If you’ve ever been a Star Trek fan, you’ve probably imagined what it would be like to sit in the captain’s chair of a Federation starship. Over the years there have been dozens of Star Trek videogames on PC, from point-and-click adventures to first-person shooters. But Star Trek: Bridge Commander is the closest a digital recreation of the show has ever gotten to deeply simulating the experience of being in command of a Starfleet vessel.
The game starts with a bang, literally, as a star mysteriously destabilises and explodes, killing the captain of the USS Dauntless. The ship’s relatively inexperienced first officer (that’s you) is then forced to take over command and find out what caused the explosion. Your character is a completely blank slate who never speaks and is never seen, or even named, with first officer Saffi Larsen doing most of the talking for you.
This is initially a little distracting, as charismatic captains who make their opinions known are an important part of the classic Star Trek format. But it does ultimately add to the role-playing aspect of the game, making you feel like you are the captain, and not just in control of someone else. At the start of each mission you’ll get the usual Star Trek-style logs, explaining the current mission objectives. But because of your total lack of a voice, these are read out by other members of the crew instead.
On the bridge, the game is locked to a first-person perspective, and you never leave the captain’s chair. To issue orders you have to turn your head with the mouse and face the appropriate member of the bridge crew, then choose from a list of commands. So if a Romulan Warbird suddenly de-cloaks, you turn to Larsen on your right and ask her to go to red alert, which powers up your weapons and shields. It also dims the lights on the bridge, just like in the show, which is a nice touch.
You can also go to yellow alert, which boosts your shields but leaves your weapons inactive: a good way to show an enemy that your guard is up, but you don’t want a fight. But in most cases you’ll be forced to defend yourself, because Bridge Commander is very heavy on combat, which is actually my biggest criticism of it. I love Star Trek, particularly The Next Generation, because conflict is usually a last resort. If Captain Jean-Luc Picard can solve a problem without firing a phaser, he always will. But in the game, pretty much every mission results in a space battle. It’s primarily a combat sim.
In the middle of a battle, power management is key. Swing your head around to your left and you’ll see your Solian chief engineer, Brex. Through him you manage your ship’s power output via a series of sliders. If you want a wider scan of the area, boost power to the sensor array. If you’re having trouble punching through an enemy’s shields, boost your weapons. And if your own shields are taking a hammering, diverting extra power to them will increase your resilience to whoever is currently firing at you.
Characters in Star Trek are always diverting power to various systems to increase their effectiveness, so it’s marvellous to see that turned into a game system in Bridge Commander. But it’s all about the balancing act. Pull too much juice from the ship and your power transmission grid won’t be able to cope, reducing your overall effectiveness. This power- juggling mechanic is at the core of the game’s many battles, and yelling orders at Brex as the bridge shakes and sparks fly out of the consoles can be hugely exciting.
Bridge Commander captures the drama of a Star Trek space battle brilliantly. The screen judders as you take damage, the red alert alarm wails, and your crew shout updates about the status of the ship and the enemy’s movements. You can order your tactical officer, Felix Savali, to target and attack at will or you can step in and take control, manually targeting and firing the ship’s arsenal of phasers and photon torpedoes. Honestly, most of the time you’ll rely on Savali to do the hard work, because battles can go on for a long time in Bridge Commander. Sitting back, saying "make it so", and letting someone else do the work feels a lot more captain-like anyway.
There are some non-combat mission objectives, including delivering VIPs, rescuing people, beaming people aboard your ship, and picking up cargo. But this all happens off-screen, with your crew merely telling you about it rather than you witnessing it first-hand. It would have been nice to leave the bridge and visit other locations. Maybe stopping at Ten Forward for a drink, or checking up on someone in sickbay. But in this game, the life of a captain takes place entirely on the bridge. Even just taking a few conversations in your ready room would have added visual variety.
At any time you can hit the spacebar and switch to a third-person view, which gives you a clearer view of your surroundings. There are some dramatic visuals here, including colourful alien suns and asteroid fields, but technically it’s pretty ropey, with distractingly low-res textures. You can fly the ship manually in third-person, but it’s much more Trek-like to switch back to the bridge and order your Bajoran flight controller, Kiska LoMar, to move the USS Dauntless between planets and other points of interest.
But after a few hours of play, you’ll almost certainly get sick of your crew repeating the same handful of barks over and over again during combat. "Moving into attack range! Lining up forward torpedo tubes! Sweeping through phaser arcs!" Sound design is one area Bridge Commander falls short, with a forgettable, repetitive soundtrack, and some missing details like the rumble of your ship’s engines. The weapons sound great and the voice acting is decent, but overall it’s a bit of a sonic mess.
However, you can remedy this. I muted the in-game music and played the score from Star Trek: The Next Generation instead, which you can find on Spotify. I also found a ten-hour loop of the ambient engine sounds from the show on YouTube, and played that quietly in the background. This is possibly the nerdiest thing I’ve ever done, but man, it really improves the game. And thanks to a vibrant modding community, there are countless other ways to tinker with the experience, whether you want to improve the visuals or command ships from the other Star Trek series.
There’s some nice stuff in Bridge Commander for Star Trek fans, including guests occasionally joining your crew. In your first stint as captain you’re joined by none other than Jean-Luc Picard, who sits beside you and explains some of the game’s systems. Getting Patrick Stewart to reprise his role as Picard, and then using him as essentially an interactive tutorial, is a wasted opportunity. But it’s still cool to hang out with him regardless, and just hearing his voice lends the game extra authenticity.
You’re also joined by Data, voiced by Brent Spiner, when you swap the USS Dauntless for the USS Sovereign partway through the story. Like Deep Space Nine’s USS Defiant, the Sovereign was developed after the Battle of Wolf 359 to defend against the Borg. It’s a more advanced ship and nimbler in battle, but I must admit, I prefer the bridge of the Galaxy class Dauntless, which looks just like the one in TNG—albeit with some different colouring.
While aboard your ship, Data determines that the exploding star was not a natural event. This revelation leads to clashes with the Cardassians and a race of aliens invented for the game called the Kessok. Occasionally enemies will hail you, either to surrender or to gloat, which adds to the Star Trek vibe. But I would have liked the option to engage in a little diplomacy, perhaps choosing from dialogue options to try and talk aggressors down or offer to work together. If they ever make another Bridge Commander, this would add some much needed non-combat variety.
If you’re feeling the urge to replay Star Trek: Bridge Commander, you’ll be glad to hear that it runs out of the box on Windows 10 without any messing around—although you will want to install the official 1.1 patch first. Finding a copy, however, might be a little trickier. It’s been out of print for years, and no digital storefronts currently offer it. This is the case for a lot of Star Trek games, but thankfully there are several websites that archive these hard-to-find gems. There’s always a way. But I’d love Activision to do a proper re-release or remaster. With Discovery and Picard getting people into Star Trek again, there’s never been a more perfect time.
It’s hardly a looker—even by 2002 standards—but gaze beyond the low-poly characters and strangely flat-looking viewscreen conversations and developer Totally Games did a very decent job of capturing the ambience of a Star Trek ship. And if you can’t stomach the lo-fi visuals, you could always give Ubisoft’s Star Trek: Bridge Crew a go. It offers a similar experience, with modern production values, a TNG-themed bridge and VR support. But it’s not as deep as Bridge Commander, designed with accessibility and co-op play in mind, so it’s not quite the same. Not many vintage Star Trek games are worth playing today, but sitting in the captain’s chair in Bridge Commander still has the power to thrill.