Interplay had just come off of two Star Trek home-runs – 25th Anniversary and Judgment Rites – and were probably feeling pretty good. So good, in fact, that they started hyping and making feature promises for the next two Trek games, although they weren’t even on the path to production yet. “Secret of Vulcan Fury” (which this game, God bless ’em, still shows a trailer for during the install) could have been the best Star Trek game ever made if it hadn’t become vaporware. Starfleet Academy would wait three years, change to an in-house engine just to make it playable, and significantly cull its feature list before being released in 1997 – an embarrassing two years after its sister ports on the consoles. Although this game is the final version, it’s not the intended version, and it’s not the version you may have heard about in the times of yesteryear.
The idea is certainly a solid one. You play as a new cadet to Starfleet’s command school. You’re immediately paired up with a “crew” of other cadets placed under your responsibility. Half of the game is played through FMV clips of “life at the academy” as you deal with your crew’s various personal issues, struggling scores, side projects for Starfleet notables, rivalries from other commanders, and an increasingly hostile political situation on the Klingon border. The other half is played within the Academy’s simulator, which is meant to be a functional mock-up of a real starship bridge. Here, your command abilities are tested by various simulated situations. The game, as intended, fills a couple of fan desires – seeing what Starfleet Academy (which previously was only briefly seen or alluded to) is like for the cadets, and getting to command their own, non-Enterprise starship from the captain’s chair.
To a point, the game delivers. Interplay, after roping in all the original cast to do voice work for its two previous adventure games, turned to the audience, announced “For my next trick…” and produced Koenig, Takei, and Shatner to play their characters frequently in the FMV sections of the game. So while working buddy-buddy with Chekov on new simulator missions in your spare time, or getting instruction and wisdom passed down from Kirk, could certainly seem forced and hammy, it instead comes off as pretty neat. The three veteran actors play their characters well, never phoning in a performance, never simply coming in as themselves in a Trek costume and reading some lines. They don’t make the game, but they make the FMV sequences worth it.
The rest of the main cast (your character and your crew) are competent actors themselves. They play a believably diverse group; not just in the varying alien makeup they’re wearing, but in their personalities, beliefs, and their problems. These problems – and the plot – appear in FMV sections between the simulator missions. You’ll encounter your crew at the lounge, confront them directly, walk in during the middle of heated argument between two of them, etc. Crucial points in the video will then pause where you select a dialogue choice or a course of action from a limited menu, and the results play out. It’s during these sections that you will directly affect your crew’s overall grades. Stepping in and handling each cadet and their attitudes uniquely and appropriately ensures that their grades go up. Berating them, ignoring them, or taking sides, will cause grades to go down. You usually will have only a “right” and a “wrong” choice (in terms of improving their scores), and the correct option will almost always be apparent. If it isn’t, the game is awfully generous in this regard. You can save before and after each sequence and look at the crew scores on this same page. So you can simply reload your game if the scores drop, and try a new approach.
Either way, it doesn’t seem to matter. The manual doesn’t address the function of the grades, and a struggling cadet’s performance doesn’t appear to practically change in the simulator (they don’t become slower or start making mistakes). After spending some time being the worst commander I could be, I still wasn’t being kicked out of the Academy. It seems to be a novelty point, at best, and probably will give you a poopy ending, but the load/retry ability ensures that you’ll only fail if you intentionally try to.
The simulator sections are the meat of the game, and there are 22 missions you will undertake in four different ship classes. Simulator missions are introduced by either the grizzled head instructor, or one of the three Enterprise vets. The main mission, and any parameters, are laid out in a briefing and cemented by a few introductory lines from your character’s “personal log.” You’re then sitting in the captain’s chair, looking over your helmsman and navigator at the main viewscreen, in what should be a very recognizable shot to Star Trek fans.
