Star Trek: Elite Force 2 Review
Much like the Star Wars franchise, Star Trek has had its own long run of hit-and-miss licensed games. Knowing nothing about the Elite Force games, one might guess that a Star Trek first person shooter would be a bad decision. Raven Software delivered an admirable experience with the first game, and now Ritual has shipped a sequel that may lack some ambition, but it's undeniably a solid game.
The venerable Quake 3 engine is getting used yet again, although I'm sure that by now the source code hardly resembles what it did around four years ago when Q3 was released. This is the best use of the engine to date, as special effects and texture quality are at an all-time high. Frame rates are pretty smooth and consistent up to a point - set things too high and the game engine will bog down pretty badly.
Elite Force 2 lacks any of the latest whiz-bang features like pixel shaders that are starting to show up in today's games; Quake 3 of course didn't support them, and I doubt it was worth the effort trying to add support for this stuff to a years-old engine. Even though the Q3 platform is somewhat limited when it comes to large areas or great features, it's very compatible, runs well in both single- and multiplayer, and it's relatively easy to make a game with.
The biggest technical issue I had with Elite Force 2 was with the crashes. It would drop back to the desktop occasionally while playing, and alt-tabbing out of the game resulted in it crashing immediately about half of the time - even on a fresh Windows XP install with DirectX 9 and the newest Radeon Catalyst 3.5 drivers (3.4 did this as well). At least it wouldn't bring the whole system down; it would just quietly close itself with an error box. I also tested this on my secondary computer, which is an Athlon XP 1700+ with Windows 2000 and Radeon 9100 video card, and I got the same thing. These problems aren't likely to happen to everyone, though, as I do have one common issue that wasn't easily switched for testing purposes: the Radeon video cards.
Ritual has made sure that both veteran and novice FPS players can quickly get started. Key bindings are simple and intuitive, and all of the advanced tricks and gadgetry are used with your handy tricorder. The controls are smooth and clean, and feel very much like the Quake 3 we all know.
The save interface is flawless; it will create new auto-save points at several points throughout a mission, the quicksaves work perfectly, and load times are respectable. They're not lighting fast, but on the computer I played it on (listed at the top of this review), nothing took longer than six or seven seconds.
Here's one area that Ritual has really excelled in. The Star Trek universe itself is a tough license to work with, as many of the environments and characters are dearly loved by the fans; screwing anything up can really disappoint your audience. This left Ritual to balance between things taken directly from the shows (or movies), and forging new ground with additional enemies, weapons, and environments. Ritual has done an excellent job adding just enough to make it exciting and new, without letting down the Star Trek fan base.
The environments you will explore are mostly complex indoors levels; some areas look nice and outdoorsy, but the level design winds up being mostly linear and keeps you moving along. The weapons you use are all high-tech variations of your standard FPS guns: pistol, shotgun, submachine gun, rocket launcher, grenade launcher, sniper rifle. The special effects for these are usually pretty impressive, although nothing really stood out to be exemplary.
I have to ask: what is with the damn spider levels? Many FPS games have included levels full of ugly spiders, the most recent that I remember being Unreal 2. And just like U2, Elite Force 2 includes mutant alien spiders - these are multicolored and range in size. Yes, a spider queen boss is included as well, which rounds out the FPS spider stereotype. My mild amount of arachnophobia aside, these levels seem to universally be no fun - at least Elite Force 2 only includes one spider level.
I'll start off here by saying that I'm not much of a fan of recent Star Trek shows. Elite Force 2 specifically left the "Voyager" name off its title (it was in the title for the first game); the reason why they did this is because game starts off just before the Voyager finds its way home. After the first mission is over and a few years pass in the game's story, you start off with a new Hazard Team working under Captain Picard on the Enterprise.
Your character is James Munro, your standard heroic all-American white guy. There are several people in the new Hazard Team, most of which will rotate out when on missions. Those who want to make sure of the usual Star Trek staples need not worry; yes, some Ensign Whatshisname dies, Klingons spout off their usual sayings, and you even get to hear a Tribble story from an NPC.
The missions you head out on follow a plot that starts out pretty engaging, throws you some twists, then gets a bit convoluted near the end. The finale is quite predictable, but that seems to be par for the course, and it doesn't really take away from the game. You'll come across a couple of new races, the Attrexians and the Idryll, as well as everyone's favorites, Klingons and Romulans. You get to participate in action with all of these races, whether it's in cooperation with them or fighting against them.
The plot revolves around a type of bio-engineered creature that is insect-like, smart, and has its own propulsion systems for attacking installations or planets. Without giving too much away, let's just say that these things range up in size from waist-high to.. uh.. big. While these things aren't the aforementioned spiders, they are only slightly more interesting to fight; it's the variety of these aliens later on that makes them more exciting overall.
