Star Trek: Borg
The Next Generation‘s introduction of the Borg was arguably the point that revitalized the series. In their original incarnation, they were outright unstoppable, a terrifying threat, and the first of Trek‘s suggestions that there are things in the final frontier you might not want to find. They’re a race of cyBORGs (what clever writers!) with advanced technology and the nasty habit of capturing other species, tricking them out with racing stripes and new rims, and sending them out as a newly-minted member of their collective.
Star Trek: Borg is an interactive movie where you play a cadet on a starship about to face a Borg cube heading toward Earth. Tensions are high and the crew is running about in preparation. Your thoughts travel to the battle of Wolf 359, where just like everyone in fucking Starfleet apparently, you lost a loved one in the attack. In this case, it’s your father. The reemergence of yet another Earthbound Borg ship offers you the chance for revenge, but the commanders deem you too young and you’re sent packing with the other cadets. Oh, will no one hear your cries for justice?
Enter John de Lancie’s mischievous space-imp “Q.” What you’ve done to draw his attention is never made clear, making the buddy-comedy matchup a little strange. Whatever the reason, Q has offered you the opportunity to travel back in time and alter the course of history. He toys with you throughout the entire game, and clearly doesn’t expect you to succeed. Lucky for you, it’s absolutely impossible not to.
This is one of those rare cases where the label “interactive movie” perfectly applies; far more so than calling it a game. Simon & Schuster must have figured that a vast collection of Star Trek fans would be interested in the prospects of hanging out with Q and rumbling with the Borg, but were worried about alienating much of their potential audience with a demanding game. The result is clearly one of those “games for people who don’t play games.” The interface is minimal, the interaction is limited to a few decision points sprinkled throughout the show, and you will never see a game over screen unless you intentionally choose not to play along (like refusing Q’s offer in the beginning).
There’s only one linear path to follow across the entire feature, and picking the wrong choice results in instant death. Q will then stop the show, all but tell you what you should do to proceed, and return you to a few seconds before your incorrect choice. The decision points are so limited, and so separated from the actual fiber of the game, that you actually have the choice to just watch the video as a continuous movie. You literally can’t NOT beat the game, so the question becomes if you’ll have a fun time along the way.
John de Lancie certainly does, and his performance is a highlight of the program. He’ll mock, he’ll tease, and he’ll show off his mastery of space and time like he’s doing card tricks. As long as you enjoy the character, and don’t feel he’s a pompous ass, you’ll have some fun tagging along with him for a day and seeing what his world and the depth of his powers are like. From the white realm of nothing the two of you inhabit after your death, to a curiously-placed tropical party with lovely señioritas, you really get to see the universe from his perspective. De Lancie’s performance makes it all the more enjoyable. Over the top? Absolutely. But never hammy, bored, or showing any sense that he’s not anything less than in love with the character of Q. The section where he gets psychoanalyzed by the ship’s counselor is particularly enjoyable, as are all his muggings and general flippancy throughout. The game almost should have been called “Star Trek: Q.”
Though rest assured, the Borg do appear. Q takes you back to a few hours before the destruction of your father’s ship, and you experience the preparations and initial encounters with the Borg up to the point of the final battle. You initially stand invisibly on the bridge and watch the disaster unfold as Q bounces around discussing the crew and their failures. You’re then placed into the body of the ship’s chief security officer, while Q inhabits the body of the ship’s smarmy chief doctor – becoming a Dean Stockwell to your Scott Bakula. Through the body of the security chief and your foreknowledge of things to come, you can influence the crew and direction of events to something more favorable. Especially since it’s now your ass on the line too – well, if you forget the fact that Q will always pull it out of the fire if you fail.
By dropping you directly into the role, the game stands to be confusing and frustrating. Q takes care of this by providing you with a magic tricorder. At any moment, you can pause the movie with a single left click and gain access to a spinning tricorder cursor. When it stops spinning, you can click that object to get a Q-narrated description of its process or function. This allows you to access knowledge about ship’s systems, operations, and access codes in a context that both fits the story (the cadet wouldn’t know how to hotwire a panel without such help) and doesn’t break the flow of the movie. It also literally allows players not intimately familiar with Star Trek concepts to pause the game and get filled in on the backstory. For all of these reasons, it works brilliantly.
