Every week, Richard Cobbett rolls the dice to bring you an obscure slice of gaming history, from lost gems to weapons grade atrocities. As Star Trek Month concludes, it's time to go out with a bang and a whimper with one last tour of duty aboard the doomed USS Voyager. Or, just maybe, two...
The only thing worse than a bad show is a potentially great one that seems intent on feeding itself to the dogs. Voyager should have been brilliant. A brand new crew. New writers. A nice break for everyone to refresh themselves after so many years of Next Gen. A brand new part of the universe; untapped, uncharted, where anything could happen and nobody had any respect for this so-called "Federation".
Unfortunately, what ended up happening was Voyager - seven seasons of idiocy that looked down on its fans, threw away almost every good idea it had, and treated every situation as an excuse for the writers to show off their pet Captain - the incompetent, hypocritical horror that was Kathryn Janeway. This is not a 'female captain' complaint, you understand. Not even close. It's a complaint about a show whose scripts were completely blind to their lead's potentially interesting faults, when even the actress who played her admitted to having assumed she was bipolar. Exactly the same problem would hit her successor, Enterprise's Archer - a man with slightly less diplomatic skill than his own pet dog, but who the scripts would go out of their way to praise for at least the first two years of the show's run.
In both cases, I again point to the wonderful SF Debris - whose versions of both characters are exaggerated for comedy purposes (his Janeway in particular has evolved to the point of giving Hitler nightmares) but based on truth. Check them out here (or here if his site's down again.)
Voyager's problems were on both sides of the screen. Under its watch, the Borg were reduced from universe-conquering threat to nothing but cannon fodder, while the once omnipotent Q went from being the judge and eventual ally of humanity to a lovesick schoolboy in a bad sitcom. Individually good ideas like the fantastic Doctor were few and far between, and usually wasted when they came up. Seven of Nine for instance was a great idea for a character, but the general contempt for the audience as a bunch of virginal nerds made it tough to see past the ridiculous silver catsuit to the actual character inside. And not in a Photoshop way. Plot-wise, even good episodes like Equinox and Year of Hell stood as a bitter reminder of what the show could have been if it had sucked just a little bit less.
(It's noteworthy that several of the production team hated the show too, with Ronald Moore ultimately making Battlestar Galactica largely based on what he wished it had been, and Robert Beltran - First Officer Chakotay - quite happily bashing it while it was still on the air. Jolene Blacock would do something similar while playing T'Pol on the equally awful Enterprise, though from a different angle - as a huge Trek fan herself, she objected to how bad the series was. No argument there...)
What Voyager did have on its side was that it was perfect for games. Much like the show, uncharted territory meant complete creative freedom, with the safety of the ship a much stronger focal point for the action than some random diplomatic blah with the blue people of Planet Whatever like previous games had relied on. The only problem was a pragmatic one - everything Voyager touched turned to poop.
When Star Trek: Voyager: Elite Force appeared with the tagline "Set Phasers To Frag", that looked to be proceeding right on cue. Much to everyone's surprise though... it was a damn good game.
Unlike the show's creators, Raven approached making a Star Trek shooter by trying to figure out how to best implement the FPS mechanics they were used to working with into a new context... instead of slamming their heads in a desk for five hours and emerging with a smile and cry of "We'll call him Neelix! He'll be hilarious!" And believe me, this is the nicest vision I have of how things worked...
Raven's creation was the Hazard Team (which was obviously meant to be the name of the game before someone decided Elite Force sounded cooler) - an answer to the classic Star Trek problem of having the bridge crew constantly putting themselves in danger. Think of them as what happens when a redshirt gets proper equipment and combat training, instead of simply a gutshot and cheap funeral.
(The Hazard Team concept was so obviously a good idea, it was even suggested that it might make it to the show itself, though that never happened, because Voyager chewed up good ideas and shat them out as scripts like Threshold. A version would appear in Enterprise though, dubbed MACOs. Which are a little bit like TACOs, except without the late-night flatulence and packing a slightly better quality of beef.)
The game itself was good. You could have either a male or female character, effort was put into the recreation of Voyager, all the cast except Jeri Ryan showed up for voices (though she was later added in an expansion) and even the tutorial level kicked things off with a bang by having you fight through a Borg cube. Like the show, you only got a number of shots before they adapted to phasers, before finally you upgraded to a new weapon called the I-MOD that simply cycled frequencies to keep killing. Unlike much of Voyager's neutering campaign, this actually made perfect sense - an invention by Seven, a former Borg with in-depth knowledge of their weaknesses, and logically sound as a piece of tech.
