Written by: Stoo

Date posted: August 10, 2014

Welcome to our latest discussion piece! Today’s item is Star Trek Away Team, an isometric-view, realtime tactics game with a heavy emphasis on stealth.

Here’s a quick overview: you command team of Starfleet officers, leading them on a number of secret missions through enemy territory.  They fall into a few different categories, each with unique gadgets and skills. Engineers can deactivate cameras, security officers have sniper rifles and proximity bombs, one of the science guys can turn invisible and so on. You can choose to try and sneak past enemy guards or incapacitate them, lethally or otherwise. Generally you’re not meant to charge around, guns blazing. Although we did resort to that once or twice.

 

Taking Pity on Unwanted Games

You can toggle the display of vision cones - this is where the guard can see. Don't stand there. Obviously.

You can toggle the display of vision cones – this is where the guard can see. Don’t stand there. Obviously.

Stoo: Okay well, it was your turn to choose the game this time around. What factors led  you to decide on Away Team?

Rik: Well, in my local town there are a lot of charity shops, which normally have quite a lot of good stuff on offer for the PC retro gamer. I kept seeing this copy of Away Team, seemingly unsold for weeks and months. Then one day I saw it had been reduced! In a charity shop. So, I kind of felt sorry for it. It kind of looks like Jagged Alliance 2, which is one of the few strategy games I’ve played and enjoyed for any length of time, plus as I know you like Star Trek I thought you might be interested in a discussion.

Stoo: Yes, I am a total Trekkie. I have a model Enterprise next to me right now, and it’s not even one of the famous ones. (note: it’s Enterprise B. That’s the one we saw for about 10 minutes at the start of the movie Generations). So I’m willing to give any Trek game at least a try. I looked it up on eBay and saw copies going for £1.50-ish. So I also felt sorry for it. I had no idea what to expect, though. I knew it had an isometric view and you ordered Starfleet officers around, that’s about it.

Rik: I have to admit to recalling an unenthusiastic review in PC Zone. But I always figure just because someone thought it wasn’t worth £35 on release doesn’t mean it won’t be any fun to look back on now.

Stoo: It turns out to be heavily stealth oriented. Inspired I think by games like Commandos (which I’ve never actually played).

Rik: Me neither. Although I do have a copy lurking around somewhere…

Stoo: In the Cupboard of shame?

Rik: Yep. Although it might be Commandos 2. And Desperados as well (also unplayed), which is a Wild West effort.

Stoo: I’ve played a lot of first-person stealth but largely missed out on this overhead-view stuff. Good to try something different, I guess! Anyway I found it reasonably easy to pick up the basics. Like, big visual indicators for enemy field of view, and for how much noise you’re making.

Rik: There’s no ‘fog of war’ either. You can see the whole map from the beginning.

Stoo: Yes, I have to admit I was grateful for that.

Rik: I hadn’t quite realised how stealth-based it would be. Also it’s real-time! So lots of my nightmares rolled into one, thinking about it. Real time, squad-based stealth… but actually, it’s pretty forgiving in the beginning.

Stoo: Yeah, as long as you’re cautious and methodical it’s not too bad at first. I like the various high-tech tools you can get. The invisibility gadget and the audio decoy especially. They’re quite helpful in getting past a guard.

Rik: How much creative license is used in such things? Do gadgets like that actually exist in the Star Trek universe? (Obviously I recognise the standard stuff – phasers, tricorder etc.)

Stoo: I remember the Jem Hadar soldiers (from Deep Space Nine) having personal cloaks. The audio decoy I don’t recall but it’s totally plausible they could make such a thing.

 

Are we sure Captain Picard would approve of this kind of thing?

Rik: What about the Away Team concept in general? I know the phrase is used in the show. But it’s normally beaming down to a planet and looking at stuff, isn’t it? Not loading up on guns and grenades.

