Too many Kirks

Kuwait Times - - TECHNOLOGY - By Justin Clark

For bet­ter and worse, Star Trek: Bridge Crew is ex­actly what’s ad­ver­tised-it’s a vir­tual-re­al­ity sim­u­la­tion of op­er­at­ing a Fed­er­a­tion star­ship. For the first few mo­ments, the sheer thrill of tak­ing the Cap­tain’s chair in VR, look­ing around you to see crew mem­bers all work­ing away at their sta­tions, and is­su­ing your first com­mands is all won­der­ful and novel. But the sec­ond you start yearn­ing for new life, new civ­i­liza­tions, and to boldly go where no one has gone be­fore, you find a game nowhere near that am­bi­tious.

Set in the J.J. Abrams Trek uni­verse, Bridge Crew’s sin­gle-player cam­paign cen­ters around the U.S.S. Aegis-which, af­ter a brief train­ing mis­sion, sets forth on its task to help the Vul­cans find a new home. This mis­sion takes the Aegis into a Klin­gon-con­trolled ter­ri­tory, the Trench, and into the heart of a po­ten­tially ugly in­ter­stel­lar in­ci­dent. You can fill one of four roles aboard the ship: the Cap­tain is­sues or­ders to ev­ery other depart­ment from the holo­graphic menu built into the player’s chair, the Helm puts you in the driver’s seat, Tac­ti­cal han­dles shields and weaponry, and En­gi­neer­ing de­ter­mines how much power gets shifted to the ship’s vi­tal sys­tems.

The sin­gle-player cam­paign is brief, but it acts as an ex­tended tu­to­rial on the ins and outs of run­ning a star­ship. From the Cap­tain’s chair, you re­ceive or­ders from Starfleet and is­sue the com­mands that lead the Aegis ever for­ward. How­ever, par­tic­u­larly in sin­gle-player, those com­mands aren’t as sim­ple as just telling your crew to move for­ward at quar­ter im­pulse or fire phasers. In­stead, they’re a piece-by-piece process that must be fol­lowed and timed just right, with ev­ery crew mem­ber in­volved per­form­ing their du­ties with pre­ci­sion.

In sin­gle-player, even some­thing as sim­ple as warp­ing in­volves open­ing a menu, set­ting the cor­rect course, telling en­gi­neer­ing to power up the warp drive, hav­ing the helm align the ship to­wards the tar­get lo­ca­tion, and fi­nally is­su­ing the or­der to per­form the warp. The process be­comes sec­ond na­ture over time, es­pe­cially with a proper VR con­troller like the Plays­ta­tion Move to nav­i­gate the menu-heavy UI.

You also have the abil­ity to tem­po­rar­ily switch to another po­si­tion to take man­ual con­trol over the ship’s var­i­ous func­tions and levers in sin­gle-player, but it’s a lot to man­age and not nearly the sim­ple power trip you might ex­pect. A.I.-con­trolled crew mem­bers have a nasty habit of be­ing com­plete knuck­le­heads who don’t know how to prop­erly and strate­gi­cally fly around ob­sta­cles when pur­su­ing a tar­get.

Bridge Crew is some­what more im­mer­sive in mul­ti­player, where you can speak di­rectly to your crew and co­or­di­nate ac­tions by voice, but you need to meet cer­tain re­quire­ments for it to go smoothly: four trust­wor­thy crew mem­bers, all of whom know their roles in­side and out, and who can pull it to­gether long enough to take the game even marginally se­ri­ously enough to get through the trick­ier mis­sions.

The sit­u­a­tion is helped by the fact that, thank­fully, the game sup­ports Cross-Play be­tween PSVR, Rift, and Vive users, mean­ing there’s typ­i­cally no short­age of play­ers to fill all four roles. How­ever, since voice chat goes through all sorts of dif­fer­ent pro­to­cols via the uPlay ser­vice, con­sis­tent com­mu­ni­ca­tion re­mains a prob­lem. Even then, that’s as­sum­ing you’re not stuck with some­one who won’t stop quot­ing Galaxy Quest in­stead of re­mem­ber­ing to keep your ship in low-de­tec­tion mode in Klin­gon ter­ri­tory.

It didn’t hap­pen of­ten in my time with Bridge Crew, but some­times the stars did, in fact, align with the right kind of crew: cheer­ful with­out be­ing overly silly, strong in their roles, in­tu­itive enough to ques­tion an or­der with­out the bridge de­scend­ing into chaos, and be­ing just plain fun, ami­able com­pan­ions. And once that mir­a­cle is ac­com­plished, you’re left to con­tend with Bridge Crew as a game. And that game is, ul­ti­mately, a fairly mil­que­toast space shooter.

The big is­sue re­ally comes down to the fact that ex­pe­ri­enc­ing the minu­tiae of run­ning a Starfleet ship is such a thin, pedan­tic as­pect of what makes Star Trek a fas­ci­nat­ing uni­verse to play around in. It’s al­ways been strong char­ac­ter work and far-reach­ing sci-fi ideas and al­le­gory that have el­e­vated the dry space-navy ma­te­rial. There isn’t nearly enough of the for­mer here.

The sin­gle-player cam­paign has a story, one that’s even a de­cent jump­ing-off point from the Abrams films (al­beit one that’s deeply rem­i­nis­cent of Mass Ef­fect: An­dromeda), but you aren’t mak­ing the truly hard de­ci­sions that de­fine the best Starfleet cap­tains, nor are you able to in­ter­act with your crew or even the ship out­side of the bridge room in any mean­ing­ful way.

Even Trek’s in­fa­mous no-win Kobayashi Maru sce­nario-playable here as part of the game’s in­tro­duc­tory chap­ter-ends up as lit­tle more than a mind­less shootout while at­tempt­ing to trans­port the doomed ves­sel’s crew. The re­main­der of the cam­paign never re­ally rises above that, con­tent to be a game of trav­el­ing be­tween sys­tems, scan­ning ar­eas and ar­ti­facts, trans­port­ing life forms, and fend­ing off Klin­gon Birds of Prey from time to time. It’s a game that cru­cially needs more in­ter­est­ing chal­lenges that can’t be solved with phasers.

It’s still some­what thrilling to in­habit the cap­tain’s chair on the bridge of a star­ship-at the bare min­i­mum, Star Trek: Bridge Crew ac­com­plishes that mis­sion. When the game is at its best, the spirit of co­op­er­a­tion be­tween var­i­ous asym­met­ri­cal el­e­ments is en­cour­ag­ing-even spe­cial. In ev­ery other re­gard, how­ever, Bridge Crew is for­get­table the sec­ond you pull out of VR. —

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