In short, it was a big success, and the sequel was decent too - though like all good things, it fled Voyager like rats from a stinking ship and relocated the action to the Enterprise instead. A few unfortunate decisions like removing the female character options aside, it was much the same game. It's not as well remembered though, mostly due to not really evolving shooters in any way, and coming on the festering heels of a certain cinematic abomination called Star Trek: Nemesis.
Still. Elite Force is a well-known, fondly remembered game.
But there was another. Oh yes...
Star Trek: Borg might not look like a Voyager game - but in fact, it's the most Voyager game of them all. It was mostly filmed on its sets, back in the interactive movie craze of the 90s. At first glance, it's like many of its ilk. Simple controls. First-person. Logic puzzles to solve. Hilariously dodgy FMV. Very little to do. But it has one thing on its side that none of the others could even dream of. It has Q...
Unlike the dire Star Trek: The Game Show , this is the Q people love to hate - capricious, powerful, and with John de Lancie having an absolute blast. The Borg may get top billing, but make no mistake, he's the star. Better still, where other games would simply pay him to get in front of a camera for a few minutes and say "Hello, I'm someone you've seen on TV", he's absolutely everywhere here.
The basic story is that you're the unfortunately named Cadet Qaylan Furlong, whose father was killed by the Borg at the disastrous battle at Wolf 359. Years later, your own ship is attacked, and all the cadets are rushed off to safety. Q then literally appears out of nowhere and offers you a deal - he'll use his powers to send you back in time to save your father, and all you have to do is keep him... entertained.
So obviously you say 'no' and the credits roll. DA DA DAA DAA DAA DAAA...
Taking the other path though, you find yourself in a really cute interactive movie. Most of the puzzles are unfair and lead to your instant death - but that's okay. Q always brings you back to life to have another shot. The clever thing is that sometimes dying is actually required to progress the story. At one point for instance you're sneaking around a Borg ship, and actually have to provoke them into fight, be captured, and be turned into a Borg so that you can see what's on their computers. Brought back to life, you can then use this to prevent things going wrong in the first place.
All credit to them - that's a really clever concept. And there's some other interesting lateral thinking on offer. Probably the best bit is a scene where you have to persuade a crewmate to let you do something, only for him to suggest you play the old 'which hand am I holding the thing' game. It doesn't matter which one you pick, you're always wrong. The actual solution? Punch him out and get to work. Awesome.
The real fun though comes from Q himself. In Quantum Leap style, you're not simply there as yourself, but in the body of the ship's security officer. Yes, just like that. Not wanting to be left out, Q also steps in to act as the ship's doctor, and has some excellent scenes with the crew. Probably the best is when someone finally calls him out on how for all his power and arrogance, there's a part of him that desperately wants to be liked . Why can't he just snap his fingers and make everyone like him? He could. But he knows full well it wouldn't mean anything if he did. It's the kind of humanising moment that Voyager failed miserably at, but which actually works here - brick level subtlety and all.
No, I stand corrected. The best is when Qaylan finally tires of Q's shit and does what only Sisko has ever dared do before - punches him in the face. Oh. And then kicks him in the balls.
There's a lot you can criticise about Star Trek: Borg. It's incredibly short, there's not a lot of pathing to it beyond 'touch the wrong thing and die' and the acting and story are nothing to write home about. At the same time though, it's really entertaining. Q in particular is great company, largely channelling his appearance in the Next Gen episode Tapestry as a trickster who nevertheless has a heart and is rooting for the people who fall into his crosshairs. For all his criticisms and talks of being bored, he regularly pulls both the main character and the crew out of the fire - and isn't afraid to use his power to help out. He may not make the Borg just vanish, but that wouldn't be any fun - and it wouldn't teach anyone anything either. Still, when the chips are down, his comment "It's not too late if I say it's not too late," make it very clear where his sympathies lie, and how he's decided this is going to end.
Good game? Nah. But a good interactive movie? As much as that's possible, I quite like it.
Unfortunately it's next to impossible to find these days, even if it still runs. YouTube to the rescue! This is an edited version of the full movie, including the death sequences (which as mentioned are often required to get important bits of information) and vast, vast amounts of Q's snark.
Why? Because he can.
And with that, Star Trek month is officially over. Technically, the Enterprise of the abortive television atrocity of the same name did put in an appearance in the dismal Star Trek Legacy, and there are other games we've not looked at, including the decent Birth of the Federation . But I think that will do. Next week, it's back to our regularly scheduled weirdness. Live long, and continue reading.
And, y'know. Other stuff like that.