Thursday, 18 April 2019

STAR TREK: ARMADA


Many a gaming genre has worn the Star Trek license, but out of all of them, the Real Time Strategy perhaps fits Gene Roddenberry's egalitarian concept the best. Shooters are arguably too violent for the peaceful goals of the Federation while narrative-driven adventures don't always delve into the complexities of diplomacy, telling distinctly one-sided stories. So let's talk about Star Trek: Armada, Activision's 1999 attempt to do the cult phenomenon justice.

Based on the crew of Picard's Next Generation, the original story is pretty involved for such a title. A Federation starship from the future warns about an imminent Borg takeover of the majority of the galaxy, assimilating humans, Romulans and Klingons alike. These three races at war with each other have to form uneasy alliances to save the future of their homeworlds. Or, if you favour the Borg, dominate the galaxy.

For the time, the graphics were fantastic. The extra crisp HD upscale does show off some of the engine's limitations but for the most part, it still holds up. My biggest gripe in this department is the less than impressive draw distance. With the standard top-down perspective, it doesn't affect gameplay at all but you will see nebulas, ships and planets jarringly pop in during the in-game cutscenes.

Getting attacked from Starfleet in the Romulan campaign (left).
Entering a wormhole (right). Who knows where you'll end up.

Being entirely set in space, the designers do an admirable job of making the blackness of it all look appealing. It does lack variety though, with each level looking remarkably similar. The only major difference is the placement of asteroid belts, nebulas and celestial bodies - the only non-player or AI controlled objects on the playfield. Asteroid belts are basically moving barriers floating around the void but you can use them strategically when fleeing from an over-powered enemy.

You can also use nebulae to your advantage too. They are made of five different colours, each signalling the effect it will have on your fleet. The red Metrion Nebula slows down movement and will slowly break down your shield and eventually the ship itself. Also to be avoided is the yellow Radioactive Nebula which will gradually kill off your crew, regardless of the state of your ship. If you need to remove any negative effects forced on you by an enemy's special weapon, you can take a swim in the green Metaphasic Nebula to completely remove them. The blue-hued Cerulean Nebula may prevent your shields from working, but they also render all weapons non-functional making them the perfect safe space. Lastly, there's the Mutara Nebula with a purple silver colour. It will slow your ship as well as disabling shields and sensors rendering you invisible to the enemy.

Building your star base next to a planet will increase the rate of new recruits.

The only other variable on the maps are immovable heavenly bodies such as planets and wormholes. Planets are placed in the background and any nearby starbases will recruit new members at a faster rate. Other than dilithium resources (more on that later), you'll also find wormholes and black holes. The former will warp you to another point on the map while the latter will absorb any ship damaged enough to affect their engines making them a treacherous area for a fight.

Other than enemies, these are pretty much the only variables between levels. With such a limited environment, the success of the game lies completely in how well it plays. Thankfully, this aspect is very good. While it is on the simpler side of the RTS spectrum, copying mechanics wholesale from its peers, there is enough here to keep all parties hooked.

For an RTS, the story is incredibly cinematic, with story beats occurring in CGI cutscenes, in-engine animations and within the gameplay itself. This gives the game an extra step in investing the player, something many others in the genre don't necessarily bother with. This helps in adding variety to what would otherwise be similar-looking and playing levels. For example, one level has a lone Worf piloting the Avenger through the Ikolis Expanse to claim the fabled lost Sword of Kheless (and thus the Klingon Empire's allegiance in the upcoming war). All the while, a rogue Klingon fleet captained by Toral (with the expected delusions of grandeur) chases you through the treacherous and labyrinthine field. Another in the Romulan campaign tasks you researching a cloaking device so you can sneak up to a Klingon prison complex, transport some of your crew over to it and rescue a Romulan prisoner. There's much more here beyond the usual building, maintaining and utilising of an army.

You can build yourself quite the fleet if you have 
enough dilithium to build them and crew to man them.

Familiar mechanics like building and resource management are still here, complete with research options to unlock additional abilities, weapons and schematics. The main resource is dilithium, which is effectively your currency. It is mined from a number of small blue planets found on the map so the necessary ships and stations are needed to mine them. The other resource is people. Your starbase will have a pool of crew members who can be drafted to different vessels. All ships, be it a Dilithium Freighter, a B'rel-class Bird of Prey or a Borg Sphere need a specific number of crew members to operate as well as trained officers. In what is a measure to prevent you from spamming your most powerful ships, officers are your most valuable resource. The only way to increase their number is to buy building more starbases making sure to take advantage of their solitary upgrade.

You can lose men just as easily as you can recruit them. Every time a vessel takes a hit, they lose some of their faceless brethren as well as ship health. In order to bring them back to full functionality, you can order them back to your shipyard for repairs and transport more people from your starbase like sheep to a slaughter. The battles look visually appealing with a cacophony of metal swirling around a flurry of laser beams like a 90s rave. I do have trouble singling out different ships, making a more direct on-the-cuff approach of attack frustrating. If one of your ships is getting low on health or crew, it's nigh on impossible to pick them out individually. Couple that with some of your smallest scouts almost blending into the background.

Even the largest ships appear tiny when zoomed out, making the smallest ones nigh on invisible.
Add the chaos of battle, and selecting that single scout ship becomes impossible.

The camera angle exacerbates this. While you can zoom in quite a way, this is impractical when you need a larger overview to plan ahead. While fully zoomed out, there is more to see (though still not enough in my opinion), some of the smaller ships get lost. While not entirely game-breaking, I did find myself spending valuable seconds during a battle slowly zooming in and out just to manage everything. There were some unnecessary casualties.

This also makes an issue of performing any actions too. Whether it be building structures, transferring crew or researching upgrades, these are all found in a specific ship's inventory. With no actual menu system logging everything, this means you'll need to locate that rather tiny Construction Ship in order to enlarge your base.

In the end, Star Trek: Armada is a competent, entertaining game with a few niggles that prevent it from becoming a classic in the vein of StarCraft, Homeworld or Sins of a Solar Empire (a very decent fanmade Armada III mod exists on the latter). There is an official sequel which I hear is a much better and polished affair, but this is nevertheless a decent precursor.  Well worth it for Star Trek and Strategy fans alike.



To download the game, follow the link below. This is a custom installer exclusive to The Collection Chamber will run natively on modern systems. Manual included. Tested on Windows 10.

File Size: 319 Mb.  Install Size: 569 Mb.  Need help? Consult the Collection Chamber FAQ

Download


Star Trek: Armada is © Activision
Star Trek: The Next Generation is © Universal Pictures
Review, Cover Design and Installer created by me


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