Review by Myollnir98
Another Star Trek game that's as flawed as it is enjoyable
I love Star Trek, but gaming is one medium the franchise has failed to get the most out of. I recently felt it was time to dust off this old favourite and give it another go. I never managed to finish it the first time round and I got inspired to put it to "rest" for old times sake. However, my memories of the game and my current experience with it clashed and while I still think it can be fun, it disappointed me on many levels. Taking the role of a cadet at Starfleet Academy, you must successfully command your crew through a slew of starship combat based simulator missions and interactive FMV cut scenes. Spanning across 5 CDs and with guest appearances by William Shatner, George Takei and Walter Koenig reprising their roles as Kirk, Sulu and Chekov respectively, this looked almost too good to be true. Sure enough, there are many good ideas going around and Interplay have done their best to draw you into the Trek experience as much as was possible back then, but there's always something amiss. Chances are Trek lingo is going to worm its way into this review, but unless you're at least a casual fan are you going to be reading this anyway? Right, let's dig a bit deeper...
Starfleet Academy is a double-edged sword in the gameplay department since it plays quite well, just not for Star Trek. In the single player missions you're able to pilot a fair compliment of ships, usually you are automatically assigned it, but once in a while you can choose your ship. They range from the small science vessel Oberth class, the well armed Miranda classes, the Enterprise style Constitution class ships to the behemoth Excelsior class. The combat generally feels very much like the X-Wing and Tie Fighter space combat sims even though you are flying gargantuan vessels here rather than nimble fighters which can be off putting.
But here's where the fun comes in. Missions involve the completion of several objectives that vary between diplomatic and combat situations. Communicating with other ships and decision making are as much a vital part of completing a mission as battle. When engaged in battle, you have command of phasers which curiously fire in short bursts like Star Wars lasers, and the more powerful but slower photon torpedoes. Damage is spread out across the ships and introduces a strategic element where you can lock on to and disable certain parts of enemy vessels (particularly useful for knocking out Klingon and Romulan cloaking devices). You can allocate the repair of damage more to certain areas too, furthering strategic play. For example, you'll always need to keep repair up on your shields, hull, life support and weapons, but you may also need to balance it more to keep sensors or tractor beams active for a later objective, and make sure your warp nacelles don't get blown off.
Unfortunately, for every unique and challenging mission there's two that follow the exact same path even if the scenario differs slightly. You often have numerous diversions from your course to rescue freighters under attack for instance. You get lead around in this fashion for a while before the true adversaries are revealed. To try and win back your interest, there are several missions taken directly from episodes in the original series and parts of the movies, which sounds great but fall way short of expectation. They often lack the subtle, grand nature of the original conflicts and the fast pacing screws it up a fair bit.
The events of the game take place somewhere in between the fifth and sixth Star Trek movies. You take charge of the role of aspiring command school cadet David Forrester who must manage his crew both in and out of the simulator to graduate successfully from the academy.
I felt it best to discuss the plethora of FMV cut scenes here. Even though they're technically part of the gameplay they propel the story forward more than anything else. There are often several back-to-back between each mission, which provide some relaxed interactive breaks from the game's regular intensity. As in the simulator, you'll have to make some decisions which this time can affect the crew's performance percentages both positively and negatively. These determine which ending you receive rather than how the crew handles itself in the simulator, which is all up to you. Decisions you make affect a great deal, as these story sections can start to take wildly different paths quickly. You also get to assist and work with Kirk, Sulu and Chekov on occasion which is exciting (they also perform mission briefings). The quality of the acting throughout is convincing though stale, although several amusing alien characters really ham it up. The only down side to it all is that each story branch builds up crazy scenarios which often end in a bit of an anti-climax.
Starfleet Academy got a bad rap for its visuals and while it isn't impeccable by any means for its time, it occasionally gets away with it. The main focus of the graphics, the ships, replicate their on screen counterparts perfectly with a good deal of texture detail. The low polygon count is hardly an issue with such angular designs. Most of the classic designs from the Federation, Klingons, Romulans and Gorn fleets are present at some point or another. All other freighters and enemy vessels are originals but remain consistent to the design traditions of the Trek universe.
Trying to simulate the vastness of space, each solar system is huge but barren and many are near identical. Concentrating on elaborating the design of individual planets and specific areas would have been an improvement as the action is almost always confined to one small part of each system anyway. Larger planets and objects noticeably lose shape and clarity beyond a short distance as well. The FMV sequences, despite dated video quality are very presentable as every character is decked out in appropriate costume, and the pre-rendered surroundings are full of character. Everything ran smoothly on XP for me without any trouble even after all this time.
The sound effects throughout aren't all that faithful to the ones in the show, but they serve their purpose. I often turn it down though as the piercing sound of phaser fire does get on my nerves somewhat. The background noises on the bridge when all is quiet are the most pleasant as they are drawn directly from the Original Series.
Music is a different story entirely, and is handled effectively by Star Trek: The Next Generation's composer Ron Jones. While the score sounds more akin to Next Gen incidental music than the era the game is set in, it's still appropriately mysterious and dramatic as each event requires. It occupies a subtle space in the background at all times, even when in the heat of combat. That also serves to make sure the fact that there are relatively few pieces less glaring.
Play Time/Replayability (7/10)
Finishing the total of 22 missions won't take too long, but the six different endings mean there's always something to come back to. There are several methods for completing missions. Annoyingly, sometimes this is not indicated at all, and I think I have passed a mission in the best possible fashion when in fact there's a more desirable solution. Combine this with number of directions the FMV sections can turn, and you have a good deal you have to try out to find all the endings. The only thing stopping me personally is I'd be reticent to repeat a few already bland missions over and over.
I have a soft spot for this one, even though it suffers the usual Trek games problem that entails either trying to do too much or not doing enough. Interplay here didn't manage to realise that cutting down on the grandiose scale of things would have been an improvement. The action is concentrated so the game should have paid more attention to its immediate surroundings. Otherwise, it does get a great deal out of its limited ship combat framework.
They also released an add on pack called Chekov's Lost Missions which included seven neat extra missions, the majority of which are superior to the ones found in the original game. Unfortunately I had problems running it, so my planned review has now gone out of the window.
Rating: 3.5 - Good
Product Release: Star Trek: Starfleet Academy (US, 08/31/97)
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