Star Trek: Elite Force II
Elite Force was well-received, and a Star Trek FPS “done right.” I suppose if there was anything to complain about (aside from shooting your way through problems in an un-Star Trek like manner), it would be its connections to Voyager. Here’s a show that’s consistently on the low end of people ranking their favorite Trek series, so its corresponding game is certainly not going to offer fan service on the level of, say, being hand-picked by Captain Picard to serve aboard the Enterprise.
Well, just like the fan-fickiest of fan fiction, Elite Force II finds Alex Munroe (now unchangeably male) and the Hazard Team split up after helping Voyager return to Earth in the first level. A pesky Starfleet higher-up finds no need for their brand of violence in civilized space (a seemingly intentional reference to critics of the first game) and relegates Munroe to teaching battle tactics at the Academy. While there, he runs across Captain Picard, who deftly dismisses the Starfleet bureaucrat, enlists Munroe on the spot, and ships you out to uncharted space in the latest (Insurrection era) incarnation of the Enterprise.
Out the in vast unknown, the Enterprise responds to attacks on a Federation ship and an alien colony, both besieged by vicious insectoid invaders with impulse engines for asses (yes, really). From here it’s a mystery to find the source of the invasion, alongside a subplot that suggests the alien colonists (the Attrexians) may be covering up the true history of a conquered race (the Iydrill) to keep them subjugated. It comes off like a decent episode of the show, with plenty of legitimate back-and-forth suspicions at who’s really the antagonist here. It’s all icing on a very shooty cake, but it at least kept me guessing and engaged.
Further, the adventure feels a bit grander here than it did in the first. If the first Elite Force was an episode of the show, the sequel comes off more like one of its feature films. No two locations feel alike, from the crippled Federation cruiser, to mysterious alien ruins, to a spacewalk battle on the Enterprise hull that’s right out of First Contact. There’s plenty of fan service too, not just for the series, but for players of the first game. It was great fun to “get the team back together” in the first few missions, I enjoyed seeing previous relationships continue development, and even the team’s new requisite grumpy Klingon fits right in. That’s not to take away the value of being on the Enterprise by any means, and pressing the chime for Picard’s ready room and hearing Patrick Stewart bellow “Come!” from the other side elicited a satisfying, dorky grin.
Oddly, it’s the gameplay that seems to take a step back here. One of the best aspects of the original was the interplay between team members – both in tactics and quips – and both are scaled way back in the sequel. You’ll rarely fight alongside your squadmates now, either through increasingly contrived reasons to split you up (“Munroe, can you go on ahead and open this door?”) or a surprising number of levels that are just flat-out solo affairs. Perhaps Ritual didn’t want to deal with the hassle of scripting your buddies, or perhaps this is an intentional choice to cut you loose and speed up the gameplay. Either way, it tilts the experience back toward “Star Trek Quake III mod” territory that the original managed to avoid. Running backward while dumping shots into skittering bugs did feature in the original, but it’s the majority of the game here.
The original had weapons both taken from the series, and inspired by your usual FPS armament. The sequel has weapons that are less “inspired by” and more “direct copies of” familiar FPS standbys. Only the hand phaser makes it through unscathed and to canon, the rest are uncreative reskins of a sniper rifle, grenade launcher, chaingun, and even a shotgun – excuse me, a plasma shotgun. The most notable new weapon is the Klingon Bat’leth (I had to look it up, and you’re welcome), but this makes exceptionally rare appearances. It’s not particularly powerful or useful either, and the recharging hand phaser makes a better “no ammo” weapon.
Guns must also be reloaded now (usually a simple yank on the charging grip). Ignoring this never being referenced in any Trek show, the only thing this mechanic adds is consideration to the secondary fire feature. Each “charge” loads a specific number of primary blasts, or a smaller number of secondary attacks (energy grenades, power shots, etc). You’ll need to fire smartly, or be stuck “reloading” in the middle of a sea of angry claws. Your ammo pools are again broken out by type – with no apparent reasoning as to what gun takes what – with wall-mounted chargers to restock. There are definitely guns (the shotgun) you will only use because you’ve run out of ammo for the good ones.
