A Blast from the Past review
FBT goes boldly where no gamer has gone before. To replay a Star Trek game.
One of my earliest memories is of my Mum turning off the Star Trek episode Arena ‘cos the Gorn scared me. From then, I was a trekkie. But I was never fussed about Star Trek gaming. Most were either adventure stories which I had (and still have) little patience for, strategic games (boring) or were terrible (That's more my style). The only exception was the 25yr Anniversary Game, and since Star Trek is now 50 years old, I can’t bring myself to go that far back when rediscovering old games. The reason I got Elite Force in 2000 was because it was marketed as a shooter. And it had form - It was from Raven, who gave us Heretic and it’s built on idTech3, back then the best shooter engine around. That it was set in my favourite sci-fi universe was just a bonus. That it was set on Voyager was less of a bonus, being my least favourite trek (other than that one with the Quantum Leap guy but that series doesn’t count). I was stoked to let rip with a phaser.
I can’t recall much about the game now I come to think about it; I know I enjoyed it, but I’ve never really brought it up in gaming conversations and I don’t recall anyone else celebrating it either. Maybe that’s because 2000 had a lot to celebrate; Hitman, NOLF, Deus Ex, Diablo II and, ahem, Daikatana were released, not to mention all the great games knocking about before 2000 that were still resonating (Half Life, take a bow). Not even the marquee value of its namesake could keep Elite Force in gamers’ minds. Maybe gamers were just after something fresh, something they could call their own instead of a dad hand-me-down like Star Trek. To be fair it did well enough for a sequel but Elite Force is long forgotten. I’d completely forgotten about it myself until I went looking through my ‘probably won’t run in windows anymore’ box. It’s not even on Steam.
But, it’s Star Trek and it did run in windows. So, Make It So. No, that’s Captain Picard. I can’t remember if Janeaway had any catchphrases. I recall she loved coffee, and that’s good enough for me. Make It Strong.
Still a Blast?
My first surprise is the menu. It animates like one of the computer screens on the show and it has the ship’s computer voice. It actually has a mildly nostalgic effect on me. Not for Star Trek, but because the menu is immediately involving. Games now go for that minimalist look with their menus, a sleek typeface and nothing of what you’re getting into. But for a time, games wanted you in the zone from the get-go and the menu was part of the world; Medal of Honor Allied Assault's menu was a radio-set in a bunker; that reboot was all black background and white text. How does that orientate me into the game world? Remember when Doom’s exit choices would goad you into sticking around? The new one doesn’t, it just asks if you’re sure you want to exit (Yes, I am sure). Menus were part of the experience.
The cut scenes look adorably 2000; the external shots of the ship and space are CG animation and everyone’s got that scanned in face stretched across a box look. But it’s the real actor’s faces, Seven of Nine is still hot and rather than thinking this is too old to enjoy, I’m happily going along with it. It’s an old game but no less involving for it. Reporting for duty, stretchy-face Janeway.
So after a quick captain’s log, I’m wandering about a borg cube. While it does look a little Quake 2, movement is fine, the death animations are great and it’s thrilling for a trekkie and challenging for a shooter fan. The interiors of the ship look great and the borg are menacing. Taking their design style from the First Contact movie, they look Hellraiser-ish and have laser sights and make grabs as you pass, aiming to assimilate you once they get past your armour and health. Oddly, both Health and Armour are repowered by single health points dotted about, essentially giving me 200 health since amour gets whittled down first. Nevermind, turns out I need it, this is an unforgiving game in terms of hit damage. I’m really into it, and I’m resisting a resistance is futile comment.
Playing merrily away, I realise the mechanics of shooters really hasn’t changed in over a decade and a half. I spin through a choice of weapons, jump and duck, shoot and get shot, figure out how to unlock doors, get past some obstacle, take mildly non-linear routes to a goal. The only difference between now and here is the pixel count and that doesn’t matter when the game keeps you busy and involved. There’s lots of mini cutscenes during missions that reinforce what we’re up to, chatter between me and the rest of the team and mission parameters update and change regularly; I realise that structurally, it’s set like an episode of the show. This is great!
