Star Trek: Starfleet Command (Windows)

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Star Trek: Starfleet Command

Windows - 1999

Alt names 星际迷航:星舰指挥官, SFC, Star Trek: Starfleet Command - Captain's Edition, Star Trek: Starfleet Command - Gold Edition
Year 1999
Platform Windows
Released in France, Germany, United Kingdom, United States (1999)
Germany, United Kingdom, United States, Worldwide (2000)
France, Germany, Italy, Netherlands, Spain, United Kingdom (2001)
Worldwide (2015)
Worldwide (2016)
Genre Simulation, Strategy
Theme Licensed Title, Managerial, Real-Time, Sci-Fi / Futuristic, Space Flight, TV Series
Publisher Dice Multi Media Europe B.V., Interplay Entertainment Corp.
Developer 14° East, Quicksilver Software, Inc.
Perspectives Top-Down, Behind view, Diagonal-down
4 / 5 - 5 votes

Description of Star Trek: Starfleet Command

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Great Bird of the Galaxy?

Star Trek fans have always seemed to get the short end of the stick when it came to computer games based on Gene Roddenberry's popular creation. Whereas Star Wars fans have had a multitude of decent series-themed games to choose from over the years, a Star Trek license on a computer game box has almost served as a warning rather than than an inducement to buy. The folks at Paramount must have been cursing the luck (or genius) of the Lucasfilms gang.

While the computer game pickings for Star Trek fans have been rather slim, the same cannot be said of the opportunities in the boardgame realm. Back in 1979, Task Force Games released a little ziploc-bagged game with a remarkably elegant system for recreating starship battles from the world of Star Trek. Hard as it might be to remember that far back, this actually occurred around the time of the first movie, and the game initially focused on the on a combination of the milieu developed in the television series and a unique Starfleet Battles universe which gave the game an interesting feel. Over the years, Task Force released a slew of add-ons to the game, and it seemed as though the momentum generated by the films and the relative simplicity of the original design had created a winning combination of a vibrant series theme in a rich tactical game. Unfortunately, the designers didn't know when to quit, and long after I (and many others I knew) had stopped buying add-on products, the game was still spawning additional rules and modules, creating a monstrous hodge-podge which became wildly unbalanced (and no fun).

Credit Interplay with recognizing a good idea when they see one. The original game really was an excellent design which provided Trekkies with a believable, if not exactly simple, representation of their favorite starships and their trademark systems (phasers, photon torpedos, transporters, and so on). The game has undergone fundamental mechanical changes from its board ancestor. From the outset, Interplay made it clear that they were not developing Computer Star Fleet Battles. Rather, the game would remain faithful to the "spirit" of the boardgame and would employ many of the same concepts, but the mechanics would be streamlined to fit into the proposed real-time game engine. With as high-profile a license as Star Trek, I'm sure Interplay were determined to do whatever they could to make the game as broadly appealing as possible. Nevertheless, I don't think that the following quote from the manual's "Extended Foreword" should be taken lightly. "Starfleet Command will be both familiar and different to you ... The design team members are long-time SFB fans and players. We have followed closely the spirit, if not the letter, of the Doomsday ruleset, but we had to make changes to have a better and workable computer game. Board games and computer games are obviously different and require a different mind-set to design and create."

Design and creation are not the only things that require a different mindset: playing the game requires one as well. This is certainly the biggest hurdle old SFB hands will have to overcome in coming to grips with the game. While Interplay have done a nice job capturing the general flavor of both Star Trek and SFB (the "Doomsday" ruleset refers to the final collated rules edition of the boardgame), the fact remains that the game in in real time. Yes, real time. GDR reviewer David Kurtz observed that the game advertising at first appears misleading, because it seems to play on the hex-based theme, as the art design of the game materials incorporates a hexagon-grid motif, yet the game is decidedly real time and that has obvious implications for the gameplay. Just how profoundly this affects the game will be illustrated.

"I hope you relish it as much as I do"

SFC is fundamentally a ship-on-ship strategy game using the ship types depicted in (or inspired by) the Star Trek universe. The fact that it is "inspired by Star Fleet Battles" (as it says on the box) means that the game engine is a very detailed one that divides the ship into a number of systems, each of which uses the ship's power to operate. There are displays for Helm, Weapons, Science, Security, Communications, and a variety of other groups, each controlled by an "officer." This officer is really nothing more than a proxy for the overall effectiveness of the system in question, as this officer's skill/experience can improve the system's performance dramatically: a good weapons officer will increase your base chance to hit with photon torpedoes, for instance. However, the player is ultimately responsible for the deployment of his many systems, and it is this control (bordering on micromanagement) which is the heart of the game.