The biggest addition to your kit is the new tricorder. Its default setting highlights absolutely useless information, like a subject’s height and weight. Secondary fire switches on vision modes, pre-selected for each level based on what will be needed. You’ll use structural integrity to highlight weak walls, bio scan to follow a trail of pheromones, and gas mode to spot the vents spraying toxic clouds (then weld them shut with your phaser). It’s good interaction, even though there are only a few spots to use it.
Less engaging are the door hacking minigames. These require you to route current through pipes or adjust settings to match a waveform. These bring the gameplay to a crashing halt, and I was grateful for the doors that just required you to “use” the tricorder until a bar filled up. Similarly, the vision modes are great for sniffing out the levels’ bountiful secrets. Just before a level exit, you’re helpfully(?) notified of how many secrets and starships you’ve missed. Starships are golden trophies hidden away in obscure corners or behind weakened walls. Checking out-of-the-way paths, or keeping your nose in your tricorder, are the best ways to find these.
The rewards are hardly worth it though, offering up only art galleries and a few odd challenge maps (a swamp shack and shooting down alien shuttles over a modern city.) Secrets, meanwhile, range from helpful health kits to new weapons. If you find and solve a tile puzzle in one level, you’re rewarded with a powerful staff weapon – and to my knowledge, this is the only way you can get it. While the starships may not be worth it, an entire secret weapon is pretty good incentive to go poking around.
The focus on a male Munroe also allows for an awkward romantic subplot to get pushed in. Squadmate Telsia returns, and you can pick up any suggested romance where it left off in the first game. On the other hand, you have Kleeya, an Idryll scientist who dresses like a sultan’s concubine. As with the first game, there are peaceful intermission levels aboard the Enterprise. Once Kleeya is introduced, your romantic interest is determined by who you choose to visit between assignments. An extremely limited conversation system (that pops up in missions too) then gives you a handful of choices to ramp the passion up, or shut it down like the Starfleet professional you are.
Graphics look great. We’re still on the Quake III engine, but lighting feels smarter and moodier, and textures seem much sharper and shiner. Locations have complex architecture and lots of detail. Character and weapon models are a bit more elaborate than they were in the first, and there are some impressive effects on display (especially the blue glow of the spacesuit helmets highlighting the wearer’s face inside).
There are more graphics options this time around, dealing with bloom, complexity, and AA, and the only issue I had was with the new stencil shadows option. Instead of simple “blob” shadows, these will project an outline of the character (and only characters, not objects) based on nearby light sources. It looks great, but breaks down on self-shadowing. You don’t have any fading or partial values, so shadows become a jagged mess around faces. I don’t know if it’s a modern issue or not, but I found it distracting enough to just go back to the blob shadows.
Multiplayer returns, for the few that care. The base game has 17 maps total, with 7 of those that can also be played in Capture the Flag. Most of the options from the first game’s expansion pack return in some capacity here, including the Unreal Tournament mutators such as Action Hero, one hit kills, or “specialties” that add a sort-of class system to your choices. Strangely, the Assimilation mode vs a team of Borg does not return. There’s also no game modes beyond Deathmatch and CTF. Again, it’s pretty much Quake III with Trek weapons, and if you’re into that, four servers still respond today.
I’m torn here, because overall, this is a good FPS campaign. There’s plenty of variety, there’s little downtime, and with the exception of some ruins that run a bit too long, and a colony that seems a touch too inspired by Aliens, locations are all interesting to visit and full of scripted moments to keep them active.
However, I didn’t enjoy it as much as the first Elite Force. Essentially dropping the squad mechanic was a real disappointment here, and again, seems to affect an intentional change of pace. That’s Ritual’s right, but running around as a typical FPS hero, adding a bunch of bog standard FPS guns, and even throwing in boss fights (life bars, stages, and all!) made “Starfleet shooty man” less interesting to me and much more average. Your mileage will vary, but if I’m making recommendations, the first Elite Force is the way to go.
Looks great, plays well. Engaging story with a wide variety of locations and the occasional different task. Functioning tricorder is a neat toy.
Mostly a solo experience with much less team interaction. Weapons are now generic FPS with futuristic models. Door hacking minigames stop gameplay a bit too often.
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