My only real complaint is that you cannot access the tricorder’s entire database at once. It will only reference and cross-reference items on the screen at the point where you paused. This forces you to do a lot of pausing and reading, especially if you want to bring yourself up to speed or hear all of Q’s commentaries. You’ll have no way to cover the basics in one initial research session. It somewhat encourages a second playthrough though – once for the story, and then again to try and find all the tricorder messages.
The game doesn’t look too bad either. The budget is betrayed by the limited scope of the production – there are only three or four major sets that get reused endlessly, with a lot of “beam them directly to ____” to avoid a transporter set. Otherwise, the locations appear authentic, or built with authentic pieces. The bridge looks convincing, consoles seem legit, and the Borg costumes appear totally complete and individual. You won’t have the one guy shot from different angles for use as every Borg. Visual quality is solid enough, with a fullscreen 640×480 view. You have no video options, likely another intentional move to keep the game simple for those not tech-savvy. This means you cannot view the game in a window or at a smaller resolution; it will always be 640×480 with scanlines. Even with the lines, the image remains sharp enough to see clearly. There is noticeable compression, especially in smoke and shirt fronts, and the saturation could use a boost so this was surely shot on video, but overall the quality is pleasant to watch.
Because of this decent video, the game fulfills a couple of fan desires. First, the entire game is shot from a first-person perspective. Not only does this support the plot idea of inhabiting someone else’s body (complete with “your” arms manipulating objects in front of the screen), it also allows you to be standing on the show’s sets and moving through simulated starships. I got the feeling of a gawking tourist looking around and trying to stay out of the way of the action. I already talked about the glimpse into Q’s world, but you’ll also experience being transported, and even get to see life through the eyes of a Borg. It’s really not a bad show for the hour or so amount of content it gives you.
Whoops, and there the penny drops. Despite those three CDs, the entire game will last any player a maximum of about two hours. The main story lasts long enough for an episode of the show, and the only thing that keeps you from breezing through it are mild, inconvenient side steps. This grates on an adventure game veteran, and is why I so freely call the game an interactive movie. It’s a movie first and foremost, that you occasionally interact with.
It’s ironic when you consider that the plot involves you changing the outcome of history, but you can’t even change the outcome of the game. All roads lead you to the same path, and you will pushed back to it quickly. It is just as restrictive as it sounds, especially when you have to (vague spoiler ahead) basically kill yourself so that you can gain some knowledge to be used after Q rescues you. This is the only part that might confuse, as it’s the last thing you would expect to do. But this just reinforces the point that it’s all pre-scripted theatre, and you, as the player, are just acting out your role.
Sound design is excellent, with authentic effects from the show played clearly. Dialogue is clean and understood easily, background ambiance is mixed well and appropriate to the environments. Granted, most of this has been seen before and probably well-established in a design bible, but the execution is still worth commending. Viewing life as a Borg, which I believe is exclusive to this game, is also presented thoughtfully. You’ll hear the ever-present droning and chatter of other members of the hive, broken by a booming, mechanical voice giving your unit specific orders. I also don’t know if it’s just the FMV style, or if it’s intentionally suggested that your character is fully conscious while his limbs and eyes move independent of his thoughts. If so, that makes the Borg even more horrifying. Spending the rest of your life cognizant of, but unable to control, your actions is a pretty damning fate.
There’s a fun story here, and de Lancie’s performance is certainly a highlight. Unfortunately, there’s not much a game here. Borg’s fun for its limited run, but it won’t challenge experienced adventure gamers, doesn’t last very long, and doesn’t offer much in the way of replay value. Weigh your personal enjoyment of Trek material and the asking price for the product accordingly.
Production is on par with the show. Opportunity is used to let the player experience limited elements of Star Trek from first person. De Lancie as Q is a card.
Limited interactivity, foolproof gameplay. One hour of episode on three CDs with little reason to come back to it.