As a result of this detailed system, gameplay is very deep. The learning curve is tremendous, especially for those who are unfamiliar with the concepts from the boardgame. Ship operations are driven by power, which is produced at a given level based on the size of the ship's power plant. This power is used to drive the shields, power the phasers or disruptors, operate the tractor beam, transporters, counter-measures, and all sorts of other things that are involved in an operational interstellar warship. Because you only have a certain amount of power, you're always fighting to direct it to the system which is most crucial at that moment, but because shifting power takes time, a fair bit of planning is necessary. You might, for example, have your front shields reinforced as you brace for a battery of enemy phaser shots, but then need to speed up and crank up your counter-measures. As your speed increases and your ECM strength grows, less power is available to your shields. But if you have piled all sorts of power into your shields, you may find that you no longer have any threats from a particular quarter but the shields in that direction are still soaking up extra power that could be better used elsewhere. Likewise, the more shields you choose for reinforcement (there are six shield aspects which correspond to the sides of a hexagon), the less any individual shield will be strengthened. Then you also need to charge your phasers. Or transport marine boarding parties. Or charge a plasma torpedo. Or use a cloaking device. All of this is done using the aforementioned system displays, and there are a dizzying number of buttons you have to push.

What makes the game so challenging in the end, though, is not the sheer number of buttons, but the fact that all of these systems need to be coordinated properly in order to be successful. Proper use of defensive systems like Wild Weasels (electronic spoofing devices), ECM and ECCM (Electronic counter-countermeasures) is essential, and the same goes for offensive systems. You're not going to do well if you just unload all your firepower at whichever enemy shield happens to be facing you at the time you hit the fire button, as you'll end up with an opponent who has all six of his shields weakened but still up, while you most likely will have a big hole in your ship where one of your shields used to be, while some of your shields remain untouched. Effective use of weapons means concentration in order to take down a certain shield as quickly as possible, and then following this up with more salvoes through the dropped shield and into the ship hull proper. All this takes fire discipline and maneuvering skill, as you'll probably be dodging mines as well as defending yourself from the enemy who will surely be shooting back. I could write several more paragraphs just naming all the specific systems you get to manage in the game, but the key point is that this is, first and foremost, a strategy game.

How do you manage all this while the game zips by in real time? Good question. The most obvious answer is that the game has variable speeds, and when you combine a slow speed setting with the ability to pause the game and give orders while paused, you can achieve an effect similar in some way to the board game.

This type of approach is not possible in multiplayer, though, since the pause-and-order ability is disabled there. Furthermore, the speed of a multiplayer game is set at the beginning with no ability to change it once play has begun. This not only means that you need to find players who want to play at the speed you desire, but that additional controls are necessary. These come in the form of hotkeys, which can be used to control a wide variety of game functions. In addition, it is possible to set your own custom set of hotkeys, although this involves simply reassigning keys rather than mapping a brand new function to a keystroke. In addition, there are a few functions which have not been assigned to a key, so you can turn those on as well in the custom screen. Playing SFC at speed involves a tremendous amount of planning, quick fingers, and a player who is fully conversant not only with all the game concepts but with the hotkey layout. As far as I'm concerned, commanding multiple ships like this is out of the question, but you never know what some dedicated and skilled player might be able to manage.

The game has three difficulty settings: Captain, Commodore, and Admiral. However, only at Admiral level is the AI allowed to fully utilize all the systems on its ships, so if you play on a lower level, you're playing against a crippled AI. On the other hand, until you've fully grasped all the game concepts and controls, the lower levels should give you all the competition you can handle.

Much has been made of SFC's lack of a third dimension in the playing field, leading some to comment on the game's similarity to a naval simulation. I don't find this a problem for three reasons. First, in any combat between two ships in space (where there is no air resistance to inhibit a ship's free rotation about 360 degrees), any "altitude" advantage on the part of one ship could be immediately compensated for by the other ship simply by a change in "attitude" (lifting or dropping the ship's "nose," or even rolling over completely). This makes 3D representation important only in multi-ship combat. Second, in a game such as this, where the player is literally overwhelmed by controls and the need to micromanage every aspect of his ship's operation, adding another dimension to movement would be cumbersome, not to mention difficult to display in such a way that wouldn't be confusing on the screen. Lastly, a game such as SFC is supposed to capture the flavor of the series upon which it is based, and aside from the oft-mentioned battle in the Motari Nebula in The Wrath of Khan (in which 3D movement was used purely as a dramatic device), the fact is that combat between ships in the rest of Star Trek is consistently portrayed as occurring in a 2D plane, much like naval combat between surface ships. While one can write off the line on the gamebox that says, "Starfleet Command is a true starship simulation" (you mean like an actual starship is in real life?) as overblown marketing hype, the game actually does "simulate" quite well the kind of combat that you'd expect to see on the television show or in one of the films. That is, the same "feel" is there. And that SFB ruleset is lurking in there somewhere, as well.

