When the U.S.S. Voyager returned to Federation Space safely, the Hazard Team was disbanded. However, Lt. Alexander Munro was assigned to Starfleet Academy and quickly caught the eye of Captain Jon Luc Picard. Players must take charge of the reunited Hazard Team on the U.S.S. Enterprise and confront an assortment of cunning enemies.
Enemy races include Klingons, Romulans, Ferengi, and the Borg. Missions take the Hazard Team to frozen Romulan bases, Star Docks, Borg Ships, and Starfleet Academy. Available weapons include: tricorders, disrupters, I-Mods, energy staffs, assault rifles, grenade launchers, compression rifles, quantum bursts, and the Bat'Leth (a Klingon melee weapon). Multiplayer game modes feature capture the flag, holomatch, and team holo match in environments ranging from murky jungles to volcanic deserts. Star Trek: Elite Force II runs a modified Quake III: Arena engine with increased environmental and character detail.
In 2000, Raven Software surprised many gamers with Star Trek Voyager: Elite Force, an excellent first-person shooter with a killer single-player adventure and addictive multiplayer, all powered by the (then) cutting-edge Quake 3 engine. In a franchise plagued with disappointing titles like Hidden Evil, Armada, and Away Team, it was great to see someone prove that it was possible to make an outstanding Star Trek game. The next question: could this success be repeated for a sequel?
With Raven working on other projects, the reins for the sequel were handed to Ritual Entertainment, who haven't let us down -- it has produced another solid title that plays like an extended episode from the recent TV series, injecting new life into the aging Quake 3 engine in the process. It's not exactly a hardcore shooter, but Elite Force II is a highly polished game and an absolute must-have for Star Trek fans.
Elite Force II starts with the Hazard Team aboard a Borg Sphere, which ties in with the final episode of Star Trek: Voyager. Upon successful completion of the mission and Voyager's arrival back on Earth, your character, Alex Munro, returns to Starfleet Academy only to learn that the Hazard Team is being disbanded (which, ironically, parallels real-life events we'll cover later). The team is scattered with various assignments, and Munro suddenly finds himself teaching small-unit tactics to new recruits at the Academy.
Through the magic of cutscenes, two years go by before Munro's abilities catch the eye of Captain Jean-Luc Picard (voiced by Patrick Stewart), who requests that Munro assemble a new Hazard Team for the Enterprise. Although two full missions have been completed by this point, it's here that the game's true plot begins to take shape.
That plot involves the introduction of three groups new to the Star Trek universe. The Attrexians are a spacefaring race based near the Neutral Zone, who have suddenly found themselves under attack from a strange group of creatures called the Exomorphs. No one knows where the Exomorphs came from, why they're attacking the Attrexians, or if they're even sentient. The third group in this mnage Trek is the Idryll, a "backwards" race also based near the Neutral Zone. There's some animosity between the Idryll and Attrexians; they each maintain their own version of history, and it's not initially clear what the real story is. There are several other races familiar to Star Trek fans involved in the overall plot, but to mention who they are or why they appear would give away spoilers ... so we won't.
It may sound odd to talk about major plot spoilers in a first-person shooter, but Elite Force II is a game that may appeal more to Star Trek fans than your average action gamer. The game is soaked in Star Trek atmosphere and loaded with inside jokes. Constant cutscenes propel the plot along, and you regularly get to explore the Enterprise and talk to crewmembers between missions. Trekkers will probably have a blast getting to explore locations like Starfleet Academy, and it's clear a lot of effort went into keeping the game faithful to the franchise.
Most of the missions are standard shooter fare, although there's a healthier dose of exploration and puzzles than in the original game. There are 11 large missions in all, set across a variety of alien worlds, large ships, and starbases. Like the Jedi Knight games, you'll often spend as much time trying to figure out how to get from point A to point B as you will shooting enemies (which is a good thing, for reasons we'll point out shortly). Members of the new Hazard Team fight by your side during many of the missions, and there are several parts of the game where you need to protect friendlies for a period of time. Along with the cutscenes, scripted sequences can be found in almost every mission, and there are also a number of memorable levels, such as one battle that takes place in low-G on the surface of the Enterprise.
Along with the usual weapons, Munro carries an advanced tricorder, which allows him to scan objects and upload and download information. It also has several visual scan filters, including a structural integrity mode that allows Munro to detect weak points in the geometry, often allowing access to secret areas or alternate pathways. (There are a LOT of secret areas in Elite Force II, some of them truly inspired). Finally, the tricorder is used for some honest-to-goodness puzzles, such as completing computer circuits. These elements help keep things interesting by breaking up the usual run-and-shoot, while simultaneously remaining faithful to the Star Trek universe.
It's also worth noting that Elite Force II has more than its fair share of major bosses. Normally, I loathe bosses, but Ritual gets it right, giving each major boss a health bar so you're never left wondering how much damage you may or may not be doing. The bosses also attack in stages, so it's often like fighting four different enemies in one. My only gripe is the very final boss, who is so ridiculously tough to beat that it ceases to be fun in very short order. I eventually turned cheats on to finish off the boss and see how everything turned out; I suspect I won't be alone.
