Star Trek: Armada II Review
By Adrienne Dudek |
With every new Star Trek game comes inexplicable feelings of apprehension and anticipation. On the one hand, the promise of gallivanting about a richly defined universe partaking first-hand in the kinds of things that all science fiction buffs dream of is tantalizing and orgasmic (so you're obviously not as big a fan as me). On the other, a slew of disturbing images of failed attempts of past clutter your mind, inhibiting any hopes of greatness. Armada II is no different. On one level, the prospects of playing out a real-time strategy game based on and in keeping with the Star Trek universe is awesome, but then again, failure to deliver on expectations the fiction inherently brings with it could be detrimental to the package as a whole.
In brief, Armada II is the fully 3D RTS sequel to 2000's Star Trek: Armada, a game based out of Next Generation universe. Romulans, Federation, Species 8472, Borg, Klingon, Cardassian, and Ferengi are all accounted for (Federation, Klingon, and Borg being playable in the single-player campaign, with the rest making cameos and only going controllable in multiplayer and skirmish modes, sans the NPC Ferengi). Plot? The Borg have been repelled back into the Delta Quadrant and StarFleet is on a mission to chase them down and engage the enemy on their home turf. All the while the Klingons are left behind in the Alpha Quadrant to keep the peace in the absence of their ally. Throw in Species 8472, and the always devious Romulans and Cardassians and you've got quite the explosive situation...
Paramount amidst the additions to last year's outing (no pun intended) is Armada II's revitalized 3D interface. The prior incarnation took place entirely on a 2D plane and only featured 3D graphics as an aesthetical attribute (the same formula Conquest : Frontier Wars followed, for those wanting a frame of reference). Armada II, on the other hand, incorporates its now refined, but still Armada 3D graphics engine in a fully 3-dimensional sector of space (as far 3D as monitors go anyway).
Direction and ordering are as standard as ever, only now, the new elevation factor is managed by depressing the shift key and moving the mouse either above or below the "zero plane" to send units to the desired z-axis coordinate. Thankfully, subsequent ordering will not cause units to revert to the zero plane. All things ordered remember the level at which they were directed, and will stay at this height until told otherwise.
Keeping track of everything from different angles and distances is now possible via a new camera control option that allows for all manner of tilting and rotation known to man (accomplished by holding down both mouse buttons or a middle button while in the "tactical view"). But playing from a traditional overhead perspective ("strategic view") is still both possible, and even advised (probably why the game defaults to this perspective).
The new 3D camera system actually works fairly well, but goes sadly untapped. Even though the tactical view eliminates the grid and fog of war (two potentially sight obstructing objects) and allows for the scope of the environments to be fully appreciated, because against the computer there exists little tactical advantage to changing the Z elevation of your units (aside from the negligible differences a change in formation offers), the strategic component of a fully 3D battlefield only comes into play during bouts of multiplayer. In this respect, Armada II suffers from a similar degree of AI identification problems that plague so many other games of all different types. That is to say, you might not be able to see the enemy because they are positioned deep in the bowels of a nebula, poised to secretly strike, but they will certainly see you, regardless of where you might be. Unlike you or I, the computer never forgets to check its radar, nor does it confuse asteroids and debris with enemy fleets. A great assortment of toggles, sliders and switches have been included that let you customize your experience to a virtually unseen degree (including even how fast or slow the computer can build, effectively making them supreme cheaters if you so desire), but Armada II will never emulate a true human opponent. Tactics and play as far as solo gaming go are then best left on the easily manageable 2D plane, as in 3D the only discernable benefit is the brainpower required to manage another axis.
Multiplayer scenarios differ at this. Sending one fleet of ships below and to the left under the guise of a passive nebula, and sending another on a direct course to conflict spell the ultimate combination of diversionary tactics. A lot of this is simply due to whether your eye will be able to identify what's coming and from where, but the effect ultimately adds that extra sense of required perception admirals need, that type of perception and attention vital to creating a more engrossing experience. Still, surprisingly enough, the control and manipulation of an additional axis of play retain a degree of simplicity that make advanced positioning worthwhile even in actual combat situations. Again, this all goes only as far as multiplayer is concerned.
So, though its principle and purpose are noble, the implementation and development of the 3D interface go unutilized; nevertheless, this new interface never draws from the title, and as such, won't be cause for score depreciation.
Other new additions have been made, and significant changes have taken place, but many of the problems I took issue with the first time around make a second appearance. The biggest of my gripes yet to be addressed is that the game saunters too far off from its source.
Combat, for one, doesn't feel or look indicative of what the Star Trek experience represents. Ship construction and deployment occur in swarms and success in battle relies heavily on who has the most of the most powerful as well as the usage of outlandish special attacks (outlandish even for Star Trek). Initially it looked as if this gripe might have been rectified. Vessels moved into position while laying down phaser and torpedo fire. However, once at their designated coordinate, battles revert to the sit there and fire like crazy variety (very un-Trek like). Equally depressing, constructing as many Sovereign class vessels as is humanly possible is still the name of the game. In the fiction, these ships are massive, expensive, valued and cherished machines -- each with personality and character. Here they're but shallow hulls, lifeless cannon fodder. There is no appreciable evolution and development of starships. Just as StarCraft necessitated the creation of hundreds of mindless units to seize victory, Armada II also values numbers over experience.