Stoo: Well the idea of a special forces team roaming the galaxy in a special ship isn’t exactly something we saw in The Next Generation much. But it stands to reason such a team would exist, I guess. I can imagine them showing up in Deep Space Nine, which was set during a war, so obviously there was a change in tone and more emphasis on military actions.

Rik: Oh, ok. So it’s not something implausible made up for the game. It’s a been a long time since I played, for example, Elite Force. But the same thing struck me about that…

Stoo: Elite Force featured a team that was a bit more SAS than the usual Star Trek security guys, yeah. I figured that was down to Voyager’s unusual circumstances (ie stuck alone in hostile space). Trek games inevitably tend to focus more on action and shooting stuff. And not incidents where Geordi La Forge falls in love with the Romulan ambassador’s daughter or something.

Rik: I would totally play that game though.

Stoo: “Geordi, in order to help you I have compiled a list of courting rituals from 783 alien cultures including the Breen and Tholians.” “Uh, thanks Data…” (meanwhile Riker is already making his moves on her).

Rik: I did try and watch a couple of Trek episodes in preparation for this discussion. The first one I watched on SyFy just happened to be one I’d seen before, involving a mute negotiator who was really good but then his telepathic entourage all got killed and he lost confidence [‘Loud as a Whisper’, Series 2 Episode 5, Trek Fans!].  This morning I picked one from Netflix because it specifically mentioned an Away Team mission. But that bit was all over in about 30 seconds and then Riker fell unconscious and supposedly woke up 15 years into the future [‘Future Imperfect’, Series 4 Episode 8, Trek Fans!] So my research didn’t exactly help…

Stoo: Well I do appreciate the commitment in sitting through episodes of Trek when you’re not really a fan.

Rik: I don’t mind it. I’ve seen the TNG movies.

Stoo: They’re a bit more action oriented. But yeah, I would have suggested DS9 as fitting this more closely.

Stoo wants to nitpick stuff

We both hated this mission.

We both hated this mission.

Stoo: Okay, back on gameplay, one thing that bugged me  is that the various specialist tools can each only be used by one type of officer. So no-one else can use the captain’s grenades for example.

Rik: It kind of makes the squad selection more important. Your hand is held quite a lot there, telling you what you need for the mission.

Stoo:  True, in gameplay terms it makes sense, and it’s rarely a major problem I guess. I was thinking of that mission where your team is split in two.

Rik: Yes there’s a mission where two guys have to avoid some space tigers (or whatever). And the other two have to sneak around a ship. Is that the one you mean?

Stoo: Yes! The tigers bit is easy. But then the two guys basically only have half the toolkit available.

Rik: I found it really annoying that my best guys got put on the easy bit. Then I had the science officer and someone else sneaking around. While my grenades guy and sniper were sitting around doing nothing.

Stoo: Exactly. And if the science guy finds grenades then they’re useless to him. Again I can see the reasoning behind limiting use of tools for balance purposes. Still they could for example  let science guys throw grenades, just less competently. They would have shorter range,  or a risk of clumsily dropping it on their own feet. So the action guys are still clearly better off using grenades whenever possible.

Rik: Here, you can’t even pick them up and give them to someone else later.

Stoo: Right, characters can’t pick up anything they can’t use. That irked me too.

Rik: It’s quite frustrating. I was expecting something more like Jagged Alliance, where everyone can do everything. But if they’re not skilled, then they’ll probably mess it up.

Stoo: That sounds preferable.

Rik: At least they can all use phasers.

Stoo: While I’m in nitpicking mode, also: the only way to dispose of bodies is the transportation brig, only available to engineers. That one where you place a box on the ground then teleport bodies into it. Hiding bodies, so as not to alert other guards, is usually a key gameplay action in these stealth games. So I had to wonder, why not just vaporise them with the phaser? Or they could just pick the body up and throw it in a closet.

Rik: I wondered about using stun. Once you stun an enemy you can’t get rid of them or do anything else except just wait for them to wake up.

Stoo: Funnily enough the brig doesn’t work on stunned people, only dead ones. I guess it should be “transportation morgue.”