I'll admit that I had some reservations about Elite Force II using the Quake 3 engine for its graphics. We've reached a point where developers can crank out games with the engine pretty quickly, but the tech has been showing its age of late. That's why Ritual deserves credit for creating what's easily the best-looking Quake 3 engine to date. Everything in the game looks sharp, from the highly detailed characters and weapons to the ultra-high resolution textures, and the Enterprise has never looked better. Better yet, the game doesn't require a beast of a machine to run; it wasn't until the very last boss that my machine showed any signs of stuttering (you'll understand why if you get there).
With all this going for it, it's a shame that Elite Force II's weakest point is the combat. Fighting the Exomorphs -- which you do a LOT -- is simply BORING. Waves of creatures mindlessly hurl themselves at you with little regard for their own well-being, and this quickly becomes monotonous as the creatures get stronger and larger in number. Like the zombies in Return to Castle Wolfenstein or the spiders in Unreal II, this might be OK as an occasional change of pace, but over the course of an entire game, it's just not very exciting.
The supposedly sentient creatures aren't much smarter. In one mission, Munro is forced to flee a mercenary starbase when a price is suddenly put on his head. I'm willing to bet most of these "mercenaries" were either unemployed or on disability, because few of them showed much in the way of combat skills or intelligence, often standing still or out in the open waiting to get shot. Every trick in the book is used to cover up the low-class AI, from sneaky enemy placement and aliens bursting out of walls to the cheap tactic of respawning new enemies via teleportation.
It seems Ritual understood the limitations of its AI and designed a game and story to hide these weaknesses as much as possible, which would explain the game's emphasis on exploration and other puzzles, and why fairly brainless enemies were used as the main threat. It's arguable that -- without building all-new AI and redesigning the game -- this is the best first-person shooter Ritual could have created with the tools at its disposal. The combat may not be completely fulfilling, but like Black Hawk Down earlier this year, the game's pacing and polish are so spot-on that you may hardly notice.
In many of our previews, we were led to believe that Elite Force II would be roughly twice as long as its predecessor. Gamers often harp on the length of games, so it's worth noting that while I finished the original Elite Force in about eight hours, I completed Elite Force II in no more than 12, and even that may be a generous estimate. I don't think this is a big issue, however -- I'd rather have between six and eight solid hours of interesting, engaging gameplay than 16 hours padded with mindless filler; as it stands, Elite Force II falls on the right side of that fence.
While I enjoyed the single-player adventure from the first Elite Force, my fondness for that game really stemmed from the multiplayer -- I sunk at least at least 100 hours (no exaggeration) into Elite Force CTF. For whatever reason, the simple but balanced maps combined with the futuristic weapons and power-ups made for a highly addictive game, and Ritual has doubled the fun for Elite Force II.
There are almost too many game modes to count: standard games like solo/team deathmatch and Capture the Flag; familiar modes like "Action Hero" (think "Tag") and "Control Points"; and newer games like "Power Struggle" and "Bomb Diffusion." The Team Fortress-inspired "Specialties" mode introduced in the Elite Force expansion pack returns, which can be added as a modifier for the team-based games, as well as options like one-shot kills and player handicaps.
In total, there are ten multiplayer maps included with Elite Force II. It's not a bad group, but it's disappointing that only three maps support Capture the Flag and many of the teamplay modes. Many of the best Elite Force CTF maps were small football field-style affairs where you could snipe from one end clear to the other; there's nothing like that in Elite Force II. The weapons also don't feel quite as solid this time around; the reload times feel slower and the Arc Welder will be sorely missed by defenders on CTF maps.
On the plus side, there are some excellent deathmatch maps, including Levelord's "Quarter Deck," which features small-scale players fighting it out in a model Enterprise. There's also a nifty little map called "Shock Training" which features jump pads and low gravity (perfect for instagib-style play), and computer-controlled bots are available to fight against if you don't have a high speed connection (or just want to practice on your own). There's a lot to dig into, but I can already see my Enemy Territory addiction in danger of waning should a few more Elite Force CTF maps hit the 'net.
The Final Word
As mentioned earlier, a key plot point near the beginning of Elite Force II is the way the Hazard Team is matter-of-factly disbanded upon their return to Earth. Sadly, there's a ironic parallel to be drawn with the team that developed Elite Force II: just after the game's completion, many members of the Elite Force II team were released, with Ritual citing a lack of new projects for the team.
In an industry where so many sub-par licensed games are released on a regular basis (Enter the Matrix, anyone?), Elite Force II is a professional, polished product that everyone involved should be proud of. If you're going to crank out a licensed game, this is pretty much the way to do it. It may not be especially revolutionary, but Elite Force II is an often entertaining and consistently solid shooter that no Star Trek fan should be without. I'd be surprised (and a bit disappointed) if most of the Elite Force II team wasn't snapped up in short order; anyone who can make a Star Trek game this good deserves a job in this industry.
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