The other unique feature of this game (and the main aspect that drew me to it) is the ability to use the mouse to pan around the bridge and interact with the individual crew stations. Clicking each of these stations takes you to a full-screen, working mockup of that station, based off of a combination of what was actually seen in the films and some Interplay creativity. Aside from the indicators, every station has buttons and sliders you can adjust, that in turn adjust the performance of your simulated ship. It’s a small thing, but it’s pretty neat to play around with the “actual” controls of the ship.
However, in the course of the actual missions, the stations themselves are nearly useless. Though it’s neat to go to the weapons console and target the phasers onto an enemy’s engines, it’s far more practical to press the hotkey for that order. About the only consoles you will consistently revisit are the engineering boards, to boost power to certain systems or to allocate damage control priorities. And revisit these boards you shall, as there is no ability to save a setting or recall presets of any kind. The result is, at the beginning of every mission, you’ll want to stroll over to this station and tweak your ship for combat. The alternative is to play at a lower difficulty level where the default settings are just fine, but at anything higher than the easiest setting, you’re better off playing Scotty and tuning the most out of your ship.
As you can’t be at every station and drive the ship also, these mock interfaces would have made a fantastic multiplayer mode, with each player assigned to a specific panel and carrying out the captain’s orders. But now I’m speculating instead of reviewing. There is an IPX multiplayer mode in this game, but it’s only a very standard “team up and deathmatch” operation. You do gain the ability to play as enemy ships here, with their specific weapons and cloaking devices, though the bridge will not change to reflect the new ship.
Interplay had a tough decision to make regarding how you control the ship, in that a simulator truly representative of command as portrayed on the show would have you just calling out orders from your chair, like Totally Games’ later captain-simulator Bridge Commander. Instead, Starfleet Academy places you in direct control of the steering and weapons of the ship, with any support actions (like hailing or scanning a ship) triggered by hotkeys.
This setup does put the ship directly in your control, and probably results in a more engaging and less frustrating experience than if it were left to the game’s AI – at least based on seeing how the AI runs enemy ships. But it also results in a game that comes off less Star Trek and more like… any other space game out there. Especially when you consider that the bridge view is mostly impractical for any form of combat, and that while the full-screen mode provides all the battle information you’ll need, it gives no Trek trappings. If anything, it resembles the HUD from Descent: Freespace, but dammit, it works the best. The similarities also don’t end with the looks. Your ship handles more like a fighter than a galleon, with on-a-dime course adjustments and standard space fighter weapons (the phasers here shoot out like bolts, not the constant beams of the show). The only real differences between the increasingly larger warships you command are their numbers of weapons, and how quickly they slow down. Turning mass, often to the detriment of your aim, isn’t even considered.
How your ship handles in a scrap is extremely important, because, for a Starfleet game, there’s a hell of a lot of combat. Some postpone it a little by having you jump around a few systems and use your sensors first, some are mostly benevolent missions that “happen” across pirates or otherwise go bad. Sometimes you can avoid a fight by hailing the attacking ship and picking the correct dialogue choice, similar to the FMV sequences. Still, even if you diplomacize your way out of that fight, you’ll be fighting SOMEBODY before the mission’s done. The game even created a new race of pirate-rebels to give you an enemy with which there is no negotiating.
There are a few “mystery solving” missions, where through a combination of dialogue and sensor scans, you meet your goals. Even these will have fighting sections, or the mystery reveals the big bad, who you must then destroy. But there are no “Spock-figures-it-all-out-with-science” missions like the show, you can’t ask your crew for advice, and Starfleet seems quite blasé about who you’re killing out in the final frontier. You don’t even get credit for disabling an unknown attacker instead of destroying him (unless you’re specifically ordered to disable), and in these cases, the disabled ship will just blow itself up anyway.