Rik: Heh. Mind you I think if stun and remove bodies was a feature, the game would be too reliant on that mechanic – stun is pretty handy as it is.

Stoo: It is, and it actually seems to work faster than kill setting, too. Enemies instantly fall over.

Rik: Yes, one shot immobilises them…

Stoo: Whereas shooting at bad guys on the kill setting, they last long enough to return fire at least for one shot.

Rik: And your guys generally can’t take much damage. If one of them dies it’s game over too!  I suppose they need to encourage the stealthy non-violent approach.

Stoo: It’s quite fitting for Starfleet officers, who are meant to be the Goody Guys who avoid unnecessary violence.

We reminisce about various missions. Also we are bad at stealth.

Stoo: The missions tend to vary in how much violence you’re allowed to use. Some basically say “these guys are all under Warden [mysterious bad guys]” control, so do what you like.

Rik: Yes, the Warden thing [an infection of some kind that essentially means anyone could be the bad guys] is quite a handy contrivance to allow you more variety of enemies. So in some missions, it’s like, “these are innocent Starfleet types, don’t harm them”. And then in others, you get told, “these are generally Warden scum, waste them!”

Stoo: Actually what also makes missions hard is you can get failed just for being seen. Like, that one we mentioned where you’re split in two parties of two [Mission 10]. If the bad guys see you and live for more than about 5 seconds they delete a load of vital computer data.

Rik: Yes. That mission really was a pain actually. I recall another one [Mission 11] where you had a Romulan disguise but couldn’t let them too near you. Otherwise they’d scan you and raise the alarm…

Stoo: Oh, yes. I basically won that by exploiting a bug. You can “pin” them to the wall using the audio decoy, so, they’re trying to reach the sound on the other side by running right through it.

Rik: I felt slightly bad for cheating that way. There were various points where I used that,  or just had my guys running around stunning everything and legging it.

Stoo: Right. One mission that looked like it was going to be super tough was that Klingon city [Mission 9] because it’s absolutely swarming with guards. Then I found that, yes, I could just stun them and run for it, since there’s no “fail if you’re spotted” criteria on that one. So it ended up kind of hilarious, sprinting around Kronos phasering Klingons.

Rik: Both tactics are fairly comical. Guards don’t seem to remember how they were stunned. And with the audio decoys they run off for a bit then just give up (unless they get stuck on a wall).

Stoo: Yeah, stunned guys might run around a bit but then they lose interest. “I could radio base but, eh. I will stand here and read the paper instead.”

Rik: “Why was I lying on the floor? Oh, it was probably nothing…” Going back to the squad selection, did you ever  feel you’d picked the wrong team? Or did the ‘recommended items’ bit in the squad select just basically determine who you need each time? Quite often you can have most things covered.

Stoo: Generally the game’s recommendations seem sensible. I rarely felt I was totally lacking a tool I needed, as long as I actually had control of the full team.

Rik: Sometimes you work out that something recommended actually isn’t much use.

There are of course missions set on a Borg Cube.

There are of course missions set on a Borg Cube.

Stoo: Right, sometimes it says to take someone who can use that gadget to make healing potions (or the Trek equivalent) from plants? I found I didn’t need that so much if I had a medic aboard.

Rik: I think they can also make poisons too. I’m trying to think of another example. Mind meld, maybe? Also the EMP grenades are useful but a bit disappointingly puny. You need them to get around security cameras. But they only stay off for about 30 seconds.

Stoo: I generally took teleportation brig whenever I was allowed to kill enemies.

Rik: Did you ever start playing for a bit and then realise you forgot to set it up at the start? [Edit: You have to set up the brig itself out of sight first, before you can actually teleport bodies away during the mission] Like, when you try to get rid of the first body.

Stoo: The first time I played, yeah. I shot a guy then dropped the container on his corpse. In the middle of the enemy base. Oops.

Rik: You can save often though, so mistakes never really get punished that much.

Stoo: Yes, you can totally save-scum this game.