Caring for and developing units, valuing experienced ones over rookies, should have been a fundamental of the combat system. If the cost of units were raised slightly, and their importance reprioritized, the implementation and progression of advanced evasive maneuvers and general AI intelligence and prowess in combat could have been seamlessly integrated. Because a myriad of AI related options are already available, having units get better as they get older doesn't seem like it would be that trying of a task. Imagine a small fleet of battle hardened Galaxy class vessels asserting their superior AI routines (fictionally attributed and balanced by experience). They would dart around opposition, use the environment to their advantage, know to do things they would be expected to do. They would be lethal flagships of the fleet instead of chubby, almost stationary turrets.
Crazy secondary attacks make a return appearance. The decidedly un-Trek overly advanced abilities of some of the craft (the duplication one for instance) once again immeasurably deplete the rabid fanboy allure the game's fiction holds on me. It's these kinds of attempts at taking everything to the next level that ultimately drain the title of its single most distinguishing factor, its license. It's Star Trek that differentiates Armada II from the competition, but attempting to cram everything the fiction has ever offered into one brief game cheapens it all. So I like steak and potatoes, I also like Lucky Charms and apple pie... Should I then combine all three into a blender and drink it down? Armada thinks so. This approach is wrong. It's not fifty Borg ships fighting crazy Psychonic Blasting Romulans taking on Gemini Effecting Humans that makes Star Trek appealing. It's the cautious, meticulous implementation of these things that create such a wondrous universe (the very reason why TNG was praised and Voyager's over indulgence scorned). The battles should have importance, the encounters should be new and astonishing. Instead it's like, "Hey, there's some more of everything all at the same time."
There is light at the end of the tunnel. Armada II may not feature the amount of development and focus on starships as I'd like, but it does offer much the way of configurable AI. A wealth of sliders and options allow for behavioral patterns ranging from explore, to search and destroy, to defend ranges. Send a fleet of ships to randomly search about the map, or delegate them to systematically seeking out and eradicating the last vestiges of an opposing force (critical if you enjoy playing with the game speed cranked). In addition to this, aggressive tendencies can be managed by setting your armada to green, yellow, or red alert status. These indicators determine the frequency of pursuit and how they will break from their standing orders to engage the enemies.
The developed AI routines and still somewhat suspect combat come accentuated by warp speed and a more complex, refined economy that now allows for trade between outposts and the NPC Ferengi. The warp speed functionality acts as a turbo for moving your vessels about the map, but doesn't nearly add the tactical value that multiple maps did for Conquest (despite craft in warp transit being more susceptible to damage and such). It's a bit more plausible and true to the fiction, but just ends up amounting to a speedier means of locomotion. As far as the economy goes, the addition of resources and trading of resources for still other resources can get a bit tiresome, but ends up unobtrusive and manageable after a spell of consistent play.
Armada II does not graphically trounce its competition (being neither better than Dune or Conquest). It does accurately and acceptably render the various craft and structures of the fiction, but never overly impresses. Scale is developed much more consistently and believably but some of the new designs seem a bit out of place. The sly, mysterious, and sleek green Romulan design we see on its war bird vessel does not carry over to the rest of that race's units, now majorly covered in brown feathers, (more akin to the design present in Kirk's era). Another problem in design resides in how units and structures invariably clump together and become hard to differentiate between. What the hell am I shooting at? What the hell am I shooting with? What the hell am I using to make what I'm shooting with? Some of this could have been alleviated by a Conquest planetary-centric construction scheme, but a lot of it is inherent in the fiction.
Sound effects and music could have been taken directly from the show's vast library and are all superb, that includes the various little unique quips craft commanders give off when you order them about. Devious sounding Romulans, bloodthirsty Klingons, smug Cardassians, etc., all are represented and clichéd to brilliance.
While it ends up a solid, more refined, feature robust RTS experience opposed to its progenitor, it's still not the strategic Star Trek game fans such as myself have been so eagerly awaiting. Armada II's often times too much too fast. But this actually carries over decently from a strictly gameplay standpoint when basis and license are not taken into consideration. Its frantic play may only be Star Trek in name, but it is fun nonetheless.
As far as sequels go, this one excels admirably. The plethora of new features and changes are bold and carried over well. Many of which may go unused, but there existence alone is commendable. Regardless, the 3D aspect is not as developed as Homeworld, nor is the visual acuity or strategic depth as pronounced and patiently crafted as Conquest: Frontier Wars'. What's left then is not a markedly excellent foray into the genre or the fiction, but a fun, good play for casual fans of the universe and the genre. Die-hards of both RTS titles and Star Trek will find it to be only a passing amusement.
-- Ivan Sulic
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