Star Trek: Voyager - Elite Force
It seems strange that the most popular genre in computer games is also the most scarce. While real-time strategies and role-playing games propagate at an enormous rate, the release of a first-person shooter is a rare event, celebrated by naked old men dancing in the moonlight somewhere in the Midlands.
Since Half-Life stormed onto the scene like a remarkably intelligent stormy thing a couple of years ago, we've only seen the likes of Kingpin, Aliens Vs Predator, Soldier Of Fortune and Mr Romero's fiasco among a few others come and go. Is it because they take too long to develop? Are the costs prohibitive? Or did Valve's masterpiece simply scare them all off? Of course, I'm deliberately leaving out the recent fragfests of Quake III and Unreal Tournament, because they (together with the sublime Half-Life mod Counter-Strike) are going down a different route altogether, providing guns and a place to shoot them for all of us with a mindless compulsion for fragging. But even if everybody had free unmetered access to completely enjoy this communal activity, they could never replace the old singleplayer of yore, the one with a story, a role to get into and a reason for the carnage. Even when I'm playing Counter-Strike, there's a part of me that thinks: why am I bombing these unremarkable-looking crates, what political beliefs am I shooting out of that terrorist's head, and who are these bloody scientists anyway? The thought never lasts very long, but there is a real sense of empty meaninglessness every time you railgun someone from a hovering platform just to see them reappear further away. Quake III is a marvellously entertaining game, but it almost stopped the narrative progression that was leading games towards something resembling an art form dead in its tracks. Thank the gaming gods (or in this case Warren Spector) for Deus Ex.
A Good Idea
So, what happens when you take Quake III and stick a story on it? Well, if you're Raven and have just procured a juicy Star Trek licence, Elite Foqe happens. Working closely id Software and uotler the Watchful eye of Paramount, Raven had to follow up its successful gore-soaked Soldier Of Fortune with a game where people used wimpy phasers and never ever bled.
And while the result isn't a revolutionary Half-Life beater, it is an excellent game that shows it has more than suspect shock tactics up their bloodstained sleeve.
The story is a typical Star Trek plot, with the added advantage that you don't have to watch Paris and B'Elanna snogging, although you do get to see Captain Janeway making hard decisions her crew don't agree with and Neelix pottering around his kitchen like a maggot in a doll house. After Voyager responds to a distress call (distress seems to be a big thing in space) it gets caught in a giant shipyard, unable to escape and facing almost certain doom (wasn't there a Next Gen episode that began just like that?). The other stranded ships, which include a scavenger vessel full of completely misplaced Klingons and a Borg cube, hold the key to getting out and it's your job as the second in command of the newly formed Hazard Team to beam over and shoot at things. The Hazard Team is an ingenious invention: essentially the Star Trek SWAT team, it's made up of people trained to kill aliens without being racked by guilt and having to wimpishly consult spirit guides for solace.
By far the most interesting thing in Elite Force is the introduction of this Hazard Team, a mix of the security guards in Half-Life anti the officers in SWAT with more than a touch of Starship Troopers? bravado, this lot is much more independent than any of these. Your team mates follow you at all times, but as soon as a combat situation arises they're diving for cover, taking up the best firing position available and moving around in a vaguely intelligent manner. They're like the bots in Quake III, but with a sense of preservation and greater conversational skills. The moment byager turns from being just another shooter with a great engine is when you discover that the redshirts can do more than follow you around like poodles. Not long after the first training mission, the doors to a hangar bay open and you're caught up in the middle of a massive firefight, with both invading aliens and Federation officers ducking behind crates, taking careful aim and retreating when injured. Most of the great moments in the game involve a massive battle with people fighting beside you rather than the usual blazing down a corridor in lone-wolf mode.
