Written by: Stoo

Date posted: March 19, 2003

The good doctor tries a few chatup lines.

Star Trek plus first-person shooter: considering the considerable overlap between fanbases of the two, you’d think this would be a sure-fire route to success? Well, maybe not. Although Trek gaming as a whole has been pretty successful, first-person titles in specific were slower to take off. Remember the official game of the Generations movie? No? I didn’t think so. Then, a few years later came Klingon Honour Guard. Based on the solid (and then graphically impressive) Unreal engine, this one managed a fair amount of critical acclaim, but it hardly set the gaming world aflame.

Why? Probably because Honour Guard cast you as a Klingon, shooting at other Klingons. While our favourite race of sword-waving warriors are certainly important to Trek, this was missing out the main faction to the whole show, which is the Federation (i.e. humanity and friends). It can thus be hard to identify with such a situation; most of us Trekkies would much rather don the brightly coloured uniform of a goody-two-shoes Starfleet officer. That way, we’re exploring strange new worlds ourselves, warily confronting Romulan warships or getting stuck in subspace distortions and living out a virtual Trek experience. What fan wouldn’t enjoy a chance to serve as an officer on board the Enterprise, old or new, examining fascinating but illogical beings with Mr Spock or honourably kicking alien arses alongside Commander Worf, all in glorious 1st-person 3D?

Well, Elite force goes some way to realising this particular Trekky dream. Except, as the title suggests, there’s no Starship Enterprise in sight. Instead this game is set during the third spin-off series, Voyager. For the non-trekkies amongst you, this series was based around a ship that for various uninteresting reasons is catapulted to the far side of the galaxy, and must attempt a seventy-year journey to return home. Opinions on Voyager vary across Trek-fandom, although you’ll find there are few who like it as much as Next Generation or Deep Space Nine. In my opinion, Voyager was a promising idea that was wasted by unimaginative writing, dull characters and far too much technobabble. Plus it reduced the Borg from Next Generation’s near-unstoppable force of ruthless technology to a bunch of easily outwitted cyber-zombies. Still, that’s a debate for another day.

It's no great surprise that the Borg are one of the main vilains you face.

It’s no great surprise that the Borg are one of the main villins you face.

Anyhow, Elite Force isn’t based on any specific events from the show, although the presence of busty Borgette Seven of Nine suggests it must be set somewhere in the later seasons. The “Elite Force” itself is a kind of special-forces unit, formed from the standard security team you would expect to find on board any Starfleet ship. Unlike the hapless redshirts of Kirk’s era however, who routinely got zapped by irritable aliens, the Elite Force is kitted out with the latest gear, armed to the teeth and trained under the watchful eye of the ship’s security chief Tuvok. The idea being that, when seeking out new life and civilisations goes pear-shaped, this team wades in to blow stuff up.

Without giving too much away, the storyline itself involve the Elite Force getting its first taste of action when Voyager is trapped in a kind of giant junkyard in deep space. Many other paralysed ships are floating around, scavenging pirates plunder anything of value, and at the centre of it all is a giant and vaguely menacing structure called the Forge. You yourself take on the role of Alex Munro (who can be either male or female; clever choice of name, eh?), second in command of the force. Your job is to lead your squad in investigating this place and searching for a possible means of escape, whilst the senior officers sit around being ineffectual (I bet Data or Spock could sort this mess out in three minutes flat), various aliens try to kill you and Tuvok tells you how rubbish you are. Its a tough life in the Elite Force, but just remember how much better you have it than the Redshirts of old.

So, enough of the backdrop; how does the game itself handle? Well, generally speaking the answer is: just like most other “run and gun” first-person shooters. If you’re after more involving gameplay, then I suggest you go take a look at something like System Shock 2 instead. Elite Force is an uncomplicated blasting romp, consisting of mowing down aliens or solving very basic puzzles in a series of completely linear levels. However, two features do at least keep the fragging above mindless level. First is the Half-Life style use of scripted events to keep the story going “in-engine” during the action, instead of just relying on cutscenes. Examples include stumbling across a gunfight between rival aliens, or the capturing of an officer by the Borg. Secondly, and this was one of the main selling points of the game, is the implementation of your squadmates.

