Star Trek: New Horizons

Here's something that I've never done before: a review of a game mod! I don't play mods very often. When I play games, I usually want to play the game that the creators created in order to get a feel for what their intent might have been. For some of the more sandboxy PC games that I play (like Cities: Skylines or the like), I might try some small mods.

There has yet to be an official game quite like Microprose's 1999 release, Birth of the Federation.

For this one instance, however, I'm making an exception because this particular mod fills a very specific niche desire for me that has gone unfulfilled for around 15 or 20 years. The "New Horizons" mod for Stellaris is finally allowing me to play a full 4-x strategy game set in the Star Trek universe. I haven't been able to do that since Star Trek: Birth of the Federation, developed by Microprose for Windows 98!

The creators seem to have been inspired by BotF.

Yes, there have been other Star Trek mods for other games in the past, and there's even some community projects to create spiritual successors to Birth of the Federation (such as Star Trek: Supremacy). The problem is that I've yet to ever see one of these get finished. "New Horizons" for Stellaris is still a work-in-progress, but it is mostly functionally complete and fairly robust. Since Birth of the Federation holds such a special place in my heart, I'm going to take a stab at reviewing "New Horizons" and see how it compares to my personal favorite [official] Star Trek game of all time.

Built on the back of Stellaris

"New Horizons" is, of course, a mod for the PC game Stellaris (developed and published by Paradox). Because of this, it takes advantage of most of Stellaris' strengths, but it is also hamstrung by many of Stellaris' faults.

"New Horizons" makes excellent use of the massive size and scale of Stellaris' maps by featuring a detailed recreation of the canon Star Trek galaxy, and including a surprisingly exhaustive roster of Star Trek races and factions -- all of whom are playable. Yes, of course, the big players like the Federation, the Romulans, Klingons, Cardassians, Ferengi, Dominion, and Borg are all here. As are all the expected ancillary empires like the Gorn, Tholians, Orions, and so forth.

The playable roster is surprisingly vast and exhaustive.

It doesn't end there, though. This mod also features a crap-ton of "aliens of the week" as fully-featured, playable empires. They aren't "minor races" like what we had in Birth of the Federation or the city states of Civilization V or VI. They don't just have one planet and a handful of ships just waiting for a "major faction" to conquer or absorb them. The obvious choices like the Vulcans, Andorians, Bajorans, are all there. The game also features empires like the Sheliak, Anticans, Selay, Caitian, Cheron, Dosi, Hirogen, Kazon, Krenim, Kelpian, and more! If you have a favorite space-facing civilization from any episode of Star Trek (including Gamma Quadrant aliens from DS9 and Delta Quadrant aliens from Voyager), there is a very good chance that it's a playable faction in "New Horizons"...

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Star Trek: Discovery

I finally sat down and binged the second half of Star Trek: Discovery's first season. I was actually excited to see it (not excited enough to sign up for CBS's All Access service), since it looked like the mirror universe twist would take the show in new and creative directions, and might even establish that Discovery would be a sort-of anthology series after all.

Boy, was I disappointed.

I was initially excited to see Discovery's mirror universe episodes.

Stakes feel artificial and exaggerated

The mirror universe storyline didn't feel like it was new or creative at all. In fact, it felt like it was retreading a lot of territory that Star Trek has covered before. Except now, they are supercharging it with stupid.

Once again, I'm not going to fuss about the show being aesthetically different from the original series. Such complaints are mostly pedantic. You can't use the same 1960's aesthetics from the original series and expect the show to look futuristic to modern audiences. I can overlook the shiny touch displays, the redesigned ships, the new Klingon makeup, the holographic communications, and things like that. I'm a bit less willing to overlook details like the insignia badge, but whatever.

I was actually a little bit excited to see the mirror universe in the second half of Discovery. After all, the mirror universe episodes of Enterprise were some of the most fun that series ever allowed itself to have. Granted, it was super fan-servicey and silly, but it had that campy charm that helped make the original series so successful. Discovery does not have any camp, or any charm.

Enterprise's "In a Mirror, Darkly" got away with its silly fan service by being charmingly-campy.

What I can't tolerate are the major anachronisms like the Klingons having cloaking devices ten years before Balance of Terror, fifteen years before The Time Trap, and twenty-eight years (give or take) before The Search for Spock. Yes, I also complained about the Romulans already having a cloaking device in Star Trek: Enterprise as well.