I mentioned their independence earlier, which can be a source of frustration as much as admiration. You can 'use' people in the same way that you could in Half-Life, but all that does is provoke a response of the "What do you want?" and "Not now, Alex, can't you see I'm busy?" variety, rather than moving them to do anything useful. The game never requires you to issue orders. Everything is straightforward enough for the team to go along with or one of the many scripted events takes over. But you can't help feeling it, could have been much better if there had been a SWAT 3-style command system, especially since you're meant to be leading many of the away missions.
The intelligence of your team mates often has its shine taken off it by the poor enemy Al. You don't really have the chance to show off your gaming IQ when all you need to do is stand in a corridor phasering wave upon wave of aliens. Soldier Of Fortune just did away with the whole problem by giving you a superb sniper rifle and extremely explodable heads. The Borg, as well as being one of the best species in the whole Star Trek universe, are the perfect enemy for this kind of Al. They are relentless killing machines that appear out of thin air in a green shimmer of transporter light and they keep coming at you until one of you is dead. A perfect example of Raven's failings in this area is when you come across The Hunter, a Predator type of alien who promises to deliver son# hot death matching action. Instep you're treated to the same routine you get at the end of Soldier Of Fortune, where the boss walks around for a few minutes and then stands and shoots for a few morph. All you need to do is get out of the way when he's shooting and reciprocate when he isn't.
Not that the game is any less satisfying because of this. There are enough challenging moments and enough surprises to keep you on your toes and constantly coming back for more. And go back for more I most certainly did. In fact, I played it so relentlessly that I completed it over the curse of two days on the medium skill level. And. for reasons that will become apparent later. I honestly can't wait to start playing it all over again.
The missions don't vary wildly from one to the next, but at least Raven has tried to mix things up a bit. There's even a stealth mission where you're meant to wait for Klingons' backs to turn, shuffle along from crate to crate, use the famous Soldier Of Fortune leaning round corners and only kill when strictly necessary routine. Unfortunately, the Quake 3 engine doesn't lend itself too well to this kind of activity and, despite the Thief-tike comments from the guards, the mission doesn't work quite as well as it should. But if there's one lesson Elite Force has learned well from Half-Life it's the importance of scripted moments. These are almost continuous, and drive the story along superbly. Think that makes it a boring and linear experience? Think again. There's a moment in that stealth mission where you come across some Klingons about to have a fight with another race. If you wait for their conversational scuffle to end, the Klingons go out of the large room leaving you to either find a stealthy way out or kill the remaining aliens. That's what I had in mind when I decided to use my zooming eyewear to see if the Klingons' lips were moving (they were). I accidentally hit the alternate fire button instead (damn those sausage fingers). What happened was that the two sets of quarrelling aliens started shooting each other, until only a few were left that could be easily dispatched.
Scripted moments are not only triggered by your presence, they dynamically react to your actions. The choices you make really do affect the outcome of the game.
If there was one criticism we have levelled at HL in the past it's that for all the clever ways it tricks you into thinking it is not, it is a game on rails, a story that can only ever go one way, the way it was scripted. Voyager, with the introduction of its new scripting system, actually does leave the story open at certain crucial points, with what you do and how you do it deciding where the story goes next. And, although the differences in plot are not major, they do add an unexpected twist. Once you realise this, the story becomes much more personal and you start to care about what happens rather than letting it all occur around you. Apart from the obvious choice you make right at the beginning (man or woman, man or woman...) there are times when your actions not only affect whether some characterjflve or die they also affect the way the rest of the Voyager crew sees you and treats you. We'll mention just one of these instances and the time when it finally clicked that things could have happened differently. If you're afraid we're giving a major story spoiler, don't be, but you can always skip to the end of the paragraph. At one point a character is kidnapped by the Borg; while on the cube with Sever and a handful of others you see that character in the process of being assimilated. The redshirts all shout that something must be done to stop it, while Seven pragmatically slates that you'd be putting the mission at risk by trying to save him and it's probably too late anyway. I tried to save him but realized that Seven was right and there was nothing I could do, as she then proceeded to scold me for jeopardizing the mission while the rest of the crew consoled me by saying I'd done everything possible. I thought nothing of it until later, once the (mission was completed and I'd been beamed back on to Voyager, where Turok expressed his disappointment at my failure to bring the character back. "Hang on", I thought, "it's not my fate, go and stuff your logically edit ears up your rational Vulcan ate." I just carried on and completed the game trying to ignore a niggling thought at the back of my mind. But the seed of doubt had been sown: maybe I should have saved him. So off I went and loaded up an old game. This time I didn't even try to save him. I just walked on ignoring the pleas. Seven congratulated me on making the right choice and the Hazard Team practically spat at me in disgust. Then I went back again and found I could save him (you have to be pretty nippy), earning pats on the back all round. This by itself would probably be remarkable enough, but throughout the rest of the game the attitude of major characters was different, I'd impressed them. Not only that, but the end of that particular level is completely different. Needless to say, I immediately started thinking of other moments that could have turned out differently.