It's not so great for Voyager though - unexpectedly transported to a graveyard of derelict ships, some malevolent force with a Reaver-looking ship is intending to turn Voyager into scrap. Well, guess who's up for stopping it. Me. Or rather, she. Elite Force was the first game I remember playing where I could chose the sex of my arm (Being a FPS, the gun wielding forearm was all you saw save for the cutscenes). Games which allowed a gender choice back then usually plumped for ‘female; faster but weaker’ while Males were stronger but slower. But here the Trek world, everyone is equally capable. What doesn’t make me feel so good is the Elite Force of the title were some kind of Special Ops Red Shirts. Anyway, via an adorably dated cut-scene, we escape the immediate threat and Janeway sets us Spec-Ops Red Shirts up to go sniff around the other derelicts to find what we need to get out of this place before the Reavers are back.
Once free of the cut-scene, I can take a wander about the ship. This is new. Most shooters stick to cut-scene, shooting-scene, but here I’m on my own recognisance until I get called to a mission or breifing. The ship looks good and is well rendered, although I spend most of my time lost. Rather than feeling like padding it’s actually nice to take a break and get a sense of what I’m defending. Later as the story progresses, missions take place on board and you feel invested in protecting it, your home. You get to meet other crew members, hang out in your own quarters or the canteen, get ordered off the bridge, mess about in the holodeck and even develop a relationship with a fellow Red Shirt, Telsia (who consistently gets shot, kidnapped and in-the-way when you try to get through doors).
Our flirting is likely down to the male version of my Red Shirt being the default, but regardless it’s amazing to consider a gay relationship in a game this old, with no commentary on it either. Considering how the game industry has portrayed - let alone treated - women through the years, not to mention an almost zero LGBT presence except for titillation, this is a nice moment; we have a cute little relationship to explore as Telsia warms to me and suggests places we can meet to talk more privately. If only I didn’t keep getting lost and forgetting where she is. When I finally found her I busted out my best moves and she told me to get lost. I assumed I’d missed our moment until I realised it wasn’t Telsia, just a similar looking NPC. Telsia was on the other side of the canteen. It's disappointing then, that in Elite Force 2 a female option is no more. It regresses back to standard cis heroic male (with whom Telsia continues flirting, and likely getting stuck in doors with). So much for progress.
The structure of the game really does mirror an episode of the show and it makes it so much more involving. There’s plot, drama, action, problems to solve, retrospective moments and characterisation - much of which is on your say-so as you wander the ship, fix things and interact, influencing the way NPCs behave. It’s still basic, this is no Mass Effect but in some ways I feel ME owes EF at least a nod. If you swapped Voyager for the Normandy and Telsia for Ash. Or Liara, or Miranda or Tali, Jack or ... Just the same. Anyway, point is I hadn’t appreciated the depth or subtlety in Elite Force. It really tried to be something more than a straight shooter although as a shooter EF works well; the weapons are varied and actually work with different baddies rather than lazily getting bigger/outrageous/unuseable the further you get. You can also choose a weapon loadout ranging from just a Phaser to going Commando (I mean like the scene in Commando where he tools up). Plus you’re often shooting trek badguys too. The Klingons, the borg plus a few Voyager villains and some created for the game. They use typical group or cover tactics but rarely miss; run and gun will get you Redshirted quick.
The missions are well paced and much like the show, you’re rarely alone; Elite Force crew accompany you. Aside from Telsia’s headstrong habit of trying to get through doors first, they’re handy to have around. They work well, fight well and are quite chatty, talking about the mission, past events, how they’re feeling about things. It’s nice to not to play the lone gun-woman and their prattling keeps it all tied together. They’re often key to progressing too, splitting up to recon or hack doors, or if Telsia’s involved, triggering a firefight or setting off a trap. You become protective of them, they’re not cannon fodder. If one dies, another NCP doesn’t just beam in and your team is down by one – and mourned by all. This comrade-connection extends to the periods of R&R aboard the ship and several main characters in the game are the TV show’s background or recurring characters - you often overhear comments or references to episodes or trek events. All of this would go over the non-pointy ears of non-trek fans but for those in the know, it’s a lovely touch. The devs also keep each mission memorable. There’s a great plot twist during a borg mission where you walk into a trap (Telsia…) and instead of assimilation it was a set-up to blackmail you into finishing off an old adversary of theirs from the series. It’s a nice little nod tying it into the show but from a gaming perspective, suddenly you’re span off into a new situation and there’s a different tone to the mission.