Most of the time you have at least a couple of these guys by your side. Their AI looks pretty impressive at first glance; they take up formation around you, cover your back, duck behind cover and so on. However, with further scrutiny I think most of their more clever moments are actually scripted. Also, most of the time they seem completely indestructible, only dying when the story calls for it. Still, fighting as part of a team does make the game a bit more entertaining than it would be if played solo. Some decent voice-acting adds real personality to the team, and their banter, speculation and reactions to various events help you become more immersed in the action. It helps provide that important feeling of being in your own episode of Star Trek, as opposed to just playing a Trek mod for Quake, which a game of this kind this really needs in order to succeed. You might become quite attached to Chel the Bolian as whines his way through every alien encounter, whilst another squad-member is voiced by cult figure Todd Marshall, aka Biff from Back to the future, aka Maniac from Wing Commander. When you find yourself genuinely caring about what happens to these guys, you know you’re getting into this game.

The elite force aboard an alien vessel.

The elite force aboard an alien vessel.

Elite Force also presents you with a wide selection of levels; the “space-graveyard” theme conveniently allows for adventures on several different alien ships, some familiar and some entirely new. There is inevitably some action on board a Borg cube; though you might think this would be an ideal setting for System-Shock style suspense and scares, Elite Force goes for the “gun down ceaseless waves of drones” approach instead. Meanwhile, one promising level is set on a makeshift station constructed from bits of ships from various races including Klingon and Hirogen, but unfortunately slips up by attempting some stealth-based action. This sounds like a great idea on paper, but is really just tedious as the only “stealthy” option you can take is hiding behind crates with no Thief-style use of lighting or sound to determine how easily detectable you are. Oh, and you can lean around corners. Nice to see other developers discovering something that Looking Glass were incorporating into games years earlier.

In fact, the best levels are the ones not tied down to any previously seen Trek races. These present you with a range of bizarre non-humanoid lifeforms and even killer robots, two things the TV show has lacked due to (presumably) budget constraints. This makes sense to me; if we’re going for simple action then I’m happy to face off against monstrous bugs. Screw learning about new cultures and peaceful exploration, Elite Force seems to do best when presenting you with a swarm of critters to annihilate. Suspend your disbelief, keep a finger on the fire button and yell “perhaps today IS a good day to die!” at your screen (preferably in Klingon). That’s the way to enjoy this game.

This might be a good point for the obligatory “tell me about the weapons” section. Your arsenal is based around the basic hand-phaser, and also the larger rifle-sized variant that you might recognise from the movie First Contact. Later on you get the chance to pinch some alien weapons, while the techy boys back on Voyager come up with some new ideas too. Generally speaking, the risk with ray-gun type weapons in these games is that they can sometimes feel a bit wimpy and insubstantial, as compared to real-world weapons like shotguns. Fortunately, while a few of Elite Force’s weapons are somewhat underwhelming, it does have some high points like a supercharged welding beam and a portable mini-torpedo launcher, that produce more impressive effects.

The one real disappointment here concerns the Borg. You see, traditionally in Trek they learn to “adapt” and shield themselves after a few hits, becoming collectively immune to whatever energy-weapon you’re trying to use. This forces our heroes to resort to hand-to-hand action; great for Worf the Warrior, not such good news for Ensign Expendable Extra. However, rather than implement this in the game for some real excitement, we are just given a guaranteed Borg-zapping gun and can easily mow down drones without any sense of real danger.

Unfortunately you're stuck with having Tuvok for a boss.

Worst part of the job: having to report to Tuvok.

Anyhow, to calm down in between the periods of action, you often get a chance to wander around parts of Voyager herself, and chat with crew-members, which helps propel various threads of the storyline. You don’t actually have full freedom to roam the ship unless you buy the game’s official expansion pack, but I doubt that’s a great loss as from what I have seen, the novelty of aimlessly exploring the bridge or Warp core does wear off surprisingly quickly. More importantly, it’s here that you are given mission briefings by the senior officers, all of whom are voiced by their actors from the TV show. I’m not a huge fan of Tom Paris or Chakotay myself, but at least this ensures an authentic feel to the proceedings.

To sum up, this is hardly a taxing game. It’s very straightforward to play and also pretty short; you could easily complete it within a weekend, even allowing for irritating distractions like sleep, friends and food. While I’ve come to prefer the slightly more cerebral varients on first-person action, like Deus Ex or Thief, run-and gun still has its place. Sometimes when I want to unwind after a day at work, this is just the kind of action I’m after. It gives you things to shoot at, it’s Trek-tastic, and powered by the Quake 3 engine it still looks pretty decent (if a bit dated). I wouldn’t put Elite Force at the top of your priority list – even if you’re not a Deus Ex fan yourself, within the parameters of “regular” shooters this isn’t up there with Half Life. Still, if you spy this one in the budget section of your local gaming store, you could certainly do far worse than spending a few quid on it.