But while this scripting system does give the game an extra dimension, we shouldn't get too carried away. It's not really a million miles away from the Fighting Fantasy kind of choices such as "If you smoke the strange pipe the troll is offering and become a crack-head, if you slice him in half turn to 487 and retrieve the magical spatula of Grannor, if you make a pass at him turn to 319 and seek professional advice," and it's nowhere near the kind of freedom offered by the mighty Deus Ex.
There's no disputing, however, that it elevates Elite Force above other chumpy, hairy-knuckled first-person rides out there. It also adds some very necessary replayability value, because the game is somewhat on the short side. It took me a day and a half of solid playing to complete it. And when I say solid, I mean I had to be fed intravenously, I literally couldn't help myself carrying on beyond any healthy limits.
Ever since Quake III presented itself as little more than a fabulous engine, we've been waiting for a single-player game that would do it justice. After all, it's the main reason Voyager was preceded by such a wave of m expectation, in spite of the appalling track record of almost every single Star Trek game before. And while Elite Force makes full use of the curve possibilities it has to admit that it was designed for the creation of small claustrophobic spaces. Curiously, though, the game works much better in wide open areas such as hangar bays and cargo areas than in stuffy corridors and small rooms, and it's a shame Raven didn't experiment more with the spacious side of the game.
Another small Quake problem is that walking is slightly too slow and running is exceedingly fast. You don't notice as much in the heat of battle, where speed is always an ally, but when you're casually exploring Voyager feels like you're on roller skates. The ship itself is recreated in fine detail, and the experience is envied by being able to amble round between missions, making you feel like a part of the crew.
Considering the lack of competition, Voyager is probably the best single-player FPS since Half-Life. It has a truly interactive story, a team that fights on your side intelligently and it uses the best engine around. There's still plenty of room for improvement though, and it will be interesting to see whether the likes of Duke Nukem Forever and Return to Castle Wolfenstein can turn first-person shooters back into the undisputed king of computer gaming genres. Or is the future the DeusEx role-playing crossover? For the time being, just be happy that you can once again blow things up in a proper story and that the killing is a little less senseless.
How many times do you see cool guns in a Star Trek episode? Anyone who's played Klingon Honor Guard knows how poor the normal array of Trekkie weapons feel for people brought up on rocket launchers and railguns. In Elite Force, there's still nothing anywhere near as satisfying as a Quake weapon, and it suffers especially in the multiplayer mode. In single player, however, the guns feel adequate enough and are perfectly balanced to suit the enemies. As in Qlll, you can zoom in at any time thanks to a special device over your eye. Not that this is of much use in multiplayer games. The maps are mostly too corridor based and lack the real quality to make them special. But this is the Quake III engine, people are bound to make some good ones for it. And you do get to choose from any character skin from the game, after all. Cleverly, you get to play some of the multiplayer maps during the single-player game when you step into the Holodeck to try out some of the new weapons. Although, of course, you don't get to disintegrate Janeway in those. Which is a great shame. As I write I'm already planning ttie next parallel universe moment I'm going to experiment with.
Download Star Trek: Voyager - Elite Force
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