The game looks quite attractive, even though the individual graphics (ship, planets, etc.) are nothing special. I got my first taste of the game by playing the demo, and had the misfortune of playing it on a non-3D-accelerated machine. What a mistake. The graphics were so awful, I was appalled. The explosions reminded me of the arcade classic Missile Command from my childhood, where the explosions took the form of circles which slowly expanded and then slowly contracted. I was also running it on a P200, which only made things worse. After installing the demo on my other computer, which has TNT2 Ultra video card, I was stunned. Everything looked so much better, it was like a different game. The ships were nicely done, the explosions were impressive, and the sky ... my God, it's full of stars! This was almost certainly due to the shock of seeing the appearance improve so dramatically, and after a few hours I was able to be a bit more objective and realize that the graphics aren't really out of the ordinary for the current crop of computer games. But the overall effect is much more than the sum of its parts. The star field, especially, gives a nice suggestion of vastness, and does a lot to make you forget you're stuck in a 2D battle (unless you zoom out too far). Just run the game on a decent system with a decent 3D video card. Otherwise, it'll feel like 1982.

Not all of the game views are equally attractive, though, and this brings me to the first problem with the game, which is that of the display. SFC is a strategy game in which it's absolutely essential to be able to see the play area and the disposition of both your forces and those of the enemy. The reason that I make this point is that I want to emphasize that this is not a flight sim, where you are responsible for scanning the skies yourself and vigilance is just one of the tasks you are faced with in the game. SFC, though, doesn't make it easy on you when it comes to controlling (or fighting) multiple ships. First, the camera views are very limited. Only in Chase mode can you rotate the camera from side to side. This is exacerbated by the fact that information about your shield strength is displayed on the map around your ship, but when you approach other objects closely, your ship "lifts" off the 2D plane so that it is sort of suspended in the middle of your screen. This makes for a nice bunch of 3D models floating around on your screen, but all their shield displays are still at the bottom of the screen (see screenshot above). This makes it difficult to figure out which shields belong to which target ship. There are shield indicators (both for you and your target) on the control display on the left of the screen since the on-map display can be so confusing. Switching to the Overhead view can give you a better perspective, and looks much like the boardgame would, but this view is limited by the inability to rotate the map. When you get six or seven freighters and three or four pirates on the map, along with a starbase, you are almost forced to pause every few seconds to sort out exactly what's going on. And because you can't rotate the screen while paused, you often aren't able to discern who is where even when no one is moving. I won't even get into how tough things can be in some of the camera modes when you're commanding multiple ships, which you can do with the Fleet Display (where you give general orders to your companions) or by taking direct command yourself. In short, things get hairy on-screen very quickly, and sometimes you'll be fighting the game more than you're fighting the enemy.

There are a lot of very weird things going on with the collision model, or rather the lack of one. Ships pass through each other freely, making for some confusing play when you are right on top of your opponent. This lack of collisions extends to things like starbases and asteroid bases, so that when I was piloting a Romulan Warbird on a raid across the neutral zone to destroy some Federation outposts based on a ring of asteroids, my strategy was to simply fly straight at the asteroid outpost, fire when I was at close range, and then fly through the asteroid and out the other side, where I would turn around and repeat the procedure. I was even able to fire at an enemy ship while he was passing through one of my starbases. Strangely, collisions can and do occur in asteroid belts where the asteroids are clearly there as obstacles. While I'm not so concerned about the lack of ship-to-ship collisions, I'm puzzled as to why you can crash into some asteroids but not others. Bug or feature? You decide.

Damn it, Jim! I'm a doctor, not a rules editor!

When I first got the game, I was rather impressed with the manual. Clocking in at a monstrous (for a strategy game) 164 pages, I casually flipped it open to find a page detailing the energy cost, and range/damage relationship (in explicit terms) for a Type-1 Phaser. More quick flipping revealed that all the weapons were explained in this manner. Secure in the knowledge that "it's all in there," I put the manual away initially to see try my hand at the expanded tutorials and to see how far I could get through the game just based on the tutorials and my ancient recollections of SFB.

