"We've been trying to put something back into Star Trek games that has been absent for the last... well, in recent decades," said Brian Miller, Senior Vice President of Paramount Pictures.
I felt a slight sting - every now and then I just can't help but dust off Birth of the Federation for one more go; I spent the wee hours of many mornings rampaging through Elite Force, and I not only worked out how to crack the controls for Starfleet Command, but even actually enjoyed it at one point. And yet I concede that next to their contemporaries, Trek games have been marginally good and briefly blipped on the wider gaming community's radar at the very best; in some cases (Starship Creator. What were they thinking?), abysmal. Thus far, having Star Trek in a game title is as good an indicator of "mediocre" as making a movie tie-in game. And here Paramount's big cheese was, proudly announcing he'd done both. What could possibly go wrong?
As it turns out, we've yet to find anywhere it has; and we've looked hard. Brian Miller took to the stage on Tuesday to address a press gathering and proudly pitch them Star Trek, the upcoming video game from Namco Bandai due to hit the shelves in late April. Miller's passion and reverence for Star Trek, coupled with his insider's take on the gaming industry, actually sounded pretty convincingly like the team behind this latest foray into gaming Trek might actually have finally cracked it.
The graphics are top-notch: the Enterprise crew look, sound and move so spookily close to how they do in the film, that you could easily forget you weren't watching the latest cinematic installment. Gone are the Elite Force days where Janeway's head was an unconvincing elongated dodecahedron - these characters move with seeming weight, fluidity and little idiosyncracies so closely matching the actors, you know it's got to have been a motion-capture job.
Speaking of the actors - every main member of the Enterprise crew from the 2009 film has reprised their role for this game; with Simon Pegg even being given the same licence to ad-lib his lines as he did in the first movie. The cinematic sequences show off the work done to replicate the look and feel of the new Star Trek universe at its best - choices of camera angles and panning of shots in particular has clearly been set up to give you that sense of déja vu, sprinkled liberally throughout but wisely intermixed with different shots to give a sense of continuity and evolution at the same time.
The characters' on-screen chemistry even shines through - hard to achieve, when actors are pre-recording lines - cute, witty asides occur as much during actual gameplay as they do in cutscenes. "Hey Spock, I like this one!" exclaims Chris Pine's Kirk, checking out shapely female Vulcan scientist T'Mar after having grumbled about Vulcans. "There are few that you do not like, Captain", deadpans Zachary Quinto's Spock. Hearing the curmudgeonly Dr McCoy grumble about "endless fencing stories" over the comm while stuck on a shuttle with Mr Sulu raised as many sniggers from the assembled press as it did knowing looks from the Trekkies. Tip to gamers hunting for easter eggs: try and sit in the Captain's chair as each character.
The acting and the cinematics merely set the scene for the gameplay though - and again, there's enough there to delight Trek fans and gamers alike. Despite taking the form of a third-person shooter, Star Trek afficionados can take heart that the game offers far more than this. "Star Trek was never just about running and shooting," observes Miller. "and there are a lot puzzles, discovery and adventure in the game to honour that." Player choose whether to play as Kirk or Spock at the outset, and then the game really is about the two of them from start to finish, with either the AI or a local co-op buddy controlling the other character.
It's this duality of two different but complementing personalities that powers the game - a "bro-op" rather than a co-op, as one developer put it. Kirk's gameplay style is predictably more brash: slightly more impressive weaponry, and a greater chance of getting stuck in tight corners when his bold gambles lead to trouble. His main weapon is a custom phaser that models an old Wild West six-shooter revolver (it looks a lot better than it sounds); whereas Spock packs a slightly less impressive weapon but makes it up with stealth moves, neck pinches and mind melds.
The game cleverly interweaves their two skill-sets and viewpoints together, requiring frequent collaboration but giving you plenty of scope in-between to run off on your own and Just Shoot Things (TM). A particularly well-developed set of game mechanics revolves around Kirk injuring his leg and having to hold out against charging enemies until Spock arrives; the Spock player then needs to guide the immobile Kirk to safety while the Kirk player lays down covering fire, and then tend to Kirk's leg while Kirk buys time with has phaser. Other parts are optional but pretty cool - a stun effect that only partially works from Kirk's phaser was brought to a smart conclusion by Spock in one game we watched, in which the latter had quietly snuck around the back of the offending alien to administer a neck pinch, just as it was weakened by the stun. Much like their rampage through Nero's ship in the first move, you realise this is a dynamic duo not to be tangled with - and the game is all the more fun for that dynamic.
