Tuesday, July 06, 2010

GET ME A FIRING SOLUTION: Star Trek: Tactical Assault and 3.5 years of my life

Your humble Fat Contradiction was not always as you see him today, with a SPOCK LIVES button on his bike bag, a transporter sound emanating from his cell phone, calling for increased scans on that intriguing nebula.

In late 2006, for instance, he was depressively working at a couple bars. Getting up in the afternoon and trudging from one filthy, cluttered room (with a mattress) to another (with a couch and ancient laptop). He'd turn on the tv, where of an afternoon perhaps SciFi would play a minithon of Voyager or Spike a couple episodes of TNG. And he'd dive into whatever the 'nets could provide in the way of depression-mitigation, distraction or diversion.

I liked Star Trek. I mean, I always liked Star Trek--around grade 1 I clearly remember using one of my dad's reference books to sketch a phaser, a tricorder and a communicator on cardboard, then cutting them out and stashing them about my person before school one day. I had tucked the communicator into the cuff of my sweater and couldn't find it for quite a while. Finally I recovered it at second recess and was able to call for an immediate beamout.

But no. I'm still stuck here.

Anyway, I always liked Star Trek, but in the fall of 06 it started to mean a little more to me, I think. It had always been something I'd shared with my dad, and in the wake of his suicide, the good things I'd shared with him became more important to me. This is why I actually like Voyager now--after 7 of 9 joined the cast, anyway--because it reminds me that my dad and I could have had some great conversations about the show, how it succeeded, how it failed, how it was interesting and how it was missing the mark.

But in the fall of 06, this transition was in process and Trek was mostly just something mediocre and half-good to put on in the background while I surfed internet filth and tried to get past my hangover enough to go get the afternoon's first coffee, begin the trudge through evening until my next shift of spilling beer. It was then that my co-workers at one bar gave me a birthday gift card to the mall's game store.

I resolved to buy something that I would never spend my own money on. Years later, I have no clear idea what else might have been in the running. All I know is that I ended up with Star Trek: Tactical Assault for my DS. And that I love it.

I played it for a while, then put it away, then played it for a while. (This repeated off and on until last night, when I fired up the never-beated last Klingon mission and beat it without hesitation or difficulty.) At some point, I either convinced Canada to buy himself a copy or I bought him one. Whether or not I have anything good to say about the two campaigns, I can say that our oft-mentioned couch-based battles for space supremacy were some of my favorite vid-game moments of all time. His natural superiority at games in general ran up against my enhanced understanding of the game's systems--I'd read the manual, and knew how to do things like overcharge the phaser banks--and tiny glowing screens filled with disruptor fire as the living room filled with howls of outrage and many, many, many swears.

The pleasures of the game are simple, and satisfy urges of mine stretching back to my brother-in-law's pirated copy of Wing Commander: you get yourself a ship, and you go forth to blow the everloving shit out of other ships. As in Tie Fighter, occasionally you're required to protect some stupid ship that will never ever defend itself even half-assed adequately, and you'll have to play that mission like five times before finally managing to blow up all the enemies before your dumb escort blows up.

You get two campaigns, 31 missions in all, first a Federation (think Kirk and Spock) run, then a Klingon series that's much more Worf-like noble warrior action than cackling-villain strafing runs or whatever. The stories are pretty good: they set up the set pieces well and you feel okay about the cats you're spending time with. You unlock a ton of Federation, Klingon and Romulan (!) ships, and can even skirmish around with Gorn (big lizard guys, and my favorites) and Orion (green slave-girl guys and apparently pirates--I had to look them up) ships.

All the ships handle pretty much the same, which will turn off a lot of people. The games I mentioned earlier are 3D games to the core, dogfighting games, where reflex and speed are important; this is essentially a 2D game, very naval in its pacing. You learn to manage your weapon recharge times, swooping in to annihilate your victim's shields, passing up opportunities in order to ensure that your next barrage is precisely placed, warily circling your foe out of range of her fusillades, keeping your strongest shield facing properly positioned. When it's good--and it's often very good indeed--it's a slow but tense balancing act, requiring constant attention to time, space and resource availability. That's where the ship-differences really come in: ship speeds vary fairly considerably, and the weapons have a decent range of different damage levels, effective ranges, position, etc. A well-designed attack run in a Romulan ship will be quite different indeed than one for a Federation vessel. Learning how to manage all this is probably more engaging and useful in the skirmish modes than in the story campaigns.

The occasionally maligned upgrade system works well. It's maligned because you allocate points to crew members, rather than to the ships themselves. Admittedly, this is conceptually a little bit dicey: why would upgrading a captain make my reserve-power batteries stronger, exactly? However, it works far better than upgrading your first ship, then trying to explain why your next ship also has those custom upgrades you chose. It's a suitable and sensible solution to merging game systems with a logic that's more than game-internal.

The most common criticism from the less thoughtless game critics out there had this game feeling inadequately, well, Star Trek-like. And it's true. After the first mission, there aren't any...diplomatic solutions. You're not a Picardian space ambassador. Rather, you're a step or two more violent than Kirk--going after aggressors with measured responses that are quite carefully calibrated to be massive, sudden and decisive. Both campaigns are pretty careful to position your captain, however, as someone who fights for honor and peace: both feature moments where you have to force a former ally to stand down when they attempt to escalate and provoke. Again, I think the criticisms are poorly founded. The characterizations aren't the most Trek thing you've ever read, but they're not out of line and--for fuck's sake--the game is called TACTICAL ASSAULT. If they'd called it SPACE DIPLOMACY AND SCIENTIFIC EXPLORATION, I'd yield to the complaints; as it is, I think they reflect a category error.

This is a game that can be found all over the place for 15 wing-wangs. It's one of my favorite DS games. It's one of my favorite Star Trek artifacts. It's one thing I like very much.

(Images stolen from the exceedingly wonderful resource here: Trek Core. I beat both campaigns without ever knowing there were cheat codes available. Damnit.)

1 Comments + Unabashed Criticism:

Blogger Fat Contradiction said...

Since my imprisioned bleat slash impassioned screed, I have stumbled over this, which is a very, very long review, but from somebody who seems--and there is no easy way to say this--to really suck at games. Now, don't get me wrong: I suck at video games. But this guy's complaints are like saying "if you touch a turtle in Super Mario, you die. That sucks. You should be able to touch the turtles. Also why do I have to hold down turbo while I hit jump to turbojump?"

Still very much worth a read.


And some comments from the posse:
You inspired me to dust off the DS! Star Trek in the sun!
Set phasers to enjoy!
Currently they are set at "WTF" and "frustrate" alternately. Haven't, uh, unlocked enjoy yet. Should be another 10 minutes
It really is fun tho...

Macajew tossed off:
I am NOT a trek guy (though I suspect I might be were I to delve into it) but yr review made me want to run out & buy a DS & that game
The only thing stopping me: big deadlines in near future & already poor time management skills not needing any further encouragement. Might keep me out of bars tho

A week later, Canada came back with:
When you use a cheat code on ST:TA a girl's voice sez 'what? You can't win w/o cheating?'

And not strictly related, but too good to not get archived somewhere: Canada and I were riffing on Star Trek/Wars. I suggested that the Death Star was just a ripoff of Deep Space 9.
Tattoo: Enterprise attacking the Death Star. Tramp stamp.
Emperor Picardpatine?
Tattoo: Lost in Space robot vs. Data. Deathmatch!

3:26 PM  

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