In the ever growing world of computer titles encompassing the Star Trek universe, Star Trek: Starfleet Command Volume II: Empires at War makes a nice counterpart to the ground based, multi-planet Star Trek: New Worlds, released just a few months previously. You can choose any one of eight races and direct up to three ships simultaneously. Although the game has some detracting features, piloting your own starship and building up your fleet does offer substantial gameplay.
At the beginning of each mission, you start with a standard vessel with basic features. Gaining prestige points allows you to purchase enhanced missiles and eventually acquire better ships. Though some ships are cheap and you can get a second one very quickly, it's wiser to beef up one single ship since enemies double in number once you expand your fleet, both in combat situations and tactical patrol missions.
On your initial mission, you're instructed to stay within the confines of your chosen race's territory. Once you go into alien space, missions become much more involved, such as the requirement to transport a diplomat to the surface of a planet or destroy the transporting ship if you're the Interstellar Concordium ( ISC). Whichever of the seven non-ISC factions you command, a conflict emerges between you and the ISC, since they've been employed by the Organians to purge the Alpha Quadrant of all unwanted galactic governments.
Every race offers at least 20 ships for purchase, although many cost a large amount of prestige points, and you have to work your way up to the better craft. Basic controls of the various ships don't differ much and your command limitations include firing all weapons or entering stealth mode. You can order new formations and switch to another ship for hands-on control but you can't control all three at the same time -- you can only direct the pilots of your other craft.
With the similarities of the missions, having a choice of eight different races at first seems exciting but is actually quite superficial. Although, you get a new look to the interface with each race, the controls remain the same and are located in the same place. The interface is very complex and the tutorial necessary to understand gameplay. Sulu himself instructs you at one point and helps you learn most of the important controls for shields, defensive tactics, photon torpedoes, phasers and laying mines.
The voices are different but use the same script (e.g., Red Alert!). Even when you reach the main conflict area that focuses on the Organians and the ISC, the conversation between you and the other ship is the same. Unfortunately, the only noticeable difference in playing with any specific race is the look and feel of their ships. Certain races do have slightly altered versions of weapons, such as plasma torpedoes vice photon torpedoes, but not enough to make a difference.
The game has a very brief and non-detailed storyline with no full motion video or on-going plot. You simply fly your ship on specified missions, usually convoy escorts, patrols and base defense maneuvers which all have one objective: kill the enemy.
While this sounds like an action game scenario, the pace is too slow to be exciting with methodical movement. Don't expect it to be another StarLancer or Star Wars space fighter.
Missions take a while since missiles can be taken out and destroying enemies using only phasers is a slow process. However, flight control is fun and the slow pace necessary in order to use all the features of your ship. Part of the control involves programming your boarding crews to take out weapons and defense systems on enemy ships when shields are partially destroyed. Electronic counter measures (ECM) are used to defend ships against missiles and prevent lock on and are a good alternative to the cloaking device used by Klingons and Romulans.
Overall, Star Trek: Starfleet Command Volume II: Empires at War is a fairly involved simulation that puts you in the cockpit of your own starship with full control. Some missions are complex and you strive to improve your fleet with better-equipped ships but, while complex, most of them center on destroying the enemy. Graphics, sounds and interface are well designed. However, the game is slow-paced with no detailed storyline to keep you hooked. Although controls are sleek, movement is sluggish. Lack of diversity in conversations and individual race missions is disappointing.
Graphics: The graphics make you feel as if you're in a space environment. Explosions are impressive missiles and torpedoes are easily discernible on each ship. Unfortunately, you can't move the screen or change to a first person perspective. Each race, though, is designed with extremely individualistic characteristics.
Sound: Familiar Star Trek music accompanies the action and each race has specific voicing, although the content is directly associated with actions you take. Regardless of the race, the script is the same. The sounds of the weapons and ships being hit are realistic.
Enjoyment: Once you know the controls, gameplay can be fun, but a learning curve is necessary via the tutorials or the manual. The major downside is the repetitive nature of the smaller missions. It's a far cry from a shoot-'em-up because of the slow pace but the missions can be absorbing for a short time.
Replay Value: Even though eight races are available, outcome and gameplay is only slightly different with each, although there is some diversity in missions played from the perspective of different races, especially from the ISC viewpoint.
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