You can’t hurt Spock’s feelings, which is handy because his nonhuman eccentricities – pointy ears, machine-like thought processes, monotone speech pattern – are easy targets for jokes. Any time Star Trek: The Video Game needs to break an awkward silence with dialogue, you can bet there’s a cringe-inducing Spock jab coming your way.
But if Spock is somehow less than convincing in his humanity, it’s fascinating and unintentionally hilarious to observe what passes for authenticity in the case of Star Trek’s Kirk, a veritable circus clown of glitchy unpredictability. A cutscene will end, say, and Kirk will go sprinting full pelt out of the room. Curious to investigate the dire threat our partner has presumably uncovered, we trail him out into one of the Enterprise’s hallways to find him standing in a random doorway with his nose inches from the closed door. This Kirk is like an excitable but dim-witted chihuahua.
Occasionally, he even seems to have mutant powers. A few minutes into the game, we board a turbolift – Star Trek’s equivalent of Mass Effect’s load-disguising elevators – and, after a brief wait, Kirk catches up to us and boards as well. But seconds after the doors close for our departure, Kirk goes bounding through the walls of the capsule. Then a second later, as if by teleportation, he snaps back into the lift, with no explanation offered for his sudden excursion. Spock lets it go.
Star Trek has more bugs crawling on it than a Fear Factor contestant. Sometimes the results are amusing, as in the turbolift example, but frequently they just make life a drag. On numerous occasions we had to manually reset to the most recent checkpoint and replay several minutes of the game just because some dialogue event or cutscene refused to trigger, leaving us stuck at an impasse. The final enemy in one stage became inexplicably immortal and none of our shots would register. We tried to let him kill us, but Kirk insisted on reviving us each time we went down, so again we had to implement the soft checkpoint reset.
Even when the game is functioning as intended, it’s a bland, joyless affair, timidly going where hordes of mediocre games have gone before. There is a mission where you have to bring three power cores back online. There are zombie-like infected humans, which you’re encouraged to stun, not kill. You’ll encounter stealth sections, during which you’ll knowingly blow your cover just to complete the challenge more quickly. There’s also a liberal dose of that action-game sequence where your character soars through the air and you must steer around floating debris. There are Uncharted-style climbing sections, just because.
Considering the USS Enterprise is primarily a vessel of exploration, a Star Trek game has an obligation to surprise players and show them something new, either visually or mechanically. This one has no sense of daring, adventure or risk. The humorous sort of glitches are welcome precisely because they’re the only time the game surprises you, such as the moment when Spock and Kirk overlap onscreen and the camera dips inside your character’s head, allowing you to see his eyeballs, tongue and teeth hovering grotesquely in midair.
One of the selling points on the box trumpets the fact that you can interact with the ship’s crew. After you attempt this, you’ll realise there’s nothing meaningful to be gleaned from doing so and stop bothering. Don’t expect to pepper Chekov with questions about his personal life. The crew simply coughs up status updates, and hardly the Facebook sort. Even the potential thrill for diehard Star Trek fans of holding an all-access pass to the Enterprise is undermined by the fact that there’s nothing interesting to discover when you do try to scope the place out. What the game chooses to borrow from Dead Space is its door-opening power cells, not its interest in environmental storytelling.
Normally developers will insert little jokes into the names of achievements, but when an achievement with the text “Beat Space Battle” blinks up after you beat the stage with the space battle, it sounds more like a cry for help. You can imagine the responsible party having written it just after deleting a draft that read “Bored Out Of Skull. When’s Lunch?”
The main enemy this time is the Gorn, a lizard race that feels more like a lift from Jurassic Park than Gears Of War. Unlike Jurassic Park, however, these girls are only clever in cutscenes, never in combat. They’re savvy enough to hijack a doomsday device and kidnap Kirk’s crush du jour, a she-vulcan named T’Mar, but they are total cannon fodder on the battlefield. The imperative of hosting a variety of enemy types is absent here, making Star Trek feel more like a carnival duck-shooting gallery than anything. You don’t have to strategise: the game assumes you’re happy to simply mash the trigger and watch things tumble to the ground.
Star Trek feels like what a publisher could expect to get if they tried to procure a game from a vending machine by feeding a hand-scribbled laundry list of marketing bullet points and ‘recommended if you like Game X’ notations into the paper currency slot. You get a whiff of Mass Effect, only no choice or roleplay. A bit of Dead Space without the incredible sense of place. A narrow sliver of Uncharted without the snappy Amy Hennig dialogue and the visual polish. A bit of Halo without the dizzyingly diverse arsenal.
The only distinctive selling point of this game – the promise of an epic buddy co-op experience between two famous sci-fi pals – succumbs to awkward banter and gimmicky co-op puzzles. Star Trek asks you to traverse a vast galaxy, but when the credits roll, you’ll wonder why you bothered when there was so little to discover along the way.
Star Trek is available on Xbox 360 and PS3. 360 version tested.