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Star Trek Ascendancy 50th anniversary edition

As I had mentioned in my Star Trek: Fleet Captains review, good Star Trek games are few and far between. Perhaps my favorite Trek game of all time is the Windows '98 4-x strategy game Birth of the Federation. BotF, developed my Microprose, was basically a Trek reskin of Master of Orion II. It was buggy, had cheating A.I., suffered from a major memory leak that slowed the game to a crawl after about 100 turns of play, and it didn't include any Original Series ships or technologies. But it did manage to faithfully capture Star Trek's spirit of exploration and discovery by being a game about exploring and colonizing a galaxy.

It wasn't a stripped-down startship combat simulator (Starfleet Command), or a cookie-cutter first-person shooter (Elite Force), or a lazy StarCraft clone (Armada), or an out-of-place dogfighter (Invasion), or a derivative WoW clone (Star Trek: Online). None of those games is terrible. I've played them all, and actually have some rather fond memories with most of them. But none of these games really meshed perfectly with the Star Trek license, and none of them really scratched my Star Trek gaming itch the way that Birth of the Federation did. Apparently, some designers at Gale Force Nine also like Birth of the Federation, because their new board game, Star Trek: Ascendancy, almost feels like a board game version of that classic Trek PC game.

Ascendancy is the first proper 4-x board game using the Star Trek license that I've seen. It certainly blows Fleet Captains out of the water. While Fleet Captains included some token exploration and territory-expansion mechanics as a supplement to the ship-to-ship combat that was the core of the game, Ascendancy is a game that is actually about exploring a procedurally-generated map, colonizing planets, and developing their resources. You can win by conquering other players' home worlds, or by developing your culture up to a specific level.

The final frontier is always in flux

The board of Star Trek: Ascendancy utilizes an interesting and novel modular board. Disk tiles represent planets, systems, and anomalies, each of which is connected by star lanes of varying distances. New systems and star lanes are drawn from a deck as the players explore, and so the board is constantly expanding as you play. It's nothing earth-shatteringly new, but it does have one neat gimmick that I haven't seen in other similar games.

The map will grow and change as the game progresses.

In addition to the board dynamically growing as the game progresses, systems are considered to be "floating" until they become locked in place by being connected to two or more systems via a star lane. This means that leaf systems can be freely rotated around to make room for other tiles to be placed in the play area. I believe this is intended to model the 3-dimensional nature of space. In a more practical sense, it means that the galaxy [map] can (and will) change its shape occasionally, leaving the true distances between locations ambiguous until everything gets locked down.

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Star Trek: Discovery

I finally got around to watching the entire first half of the first season of CBS's Star Trek: Discovery series. I'm running behind on this show since I don't have a CBS All Access subscription. I've been deliberately avoiding information about the post-hiatus episodes, so information and opinions in this post may be outdated by the time I get around to publishing it. Maybe later episodes have resolved some of these complaints. If so, feel free to ignore such comments, or let yourself be giddy with the dramatic irony. Oh, and feel free to comment, even if you do so with spoilers. I won't be offended or upset.

Before I go into the details, I want to at least try to dispel the idea that I'm just an angry fanboy who is butt-hurt that the series doesn't strictly adhere to continuity. That's come up when I've talked about this show to people in person. So I'm not going to spend this review talking about how the Klingons look different. I don't care that they look different. I've already addressed that. It does bother me that the Klingons also seem to be culturally dissimilar to the established Klingons, but I won't harp on that either. I'm not going to complain about how the uniforms and badges are anachronistic. I got that out of my system before the show even launched. I'm not going to complain that the tech looks more advanced than Original Series tech. These complaints are mostly pedantic and silly. In fact, the aesthetic look of the show is actually one of its strengths.

The visual style is one of Discovery's strengths, even though almost all of it is anachronistic.

Instead, I want to talk about how I feel that the show betrays the series' foundation as hard science fiction, and how it actively avoids the very spirit that made the Original Series and Next Generation so beloved.

Discovery isn't optimistic or forward-thinking

I'm going to start with the more important of the two: that Star Trek: Discovery betrays the spirit of Star Trek.

Star Trek became so popular, and remained so culturally relevant, at least in part because it depicted a hopeful, forward-thinking version of humanity's future. People from all over the Earth had mostly set aside their differences and decided to work together so that humanity could explore the galaxy side by side with whoever else was willing to join them. That cooperative mentality allowed us to overcome poverty and tyranny, reduce disease, and provide a post-scarcity quality of life that allowed virtually everyone to live comfortably and happily and to pursue their dreams and aspirations without the burden of having to make ends meet. That is a society that I would want to live in. It is an ideal to strive for.

Star Trek isn't perfect, but it has always provided an ideal to strive for.

