There have been some good Star Trek games over the years, yes. But you know what? There hasn't been a really great one. And I think I know why.
Because Star Trek sucks.
Yes, before we go any further, let me get this off my chest. I don't like Star Trek. I find it cheap, I find it boring. There's too many bland characters spending too long saying nothing, and it relies too much on nonsensical techno-babble to propel its plotlines.
What I look for in a good science fiction universe is a sense of gravity. That there are larger forces at work than chipper people in uniforms convening in a sun-drenched San Francisco. That there is dirt in the universe, a tangible sense of history told through rusted pipes and scorched hulls. That people dress, and behave, like they actually inhabit an alien world, and didn't just walk onto the set of a daytime soap.
It's why I like things like Star Wars, Bladerunner, Dune and Aliens. They're filthy, full of "real" people, and as such, come across as both more engaging and, in the context of constructing a fantasy setting, believable. Which are the kind of things I'm after in a science fiction setting.
It's also why many of those series have been home to truly classic video games. Sure, the gameplay itself helps matters, but then a game without context is naught but a series of 1's and 0's. Those universes inspired the great games based upon them, and the tone and designs the titles were able to borrow from made a great contribution to their effectiveness.
Star Wars has the X-Wing series and Knights of the Old Republic. Blade Runner has… Blade Runner, perhaps the best adventure game ever made that didn't have the word "Lucasarts" on the box. Aliens has the classic Aliens vs Predator series on PC (and soon console), and Dune has Dune 2, godfather of the real-time strategy genre. All worthy inclusions on any list of the most important, and most-loved video games of all time.
But Star Trek? Eh, not so much. There have been some good (some really good) games along the way, sure; I quite enjoyed the 25th Anniversary adventure game, released in 1992 (all the while wishing George Lucas would do something similar), and both Elite Force and Star Trek: Armada were solid titles, but neither were really great. You'd never speak of them in the same breath as the titles listed above, for example, especially if you weren't already a massive Star Trek fan.
Which leads me to the question: why hasn't there been a truly great Star Trek game? It's not for want of trying; there have been dozens of titles based on the franchise released over the decades, for nearly every platform and spanning genres from FPS to RTS to adventure games. It's not for the lack of an audience, either; Star Trek is one of the world's best-loved series, with millions of fans across all four corners of the globe.
I think it's all to do with, well, Star Trek itself. To be truly great, a licensed game needs to do more than appeal to fans of the franchise. It needs to appeal to people as a game, not just a Star Trek game. And no Star Trek title has managed to do that.
For the non-Trekkie, the casual observer, a game based on a fictional universe needs a strong fiction to support it. And I don't think, for the average consumer, Star Trek can cut it compared with other science fiction franchises (or their standout games). Allow me to explain with a few examples.
There's Too Much Talking
It's no coincidence the best Star Trek game ever made was an adventure title, as talking and problem-solving is what the franchise spends most of its time doing. Yet still, year after year, developers and publishers release Star Trek games based on action. No! The action in Star Trek is boring! Why would you base first-person shooters in a universe where gunplay is one of its least exciting aspects?
Developers should have taken more cues from 25th Anniversary – and the source material itself – and focused their games on what Star Trek does best. If space battles are as dependent upon squeezing out more juice from some system, or rerouting power from something else to some gun, then think of a game that capitalises on that. A Star Trek puzzle game, if you will.
Or, failing that, another chatty adventure game.
Midway vs Jutland
Star Trek's space combat is limited by the way the universe portrays the exchanges. Where space combat in series like Battlestar Galactica, Macross or Star Wars is based on the naval battles of the Second World War (a blend of ship-to-ship combat and carrier fighter attacks), in Star Trek it's mostly (with some rare exceptions) just ship to ship. No fighters.
So you lose the immediacy and fun that comes from being a fighter jock. You lose the excitement, that "I can take on the whole Empire myself" sense of individual heroism. Any game recreating the ship-to-ship combat of Star Trek must take a step back, like Bridge Commander did, and focus on the management of a larger craft.
Which isn't anywhere near as much fun.
It's Too Clean
With its crisp uniforms and clean haircuts and insistence on focusing on the peace-loving Federation, there's little room for a darker side to the Star Trek universe. Yet the darker side of a universe can often be the most entertaining. Smugglers, hookers, mercenaries, drug dealers; if you're making a game set on foot, like an RPG or a shooter, these kind of people and places can add much-needed depth and variety to your game.
Take the recent Mass Effect 2, for example. That entire game is spent on the messier fringes of the galaxy, as you shack up with species-eradicating monsters, psychopathic criminals and crackpot vigilantes. Could you attract such a range of colourful characters from a Star Trek setting? No. The worst it could manage is some annoying aliens at a bar.
This extends to Star Trek's individual characters. Where can you find a real, proper badass in the Star Trek universe? Someone you can build a game around, who has an interesting past or story you can thrust into the limelight?
Because Star Trek Is Dorky
There's a reason the latest Star Trek film served as a "reboot" of the franchise: Star Trek had become a 21st century embarrassment. The franchise had grown stale, dated, and the once-mighty legions of Trekkies were in decline. It's inability to move on from the tone and politics of a serialised TV sci-fi of the 1960's had become a serious problem, one that lady captains and a show set on a space station instead of a space ship couldn't solve.
No game based on Star Trek, no matte how well developed, could overcome this. If the TV series looked and felt dated, then any games based on them would suffer the same fate.
Because Video Games Do It Better
I've heard people complain Mass Effect is simply BioWare's take on Star Wars, but that's way off. With its focus on intergalactic politics and inter-species relations, it's much closer to Star Trek. Except it does it better.
It has a more contemporary feel to it. It has, I think at least, a more mature, consistent visual style. Its politics have some weight to them, and its universe is a more believable, well-rounded one than Star Trek's vision of crew cuts and bad guys.
It's a little sad when a series inspired so heavily by Star Trek is able to so easily outperform it, but that's what the world has come to. Or, at least, had come to…
Because The New Movie Is Awesome
So Star Trek was boring? It was irrelevant? Its characters lacked depth? Those are all criticisms I would level at the "old" Star Trek. As in, anything that came before the 2009 film. The "new" Star Trek, however? I love it. Love it to bits. The characters had depth. They had humour. There was, for the first time in its life, some real grunt to the series, a real sense of weight and grit to the universe. It had finally, finally stepped away from cardboard TV sets and into a "real" world.
Sadly, cameos aside there have been no (proper) games based on the new film. Which may, in light of my incessant complaining above, seem like a bad thing, a missed chance to make amends by building a game on stronger foundations.
But really, it's a good thing. It shows some restraint. That after forty years of under-performing Star Trek games, when a game is released based on JJ Abram's take on the universe, it may actually do the same thing for Star Trek games that the 2009 reboot did for the films.