themselves are bought, staffed and equipped by spending prestige points- points earned through the successful completion of a mission. Eventually, you can have up to three ships and issue commands to them through the interface.
Combat is very satisfying and there are an abundance of techniques to use- beam mines next to enemies, beam security teams to take out enemy weapons, hit the tractor beam and drag them into an asteroid.
Sound effects are good, weapon effects sound like they do in the movies and tutorials are voiced by good actors including George Takei (Murder, She Wrote's Bert Tanaka). Finally, the game uses familiar Star Trek scores which aren't keyed into dramatic sequences, but sound good.
Starfleet Command integrates the vast assortment of rules from the Star Fleet Battles system somewhat less effectively than Baldur's Gate
did for Advanced Dungeons & Dragons. This game has a very steep learning curve, unaided by a lengthy manual that spends too much time discussing the races featured. (Even worse, the release I bought had the manual as a pdf file.) The tutorials are helpful for getting your feet wet, but don't resemble actual game play. Learning to use the interface (or keyboard commands) is a little tricky.
Since the game is 2D, ships don't collide with each other or star bases (but can collide into asteroids and planets), when ships are on top of each other they are shown as being stacked so it is a little unclear to see what is happening.
The campaign element is rather short, it relies on scripted missions that further the story (Scanning Enemy Listening Posts) and several filler missions (like fighting Orion Pirates). Mission briefings are often vague and may require replay to complete successfully (and casualty-free). There is no in-mission save, but you can save before and after each mission, and you always have the option to replay a mission for better results.
The missions feel like TV episodes, yet since the game is battle-oriented, you know nothing will result from simply hailing them. Should you attempt to hail another vessel your only options are to signal surrender or taunt them. This could have been refined to allow for more open-ended missions. Also, while you get good voice acting during the tutorials, campaign missions are speech-free.
Finally, the game is not turn-based (a point the manual seems confused about). Within the real-time confines, you have the option to adjust the game speed, but the ability to pause the game and issue orders is sorely missed.
The Bottom Line
I highly recommend this game to players interested in Star Trek combat. The fact that the game is 2D does not hurt the gameplay, especially since ships in the ST Universe seem to travel along the same plane anyway. There is a steep learning curve, but as you improve, the game becomes more satisfying.
I would not recommend this game for players looking for a story-driven game in the Star Trek universe. While the campaign missions for each race have a story arc, it is clearly intended to provide a context for combat situations.
Finally, despite a shoddy initial release, Interplay has released several patches that bring this game up to speed and the version I played (1.03) was highly stable. This is also a game that is heavily fan supported and many mods can be found online.