That isn't to say that every series, movie, and episode of Star Trek has to have everybody getting along all the time and living happily ever after. Some of the best works within the Star Trek IP are good because they challenge the series' own lofty ideals. Star Trek VI: the Undiscovered Country (my personal favorite film in the franchise) explored how years of conflict with the Klingons had made Kirk and his crew (and the top brass at Starfleet) bitter and borderline racist. Episodes like TNG's "Chain of Command" showed that Starfleet was still willing to conduct clandestine acts, and "I, Borg" exposed that Starfleet was still willing to de-humanize those who it labeled as "others". Heck almost the entire series Deep Space Nine revolved around challenging the Federation's ideas of religious tolerance, economics, the balance between security and individual liberty, and the desire to maintain peace when confronted with an enemy who desires only war. The creators of Voyager were probably intending to similarly challenge Trek's ideals when they stranded the ship on the opposite end of the galaxy, far from the support of Starfleet, and replaced half the crew with Marquis freedom fighters and terrorists. Sadly, that show goes on to mostly drop those concepts and becomes a bland copy-cat of TNG.

Plenty of quality entries in the Star Trek canon have challenged the series' very own ideals.

With all that said, I'm not automatically angry that characters in Discovery are "imperfect", or that they don't get along with each other. My problem is that right from the start, the show can't seem to really decide who these characters are...

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No Man's Sky

After experiencing some annoying performance issues on the PS4 version of Dark Souls III (including a framerate capped at 30 fps), I decided that I'd hold out the extra three days for the PC version of No Man's Sky. I assumed that the keyboard and mouse controls would be more comfortable, since the game is half shooter, half flight-sim. I assumed that the PC version would perform better and look better. And I figure that the game will eventually enjoy a vibrant modding community that is likely impossible to spring up on the PS4, since (as far as I know) the PS4 does not support modding in any way. I, once again, may have been wrong in my choice of platform

In addition to having to wait three extra days for the game to release on PC, I've read a lot of reports of severe problems with the PC version of the game at launch. It simply won't run on certain machines with certain graphics cards. Many rigs have consistent performance issues. My PC is a few years old, but it more than meets the system requirements for the game, yet I've been stuck having to run it on medium graphics settings. Upping the settings to high only results in the game becoming unplayably slow whenever I step into the cockpit of my ship. I'm talking, like half a frame per second, and the game dropping all my inputs. The final insult is that the game breaks when you alt-tab out of it, which prevents you from alt-tabbing back into it. If you alt-tab out, you'll have to kill the process in task manager and restart the app - which, of course, will cause a loss of any progress since the last autosave. So despite having a dual-monitor set-up, I can't alt-tab out to open up podcasts or play some tunes while I warp around the galaxy.

Most of these problems will likely get fixed at some point (and some of them already have), and hopefully I'll be able to run the game at high graphics settings. But in the meantime, if you're interested in playing the game, then the PS4 version is probably the technically superior one right now. Apparently, the PS4 version also has numerous performance issues, including crashes.

Sadly, technical problems are only the beginning of my complaints with this game.

Betraying the naturalist within

Instead of being a game about exploring strange new worlds and discovering exotic wildlife and natural wonders of the universe (as I'd hoped), No Man's Sky turns out to be quite the opposite: a game about conspicuous consumption. The core game loop does not consist of landing on an alien world to explore and catalog the local flora and fauna. Instead, you land your ship in a vibrantly-colored patch of minerals and plants, and you begin strip-mining the site clean. You harvest the raw materials that you'll use to refuel your space ship so that you can warp to the next planet to strip its resources for more fuel.

No Man's Sky - cataloging alien life
The incentives to catalog alien life feel extrinsicly-imposed and not a natural part of the core game experience.

Actually seeking out and cataloging the local wildlife takes a backseat - if you even bother to do it at all. The game isn't about that. There's nothing in the core gameplay loop or narrative that actually sets the game up to be about cataloging alien life. The only reason that the player has to even bother with scanning and analyzing is because you're rewarded with in-game currency for scanning stuff, even though there's no in-game reason (that I could discern) for why you would be getting paid to catalog alien life or who it is that's putting the money in your account. It all feels so thoroughly divorced from the rest of the game, and the money feels like an extrinsic incentive that is imposed from outside the scope of actual gameplay. In fact, I don't know why the game would have an in-game reason for why you would get paid to catalog stuff. After all, these planets are all already known by somebody in the game universe - they have space stations in every star systems and colony modules and trading posts on every planet long before you ever get there to "discover" them. So not only does cataloging life feel like an extrinsically-imposed mechanic, even this process of "discovering" feels completely fake and artificial...

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Welcome to Mega Bears Fan's blog, and thanks for visiting! This blog is mostly dedicated to game reviews, strategies, and analysis of my favorite games. I also talk about my other interests, like football, science and technology, movies, and so on. Feel free to read more about the blog.

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