I was six years old when Star Trek: The Next Generation premiered. For the next seven years, I watched it every Saturday night with my parents and often, during the last two seasons, with my best friend and her parents as well. I was as nerdy as a nerdy child could be, and I loved it.
Star Trek and I parted ways, once middle school and then high school took over. I had too much to do, too many other venues of nerdiness to pursue to keep going over minutiae of the Enterprise-D. My show had gone off the air and while I watched the shows that followed (at least, until halfway through Voyager), my passion had shifted elsewhere.
So for me, a true Star Trek experience is one that taps into my childhood. And during the demo I watched at Namco's booth on Wednesday, I grinned like an absolute loon.
It's JJ Abrams's Star Trek, featuring Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto and Simon Pegg. But that means dry Spock, bold Kirk and charming Scotty on the screen and in the roughly 20 minutes I saw, they looked and sounded tremendous. Admittedly, the demo took place under circumstances that I could never hope to replicate at home. Booth staff handed us each NVIDIA 3D glasses as we entered and milled into seats before a pair of screens that I'm guessing were about 2.4m each. Full surround sound brought us crisp dialogue, plenty of phaser pew-pew and stirring excerpts from Michael Giacchino's 2009 theme.
It's easy to enjoy a game that sails at you looking and sounding that beautiful. But what surprised me was how thoroughly cinematic both cut scenes and controlled segments were, to go with our setting. The game is designed to be a fluid co-op experience, with one player controlling Spock and the other controlling Kirk. Watching both at once on the split screen, I was amazed how well the game made both experiences look and feel like the "main" one.
Spock, of course, is more detail-oriented and forward-thinking than Kirk. He moves through the world scanning places and things with his tricorder, learning, for example, that the dead bodies around him are well and truly dead, and gaining insights into what killed them. Kirk is more likely to try to jump over an abyss where the bridge is out, rather than pressing the button that extends the bridge controls. The two have to work as a team in order for either to advance.
Watching them fight together (and snark together, and solve problems together) was genuinely a pleasure. Combat segments reminded me in many ways of the combat in Mass Effect 3. Spock and Kirk had to use cover to their advantage, apply both skills and aim, and at one point Spock even picked up a temporary heavy weapon from the Gorn ship and used it against them.
The Gorn, by the way? Are scary. This is not Kirk's foam friend. They're quite strong and move quickly — watching the Enterprise crew take them on felt almost like something from Jurassic Park. My overriding impression was that you do not want to screw with these guys if you can help it.
By all rights, this game should be terrible. It's a movie tie-in, bridging together a 2009 film and its 2013 sequel. That's never a good sign. It's using aliens that are best known for being ridiculous foam-rubber suits from the 1960s, another bad sign. And it's the latest entry in a storied franchise that itself is far older than the average gamer, but that tends not to have great luck with video game adaptations. That's strike three.
But from what I saw at E3, Namco seems really to get what makes the new Star Trek tick, and is putting plenty of that in. I can't say if it bogs down around hour 10. I can't tell if the shooting mechanic only works well in one level. I can't observe how the co-op, two-main-character dynamic works when you're solo at home, or if it's well-balanced throughout the game.
In fact, the co-op design is my strongest point of concern with the game. It looks to work perfectly if you've got two players who work together well and want to be playing together well. I'm less sure how it will hold up if you want to play solo, or if your friend is an idiot and I'm wary of most multiplayer narrative experiences.
This demo, though? The Star Trek experience made me really want to find out, with a joy I haven't felt Trek inspire in me in something like fifteen years. The characters are there, the art is there, and it seems like the gameplay is there. We get to find out for sure in early 2013.