When I finally had to consult the manual regarding game mechanics, though, I was in for a bit of a shock. In several skirmishes, I had inflicted some serious shield damage on my enemy which severely weakened his shields, only to see his shield strength redistributed shortly thereafter in order to cover that particular arc. Besides shield reinforcement, I remembered that shields could be regenerated, so I grabbed the manual to see how the mechanics worked. Imagine my surprise when I realized that this was not discussed in the manual. It took a Usenet post from Chris Taylor himself to find the answer. Chris' response to a request for a specific formula for shield repair was as follows.

What was so amusing about this reply was Chris' use of the term "shield boxes." There are no shield boxes in SFC. Shield boxes are a device used in SFB to record damage. Lose a shield point, cross off a box. This just goes to show you how intertwined the computer game and the boardgame seem to be for Interplay. What makes it even more confusing is that, as another poster pointed out, this is not in accordance with the boardgame rules, where repairing shields costs energy. Another delicious slip in the manual comes when discussing Hellbore Torpedoes. According to the manual, "[t]hey cost 3 points of energy for 2 turns to arm." Two turnsSFC is not turn-based.

In short, don't expect the manual (all 164 pages of it) to act as a replacement for the SFB rulebook. In fact, as you can see from the above explanation, you can't even count on the SFB rules to bail you out if you have them. A good portion of the manual (63 pages) is devoted to descriptions of the races and starships involved in the game. I would have greatly preferred this space to have been devoted to descriptions of the game engine and mechanics. As it stands, the manual tells you some things, like how much damage a phaser does at a certain range, but not how this damage is applied once it gets through the shields. Moreover, the information that is there is often difficult to find and poorly organized, and the whole thing lacks any sort of index (although there is a fairly detailed table of contents). There are also some odd errors which suggest that the game was rushed to press, like the fact that the Chase camera mode and Follow camera mode descriptions are reversed, and Follow is incorrectly identified as "Tactical." The manual is, in the end, much less useful than its large size would initially suggest. Somewhat more useful are the tutorial missions, which feature George Takei as the voice of your Starfleet instructor.

Solo play can be done in skirmish mode (single scenarios) or as part of a larger campaign. There are two things which stand out about these modes. First, there is no scenario editor as such. Rather, the game has a "customize" function in the skirmish set-up which allows you to choose basic parameters, such as hull size range and number of ships for yourself and your enemy. The game then generates a scenario bsed on these parameters. While this was actually a great feature for a while, I eventually got tired of it because everything eventually boils down to what feels like the same thing. The "bonus" CD (which was included only with copies of the game pre-ordered directly from Interplay) contains a fully-functional mission API which can be used by those with a knowledge of C++ to script missions just like those in the game, complete with variable objectives, reinforcements, sequential events, and the like. While the C++ requirement will preclude the vast majority of gamers from making use of this tool, experience with previous games make me hope that there will eventually be both a collection of user-created missions made by the minority of users who can use the tool, and a GUI editor for those whose skill set does not include C++ programming. This is, of course, speculation, which doesn't make up for the fact that we don't have these things now, and I hope that Interplay have the sense to provide a more functional mission editor themselves. Yet another sign, in my opinion, that the game was rushed out the door.

The second thing which stands out is the way the campaigns are run. You can choose between three different eras for each race: Early, Middle, and Late. This determines what kind of ships are available to you at the beginning, although each campaign is of the same length. However, once you choose your initial parameters, the actual missions you are assigned and the races you're allied with or at war with are chosen by the game's "Dynaverse" engine, and in theory you are presented with a dynamic campaign which might see you escorting freighters through an asteroid belt in one campaign while performing a starbase assault at the same point in time in another. This is billed as a way to make "no two campaigns the same, ever" but this is deceiving, since there are actually a finite number of basic mission scripts which are presented in a semi-linear fashion in that the identities of the combatants change based on who the game determines is at war with whom, but the actual missions are mixed and matched in only semi-random order. The result is that once you play through the Middle Era Federation campaign twice, for example, there won't be much variation in the actual missions you are asked to run the next time through, although they may appear in a different order or the missions might be slightly altered. Furthermore, unless you accept the invitation to join your race's "elite organization" (for example, the Klingons have the Klingon Black Staff) you'll miss out on the more interesting missions, so that decision is pretty much scripted as well. So while the Dynaverse does provide some variation, it's not an infinite extender of game longevity.