Academy is nice looking game, especially if you had a MMX processor, which were quickly becoming all the rage at this game’s release. Ships are textured as their counterparts in the films. Phasers disperse around the curves of shields when they hit, or throw light effects onto the hulls of ships when they connect. Planets are large and mostly spherical when you get close enough, without distracting jaggies on their horizons. Cloaking effects are particularly neat, and mimic the movies’ look nicely. However, the engine itself plays only like a 3-D update to the arcade-like ship combat sequences in 25th Anniversary or Judgment Rites. As I mentioned, the ships move and jink like fighters, with mass and inertia apparently ignored. Though you can target individual ship systems with your phasers – an infinitely useful tactic to deprive a ship of power, or slow a nimble one down – destroyed or damaged systems are rarely shown visually. Warp engines on some ships will sometimes shear off satisfyingly, but for damage scars, holes punched through hulls, or knocking off appendages, you’ll have to go to the Klingon Academy.
The FMV sections do exhibit noticeable pixelation, with great crumbling areas apparently especially reserved for the fronts of the red uniforms, but at no time does the game start looking like a Sega CD title. Faces are instantly recognizable, and expressions easily readable. The characters are obviously playing in front of greenscreen, but the digital backgrounds are nothing to complain about. If you were expecting Interplay to build real sets for this shindig, your expectations are waaaay too high.
The dialogue was recorded cleanly, and I didn’t hear any artifacts or muffled mumbles. Even those wacky aliens with their wacky accents, like the Gorn, are understood rather easily. The acting all around is pretty solid, except for some overacting support and enemy characters, and Peter Kluge’s (who plays your character) tendency to punctuate every line of dialogue with a sigh. I guess he’s trying to convey the pressures of command, but if I have to choose between tics, I’d rather go with Shatner’s unnatural pauses. Sound effects only really appear in the simulator, and they’re of pretty average quality. Photon torpedoes, warp drives engaging, and the beeps and boops of the equipment all seem like faithful rips from the films. The phasers, distinctly, are not, and everything else sounds like its from a generic archive. Still, my only real complaint is that the effects are mixed about 1.5 times louder than the dialogue, with no way to adjust the levels. So, on my system at least, turning the dialogue up to a comfortable level meant waking the neighbors every time I went into battle.
Background music is also available – I say “available” because it only comes in two themes. There’s a dreamy, optimistic “we’re flying through the stars” theme for peace situations and an intense battle theme for combat, both apparently controlled by your ship’s alert status. So like a radio with only two channels, you can switch between them by simply moving between green and red alerts. The settings screen has an option to disable the music, and I gratefully took it.
It’s worth noting that Interplay rightfully took the assumption that you would only come to this game if you had some predisposition or knowledge of Star Trek. So for an academy, the game doesn’t do a lot of teaching (the console versions, commendably, do). This means that Starfleet Academy should not be your first foray into the world of Star Trek, because it’s not going to take the time to teach you the basics of the series. The upside is, if you watch Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, you’ll have all the backstory you’ll need, and a fair introduction to this game. Many missions reference that film (including the Kobayashi Maru no-win mission that you will get to take on yourself), and the look of the game is taken from that film’s time period.
This game remains the only bridge simulator game for the original series/movies, and it remains a great idea. Klingon Academy and Bridge Commander are both better games on this same theme, but neither can match commanding a Federation crew with Kirk as your instructor and guide. Sometimes the game nails that, and sometimes it delivers on what it promised. Unfortunately, by the fourth disc it seems that FMV production was running out of steam (two or three missions have no interactive sequences between them, just Kluge briefly recording his log and mentioning important plot points in passing that they must have run out of time or budget to film), and the simulator sections are hampered by not really being a simulator of Trek ships at all. About the only thing going for it now is that the price has dropped magnificently, and it’s probably worth a $10 Ebay purchase if you’re a fan and inspired by the idea. It’s not a total failure, but certainly not as spectacular as Interplay’s previous Treks, and not the best representation of captaining your own ship.
Classic characters assist you in a non-cheesy way, the various plights of your crew can actually be interesting. You may not be “taught” much, but the simulator missions can sometimes be fun.
A little too arcade in the controls and handling, and a little too focused on combat for a system that doesn’t make combat all that interesting.