Rik: Cowards like me rejoice!

Stoo: Me too! Purists sneer! I do know you made it further into the game than me. Were the later missions particularly harder?

Rik: I think I got onto … hang on, will check…  Mission 14 (of 18). It is very easy in the beginning, which prompted me to arrogantly suggest we’d both breeze through it easily enough. I don’t think it’s really hard, I just started to lose interest. We’ve already mentioned that annoying split mission. I also didn’t like Mission 13 – you’re on a Borg cube with one character, having to rescue the others. Then disable various things to allow you to beam out. But the person you need to disable stuff is the furthest away, so you have to retrace your steps. And you have extremely limited resources in terms of getting the Borg…

Stoo: And the Borg are phaser-proof, right?

Rik: I’m not sure you even have phasers on that one. You have to use a combination of the neural disruptors and EMP grenades. I got stuck so consulted a walkthrough which suggested that the engineer in that person’s game was actually one of the first to be rescued. So I don’t know if the placing is random or not.

Stoo: I did play the first Borg mission. I liked that they basically ignore you as long as you don’t do anything shifty or threatening. It’s consistent with how they operate in the TV show.

Rik: Yes, I liked the first Borg mission too, but the second one is a bit of a fiddle. I muddled through by legging it through the last bit while applying meds at every opportunity. Again, I thought, “this probably isn’t how you’re supposed to do this, but…”

Stoo:  Yeah, that mission we’ve referred to a few times, the split one, was a bit desparate by the end. Too many bad guys grouped together to take out and mission failed if they saw me, I recall it ended in a few desperate sprints.

Rik: With it being real-time, I guess speed of action has to be part of it. Think/plan while paused, then click like mad. At times I did start to wish it was turn based though. It became a bit Cannon Fodder at times, and I thought, is this what they were going for?

Stoo: I generally assume not, that you’re meant to have some meticulous plan that is flawlessly executed. EMP a camera, neck-pinch a guard, run to next room…

Rik: Yes, I agree. But often I didn’t know how I was supposed to have got through without the exploits we mentioned.

Stoo: It’s easy to forget some tool you have at your disposal. Or to just not have the patience to figure out every last guard’s patrol route.

Rik: I’m sorry to say that I just feel better shooting and then sending the bodies to…wherever they go when you transport them away. I’m just not a natural sneaker. I think I probably could have got to the end, but the repetition of scenarios, enemies and artwork got to me. “Oh great, another Romulan base…”

Stoo: I could have maybe if my vacation hadn’t interrupted. I’m kind of bad about returning to challenging games after a few weeks’ break. Also, you do indeed spend a lot of time around Romulans.

 

Starfleet’s finest officers

Rik: Also you don’t have much investment in the story or the characters. The story is all via briefings and debriefings. Because there’s not much in the way or stats or levelling up you don’t become attached to any of your squad really. I kept getting characters mixed up in the squad select. Also in game! They’re so small they kind of need symbols on their outfits to indicate who they are. A big blue cross for medical, for example.

Well that's one way to deal with a Klingon.

Well that’s one way to deal with a Klingon.

Stoo: I came to like a few of the characters over time. Like, for security I always took the Vulcan lady since she has a mix of sniping and bombs. And had some very dry Vulcan commentary. There’s also one of the medical guys who kept shouting “NOT THE FACE” when we came under fire.

Rik: Oh really? DIdn’t notice that!

Stoo: Which is hilarious, I can’t remember any Starfleet officer ever sounding so undignified about being shot at on TV. Sounds more like a Ferengi.

Rik: Some of the dialogue did make me laugh. In a good way.

Stoo: I thought there was a decent range of characters to choose from, and they do tend to have their own distinct personality and lines. Not an enormous amount of depth to them, of course…

Rik: Nope. The main laugh for me came from Worf’s fatalism. I think it’s the first mission he turns up, and he immediately starts talking about everyone dying. Did you feel that the inclusion of Worf and Data added anything? Some authenticity?