Many sub-games are built-in to fix alien equipment, suppress onboard fires and the like; these and more regular puzzles keep the game interesting, but this is wisely complimented by a diverse set of levels with ever-changing hazards that keep it feeling genuinely fresh, rather than just changing the scenery. A vast array of approximately 25 diverse weapons, each with different firing modes also helps keep the game feeling as though it is offering you genuinely new things - some of the Gorn weapons in particular were good fun to play with.
We've put together an exclusive video in full 1080p HD showing some excerpts of gameplay footage to give you a better idea of the game's performance and look.
Miller was at pains to point out that movie tie-ins get a bad reputation for a reason; he lays the blame at the door of studios looking to get a bit of easy brand-promotion on a tight-schedule that fits the film. "They get nine, maybe twelve months at best," he said, "but we took three years on this - that's how serious we were about it." He went on to note that every department involved in the two films - the art directors, the costumers, the writers, the actors, even Industrial Light and Magic had a helping hand in the game - and Academy Award-winner Michael Giacchino came in and wrote over two hours of new cues that have a distinctly authentic sound to them. "That's unheard of", Miller stated proudly.
Which is how the Gorn come into this. We didn't quite get to the bottom of how the famous sluggish guy in the rubber suit transmorphed into the lightning-fast dragon-like antagonists of the game (even Nero would struggle to take credit for that), but as befits a game that has benefited from such strong input from the film's writers and creators, an extensive and intriguing backstory covers not only their origins (like Voyager's Species 8472, it turns out they're not from these parts) but their social hierarchy, motives and the presence of fifteen different ranks and types of Gorn, including female Gorn. As antagonists, they're adaptive and wily - hiding behind scenery, playing dead, and making suicidal charges when cornered.
Meantime, for those who were aching to find out what happened to Star Trek's beloved pointy-eared logicians, the Vulcans, a good chunk of the story is set on "New Vulcan", showing how the race has tried to move on from the near-extinction they suffered in the 2009 Star Trek film. Things of course are never quite so simple - the Gorn manage to gatecrash the party and the sort of desperation and extremes a group of genocide survivors can resort to also fold in to round out the story.
Miller was keen to cite influences - Mass Effect, Uncharted, Dead Space and Arkham in particular as games that had something of note to learn from. What struck us about the game was that although it didn't do anything in its genre that was particularly new and groundbreaking, it is easily a best-of-breed entry in current gaming - enough that it actually looks like a plausible mass-seller. And yet one thing does set this game apart, and give it a unique selling point - and irony of all ironies, it's the Star Trek label.
If you're going to pick this up, pick it up because it's a damned good game AND because the two lead characters are Kirk and Spock. The game doesn't need to establish characters or investment in them because they already have almost fifty years of history to them already; instead, it wisely plays on two of Star Trek's strongest character assets. You'll buy this because it's cool to play as Kirk and Spock, because the banter and the bond and the teamwork is enjoyable in and of itself, and because that "bromance" is something you and your fellow local co-op player subconsciously enjoy leaping into the parts of.
The final word: Miller and his team at Paramount, together with Namco Bandai, actually look like they've nailed this one - no mean feat for a Star Trek game and a movie-tie in. Excellent smooth graphics, innovative puzzles and imaginative levels, witty banter and character relationships, and movie-quality production values make this a title you want to put in your PC, XBox or PS3 collection.
Other things we learned:
The story will have a single storyline rather than branching - "we wanted to tell one good story", says Miller.
Single-player, local co-op and network play modes all feature.
The plot involves the Enterprise being drawn into defending New Vulcan from a Gorn assault, the latter having arrived through a tear in space caused by the Vulcan themselves - and like "red matter", the technical gubbins involved ("The Helios device") is an in-demand piece of kit.
Players will get to spend quality time on the Enterprise, exploring the Bridge, Engineering and the Main Shuttlebay - all faithfully recreated from the movie sets.
Bonus objectives include getting through levels using stun setting only, and feature a variety of shooting, puzzle-solving and stealth to win the day.