There are a number of different types of scenarios, from convoy escort to base defense to straight-out fleet engagements. There are also a number of scenarios where your mission isn't quite clear. Sometimes, you are literally flying around without any idea what you're really supposed to do. And even when it seems clear what you need to do, it isn't. For example, in one mission I was charged with taking an unmanned freighter in my tractor beam and setting it in orbit around a star. (The freighter was loaded with an experimental device, and was to be tested.) Of course, as soon as I got to the tactical map, an Orion pirate cruiser intruded, and I had to destroy him before I could proceed. That done, I took the freighter in tow and set out on the heading I had been on when the scenario started, assuming this would take me to my destination. Unfortunately, after ten (real time) minutes of travel, I was told that I had exited the playing field and that my mission was a failure. There was no clear way to determine where I should be going, so I had to start the whole scenario over again, whereupon I learned that I had to rotate the camera view so that I could see the target star (which was obscured because of the things that happen to the view when you are in close proximity to your target). After I had destroyed my enemy, a second Federation ship appeared, suggesting that I would need the help later in the scenario. Little did I know that things would not turn out as I thought. I like this kind of uncertainty to some degree, but there are missions which are even more impenetrable requiring you to simply fly around scanning things with no idea of what you're really supposed to be doing. The designers appear to really have wanted to imbue the game with an "episodic" feel rather than just making it a space combat exercise, and while I applaud their ambition, this is an aspect of the game which could definitely have used some more development time.

What is nice about the campaign system is that by completing missions, you accumulate "prestige points" which can be spent upgrading your ship, hiring better officers, buying spare parts, and the like. This reminded me vaguely of the system in Panzer General, where you chose your force by spending points you earned by successfully attaining your objectives. In SFC, you can even command multiple ships (once you reach a certain rank) if you have enough prestige to requisition more vessels, and as you acquire points you improve your chances of survival in scenarios which become increasingly difficult. Just repairing your ship after a mission costs prestige, so that there is a definite incentive to defeat your enemy while sustaining as little damage as possible. You can also flee at any time during a mission, at the cost of not gaining any prestige. If you're killed, you can either reload or (if you haven't saved in a while) re-play the mission. The only irritant (a serious one) is that you can only save between missions, not during them.

The game has an annoying number of bugs, many of which are of the variety that cause rules violations of the most basic sort. For example, transporters are not supposed to work through shields, so if your shields are up, you should not be subject to boarding parties, or transporter mines transported right next to your ship inside your shield arc. Yet this has happened to me numerous times. Hydran fighters are no supposed to be functional inside a nebula, but they are apparently unaffected. There are so many minor bugs of this nature that you wonder what else is going on that you're not noticing. A display problem I encountered was that my TNT2 card experienced serious flickering, which went away after disabling V-SYNC in my computer's display Control Panel menu. GDR reviewer David Finn reported even more serious TNT-based problems. The game is definitely begging for a patch, and Interplay are apparently working on one right now. There is even a beta version of the patch (v1.00.01b), although since it's a beta you should proceed with caution if you decide to use it. As it stands, though, the release version is thoroughly bugged.

Still...old...friend

The bugs, the inadequate display, the oversized but underwritten manual, and the lack of a mission editor prevent me from giving Starfleet Command one of our GDR awards. Not that it wasn't close. I have spent more hours with SFC this summer than with any other game save Jagged Alliance 2, and I have a feeling that I will be spending a lot more time with the game in the months ahead. Chris Taylor and his crew should be commended for a fantastic job "interpreting" the Star Fleet Battles rules. If you were ever into Star Fleet Battles, then SFC is just faithful enough to make you nostalgic for late nights under bright lights with a sheaf of SSD's and a pencil. Likewise, if you're a Trek fan looking for a strategy game that's true to the spirit of the series, particularly the films, you're not going to do much better than SFC. Lastly, if you're a strategy fan looking for a deep, challenging game, and don't mind spending a lot of time learning the game, your time with the game will be rewarded by a unique strategy experience. Drat those bugs and that manual!

Note: An item that might be of interest to some gamers is that Amarillo Design Group are re-releasing the original Star Fleet Battles boardgame, many of the modules, and the strategic "companion" game, Federation and Empire. If you're aching to get your hands on that cardboard once again (or if you're just curious as to what all the fuss has been about these last twenty years) you can try www.starfleetgames.com. May the Force be with you. Oh, wait ... sorry.

Review By GamesDomain

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ztype 2022-02-12 0 point

Uh, this has been on GOG and Steam for years.

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