Stoo: I think it all feels reasonably convincingly like it’s part of the Trek universe already, but it was good to have recognisable voices.

Rik: I wondered if it was a bit, “don’t worry Trekkies, we’ve got official cameos!” They don’t feel shoehorned in?

Stoo: Their presence is logical enough [Captain! – sorry]. Worf was sent to be ambassador at the end of DS9. Actually wait… Data should be dead? Or maybe this was made before Nemesis. [Edit: it was. Nemesis came out a year later.]

Rik: I suppose my concern, which you’ve addressed I think, was that the whole premise was a bit unlikely (ie a ST shooty-squad) so they parachuted in a couple of TNG voices to make it more palatable. But it sounds like I’m being unfair.

Stoo: I think shooty-squads basically aren’t very much in the spirit of Star Trek TNG, but could still make sense in the wider universe. The games that are truest to the spirit of Trek (original or TNG), really, are the old adventures. 25th Anniversary and Final Unity. They had some shooty stuff, but also interactions and adventure.

Rik: But there’s nothing here that makes you think, “no this is wrong”?

Stoo: Not really. Throw in Sisko and and O’Brien and it could be an episode of DS9.

Rik: I suppose the Paramount license people probably have to sign off on such things.

 

Conclusions

Stoo: So we should sum this up. Worth the time spent playing?

Rik: I think so. I enjoyed it for a while. I’m not sure I would necessarily recommend it. Not sure I’m qualified to compare to Commandos etc though.

Stoo: How does it compare to Jagged Alliance?

Rik: The lack of stats etc mean you don’t really have the same investment in the characters. And the campaign doesn’t involve any planning – the missions are linear. Plus JA2 is real-time until there’s combat, then it goes to turn-based, which I prefer. I do sort of wish your characters could do some things for themselves, with it being real-time. They just stand there, and if they get attacked then it just pauses the game.

Stoo: Yes, their AI is fairly useless.

Rik:  I did like the music, and the general atmosphere of Away Team. It did feel tense and involving at times. I think probably the acting talent is better in this than in Jagged Alliance 2. But the story could have been a bit more involving. By the end I found it felt like a bunch of missions stapled together and I wasn’t really following what was going on.

Stoo: I agree the story, as much as I followed, is just an excuse to go prowl around Romulus and Borg Cubes.

Rik: There’s a CG intro, which is a bit crappy technically, but I wouldn’t have minded a bit more of that between missions.

Stoo: The Wardens are… based on Borg assimilation technology I think? Which is used to take over people from a bunch of races. But it’s not actually the Borg themselves pulling the strings?

Rik: Honestly, I’m not sure.

Stoo: I think we’re agreed the plot is not terribly interesting.

Rik: It’s a shame, because that could have elevated the whole experience. Also that’s a key part of Star Trek surely?

Stoo: Trek games do sometimes have fairly token stories. BORG THREATEN THE ALPHA QUADRANT. AGAIN. Etc. A game doesn’t need to be about a threat to the entire federation to be exciting, it can have a more personal touch.

Rik: Without much of a plot you’re just left with the meat of the game. Which has its flaws, especially repetition.

Stoo: Yeah. I found it a solidly enjoyable game of stealth tactics. I mean, it’s quite satisfying when you get everything right and reach an objective without a panicked shootout. But I was already getting a little bored of Romulan towns and I only got like 60% of the way through.

Rik:  The last mission I tried involved a Romulan town and I kept getting blown up by booby traps on the way in. I probably could have figured it out, but I had sort of lost interest by that point. The game does have its moments though…what kind of score would you give it? I’m probably around a 5 I think.

Stoo: It doesn’t really stand out, but it’s competently made. I’d go with 6. My being a Trekkie might affect that!

Rik: As you’re the strategy guy, I can go along with you.

Stoo: So basically if you’re in the mood for a tactical shooter, this might not astound you but it’s pretty entertaining. And, as we established, copies are floating around for less than a Starbucks coffee.