Between missions you'll spend a lot of time on the Enterprise; NPCs are quite chatty, and you can overhear conversations about all sorts of things. Some have to do with the actual story, while others do not. And speaking of conversations, you will get the chance to occasionally pick what Munro has to say, although none of it really affects the linear nature of the game - it's more academic, really.
Ritual has always done an excellent job in putting a ton of cool secrets into their games, and they kept that going even in a Star Trek game where creative freedom must not have been very wide open. There must be a hundred secrets (maybe more) total, several of which are more than just an item to pick up. Along the way, you'll find little golden model Enterprises, which you can use to unlock secret levels. These secret levels are mainly just for fun, but it's a nice bonus on top of the already-solid single player and multiplayer modes.
There are a few surprises to experience in the game, both in the plot and during the game levels. The floor will fall out from under you at least a few times, and you will also have to deal with a surprise boss every once in a while. AI for the most part is serviceable, but nothing revolutionary; enemies will either run towards you shooting, or fire from their pre-determined spot behind cover and crouch occasionally. They will back off when hurt, although it doesn't make much of a difference in actual gameplay - they rarely will leave the room to get away from you.
Your team's own AI is disappointing; Ritual didn't try anything tricky here along the lines of AI buddies. They'll follow you around and get involved in a few firefights, but if there is some sort of obstacle in your way, chances are that you will have to traverse it alone while the rest of the team hangs back temporarily. This happens so often it becomes routine and predictable, and the characters even complain about it. It's better than "I can't leave without my buddy Superfly" (from Daikatana), but there's gotta be a way to make them a little more integral to the missions without dragging the player down.
In EF2, you'll use your tricorder to check for weakened walls, trace the source of gasses in booby-trapped rooms, and "hack" consoles that open up new areas. The hacking thing comes in three different styles: one type simply takes some time to finish up, another has you matching up a waveform pattern against an original, and a third has you rerouting wire connections like some classic puzzle game. A few times you'll have to do this while a timer is counting down, which can add some pressure to the situation. These puzzles are actually a nice change in an action-oriented FPS, and I didn't mind them one bit.
The actual gunplay in Elite Force 2 is not massively exciting for the most part; it's the presentation, plot, and well-made levels that are the best parts of the single player campaign. Elite Force 2 is better than the average FPS, but if you go into this expecting a game that's as good or influential as, say, Half-Life, you are likely to be disappointed.
The bosses in Elite Force 2 make up some of the best gameplay that the whole package has to offer. They are pretty numerous and each one will have its own unique attacks; the final boss was very cool, if a little bit easy. There aren't any easy boss-killer gimmicks here, either; no hidden switch sequence will automatically bring victory. This game is all out action, and the really tough guys simply must be beaten with sheer firepower (which is just the way I like it).
Elite Force 2 does include a fully-featured multiplayer mode, with a couple of Deathmatch game types, CTF play, over a dozen maps, play against AI bots, and more. It even includes several "modifiers" which are similar to Unreal Tournament 2003's mutators. The bots themselves are pretty good, with three skill levels to choose from. There are quite a few character models you can use, most of which come right from the solo campaign.
The actual multiplayer gameplay feels quite similar to Quake 3's, with many of the same features and idiosyncrasies (for example, you'll hear a tone whenever you hit an enemy). The graphics are of course better than Q3's, and the action does move pretty fast, but as a whole this isn't really going to amount to a lot of replay value.
Don't get me wrong - Elite Force 2 multiplayer is a fun diversion for a short while once you've beaten the single player game. Mods of course will help eventually, since someone winds up making a mod or two for just about every Q3 engine game sooner or later. Still, I wouldn't expect that EF2 will stay on most players' hard drives after about a month or two.
Sounds in Elite Force 2 are better than I expected; the ambience and weapon sounds are well above the FPS average. The music is moody and blends in with the atmosphere nicely, although the switch between the exploration and combat tracks were a bit abrupt and often. Finish a fight in one room, and it goes back to the slower music, and ten seconds later the combat music starts back up again; repeat.
The voice acting in Elite Force 2 was also better than average, especially considering just how much of it there is. Patrick Stewart lends his voice for the Picard role, and he does have quite a few speaking lines. I did find one amusing instance where a big, dark, bald guy (beard and all) spoke one of the female character's lines - check it out yourself (1.1MB, DivX video with MP3 audio). It's not exactly a major bug, but it was amusing enough that I felt I should include it.
Elite Force 2 is a solid FPS sequel that improves on the original game in all areas. The plot is interesting, the visuals are impressive despite the use of the aging Quake 3 engine, and you'll get some replay value from the full-featured multiplayer mode - and a ton of secret areas. It won't be winning any Game of the Year awards, but I think fans of Star Trek (or FPS games in general) should give it a shot. If you're interested, you can check out a demo for Elite Force 2 yourself - grab it from 3D Downloads.