Star Trek: The Next Generation -- Birth of the Federation
June 25, 1999
(IDG) -- Anyone who's familiar with MicroProse's Master of Orion series--or even Civilization, to some extent--will see that Birth of the Federation is of the same breed. Much of this turn-based strategy game is about exploration and control, but not necessarily conquest, of the known universe.
Players control one of the five major powers of the Star Trek: The Next Generation era: the human-centric Federation, the Klingon Empire, the Ferengi Alliance, the Cardassian Union, or the Romulan Star Empire. Each of these powers has a unique advantage based on its rather two-dimensional traits from the show.
The Federation is a multiplanetary power that believes in equality and fairness, and its major advantage is diplomacy. The Klingons are a race of powerful warriors who will often use conquest as the means to victory. The Cardassians, who are basically the "new Klingons" in the series, are raised to be highly efficient, and therefore have an advantage in production. The Romulans are highly secretive; thus, their ships have cloaking technology and they are excellent spies. And the latinum-loving Ferengi are the best traders; they can even set up trade routes with minor powers without treaties.
In BOF, players begin with a single system and must build colony ships and send them out to found new colonies, while making contact with other races. The game uses a pop-up menu that allows players to access several management screens, including the map screen, which is the heart of the game--the place where ship movement and trade lines are controlled.
The pop-up menu also provides access to the production screen, where players control what each planetary colony is building and how resources and labor are used. Production points that are allocated to building a new structure or ship can also be used for research, which is controlled in the research screen (also accessed via the pop-up window).
Finally, there's a screen for handling diplomacy between the other major Star Trek races and the dozens of minor races that players encounter over the course of the game. Unlike Master of Orion, or even Civilization, diplomacy isn't the core aspect of BOF, though it is important. It does play a critical role for the Federation power, but is much less of a priority for the battle-ready Klingons or all-conquering Cardassians.
While these two races, along with the Romulans and even the Ferengi, may have some diplomatic contact with the minor powers (even demanding tribute or territory), the Klingons and the Cardassians aren't naturally diplomatic--something the designers obviously realized when making the game. Since the Klingons are a military power, and thus most likely to win the game through conquest, the only diplomatic action they're likely to take is to declare war.
The diplomacy model also doesn't really convey the power that the Federation has in The Next Generation, in which powers were lining up to join. In the game, it seems as if the Federation player has to offer money and practically give away the stars to get powers to join, even when they're being threatened by other major powers.
Worse yet, the AI really doesn't play the Federation or any of the races in a way characteristic of how they'd act on the show. For example, when the Klingons are pressed hard in BOF, they will sue for peace--effectively saying, "We are beaten, but there will be another day." Huh? On the series, Chancellor Gowron would proclaim, "We are Klingons--we will fight to the last warrior!" And since when did the Federation ever demand tribute? Only in this game, anyway.
Diplomatic actions and battles are resolved at the beginning of each new turn. Players can respond to incoming diplomatic transmissions, agreeing to new treaties and trade offers or even changing the tone of subsequent outgoing replies.
Battles between enemy fleets are fought in a turn-based mode, in which players provide orders to individual ships and then watch that mini-turn play out before giving the next set of orders or turning and warping out. Players can also watch the battle over again in either segments or as a complete action, with a rotatable camera view.
The game's graphics are true to the series, but not necessary the spirit of the Star Trek universe. While the designers did a good job creating menus and screens that are really appropriate to each race, nothing changes over time. It's as if time stands still and there's no progress. While this is understandable in menus, it's far less forgivable in ship designs.
All the ships look like they're from the Next Generation era of Trek, rather than various points in the Trek timeline. Even at the start of the game, you see Klingon birds of prey and Romulan warbirds instead of the earlier ships from the original series. This is clearly because the game's license is only for Next Generation; but given that the designers had to create some generic ships for BOF, couldn't they have built some alternate versions of the earlier warships as well?
BOF's sound effects are consistent with the show, even if there's really no sound in space. Players will hear from the captains of their fleets in battle, and will receive diplomatic offers from the major powers, whose tone gives a clue as to their morale and how dire the current situation may be.
Much of the game's music is pretty generic, and you don't get different themes for the different races (alas, there's no Klingon opera to keep the warriors happy). But the music is on par with that of the series, though it doesn't have any central theme that is repeated.
Birth of the Federation may best Master of Orion in terms of history and background, but overall, there's not enough new features to make it better, or even worse, than MOO or MOO II.
Nevertheless, Star Trek does have a history that its fans know well. Anyone familiar with the show knows what to expect from a Klingon, or even one of the countless minor powers. With each of these, you easily know what you are getting, which really makes for a more compelling game--much more so than one with races that you've never heard of. Even mild fans of Star Trek should see that this bonus alone is worth a ton of minor game tweaks.
And where else can you crush the goodie-goodie Federation and its stupid Prime Directive game after game?
Episode I: The racing game!
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