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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".

Many "aliens of the week" will develop extensive and powerful empires.

"New Horizons" retains the sense of exploration and discovery that Stellaris is so good at recreating. Your science ships will go out and survey planets, explore anomalies, complete quests, and meet new civilizations just like they do in the base Stellaris campaigns. I wish there were a map option that put certain major planets and empires in the canonical relative position, but then would randomize the content of the galaxy between them. This would maintain a lot of the politics of Star Trek, while still providing some mystery in repeat playthroughs.

With the galaxy so crammed with factions, the map fills up very quickly, and diplomatic contact-sharing will usually result in most of the galaxy being uncovered very early. For example, contact-sharing allowed the Federation in the game to make contact with (and reveal the territory of) Delta Quadrant races before the year 2200 (between the events of Enterprise and Original Series). This happens despite the fact that ships move much slower than in the base Stellaris game, so your science ships can't get very far. Perhaps the ability to share diplomatic contact should be removed or locked behind some mid-game technology?

Sharing diplomatic contacts allows distant factions to be met much earlier than they should.

2.0 doesn't entirely ruin it!

One of the best things about the mod is that it retains the original warp drive mechanics that were stripped out by Stellaris 2.0! Other changes do have an effect on "New Horizons", though. One 2.0 change that is incorporated into the mod is the new Starbase and border mechanics that require a Starbase to be constructed over every single star in order to claim territory. Yeah sure, the original territory mechanic was a bit obtuse and resulted in some ugly borders, but I preferred it overall because it made Starbases feel like much more significant installations. Plus, I liked being able to build my Starbases over planets instead of the stars.

"New Horizons" maintains the original warp drive, even after updating to 2.0!

If you don't like the 2.0 changes, you can revert to a 1.9 version. This is a bit more complicated and involved than reverting the core game by itself. You also need older mod packages for "New Horizons". I was able to get it to run, but the U.I. mods wouldn't work with 1.9, and I had to disable them all.

Paradox is infamous for making massive revisions to their games that change mechanics as well as game balance, and which sometimes render certain play-styles unplayable. Unless the modders explicitly undo such revisions (or you can find another mod that undoes the revision), you're stuck with either having to revert to a previous version of the game (and possibly find an earlier version of the mod that is compatible with it), or just live with whatever annoying changes the Paradox devs make.

How do I expand the Federation without a
"Liberation" casus belli or ability to lay claims?

One such change that frustrated me is the apparent removal of the "Liberation" casus belli. This (as far as I can tell) makes it impossible for peaceful or democratic factions (such as the Federation) to further expand once the map is filled-in during the mid-game, unless a rival declares war on them. Now, I can't liberate allies that are conquered or act as a "galactic police", trying to maintain a balance of power. It's just one of many changes that Paradox makes to its games that just completely baffles me.

"New Horizons" is hamstrung by some of Stellaris' annoying diplomacy and management mechanics. Factions generally have very polarized opinions of each other. They either like you and are willing to give you anything you ask for, or they don't like you and refuse almost any deal you offer them. You can't co-ordinate military actions or ask for allies to send fleets to specific positions.

New Horizons doesn't give you any more control over space battles than you have in Stellaris.

You also still can't negotiate for open borders or to allow passage for your Science ships, which means that science ships can still get stranded behind foreign borders or locked out of completing quests that appear in unfriendly territory, with no way to negotiate for access.

Science ships themselves still can't explore systems unless they have a scientist assigned to them, which means there's not much reason to not just go ahead and survey. There's also still a hard line between science ships and military fleets, meaning that your fleets of starships have absolutely nothing to do when you aren't at war. You can't send them off to explore or survey new worlds. I really wish Stellaris would allow you to use military ships and science ships without scientists to explore new worlds, and only require the scientist for surveying and research.

You have little control over espionage.

Internal politics can also be annoying. Unrest is very problematic for certain empires, and frequent elections can still result in your experienced leaders and scientists suddenly vanishing in order to be your faction's leader.

Perhaps the biggest problem, however, is the sometimes-frustrating lack of control. You still have no control over combat, have very little (if any) influence over your espionage activities, and technologies that you want can become buried under randomized selections. All this is still true in "New Horizons".

The Star Trek skin

Anyway, enough re-reviewing of Stellaris (for my full opinions on Stellaris, check out my review). So what does "New Horizons" actually bring to the table?

Well, the most obvious thing is going to be all the ships. As you progress through the eras, you'll unlock the ability to build a number of Star Trek ships. The Federation's initial science ship, for instance, is modeled after the Franklin from Star Trek: Beyond, a Patrol Frigate is based on an early Earth ship depicted in the title sequence of Star Trek: Enterprise, the Destroyer is based on the NX-01 model, and so forth. As you progress through the eras, these ships will transition into period-specific counterparts. As you approach an Original Series level of technology, the NX-01 Destroyer will be revised into a custom ship that resembles an Original Series equivalent of the Miranda class Reliant. Eventually, you'll get Constitution Class Cruisers and then eventually Galaxy class ones, with Miranda and Excelsior class vessels filling in the lighter ship roles.

Ship designs will evolve as the eras progress and your technology advances.

Other factions will have similar period-specific ships, though the lack of continuity for other races during all the eras of Star Trek means that the designers got to take a lot of artistic license. For example, what would a TOS era Ferengi or Cardassian cruiser look like? Well, the developers don't actually have an answer to that one yet, but they plan to add era-specific ships for more factions in the future. Even familiar races like the Klingons and Romulans have a lot of original ship designs, such as the double-decker Enterprise-era Romulan cruisers that look like a hybrid of the TOS Bird of Prey and the TNG Warbird, by way of simply stacking two birds of prey on top of each other.

Era-specific alien ship designs gave the designers a lot of leeway for artistic license.

The writers even created a little story explaining why Romulan ships in Enterprise era have the familiar green color and curves of TNG-era Romulan designs, but they switch over to the white aesthetics of the Original Series. Oh Star Trek fans, always making up convoluted ad hoc explanations for retro-active continuity... How charming.

There's also a lot of ship designs for minor races such as the Vulcans, Andorians, Kazon, and so forth. Only some minor factions have unique ships. A lot of the rest of the races use one of a handful of generic-looking ship models. Regardless, the amount of content that was created for this mod is pretty impressive, and everything that I've seen looks quite good. There are some original designs that I don't particularly care for (the aforementioned Enterprise-era Romulan Cruiser for example), but everything looks well-made, and the mod as a whole is very well-polished.

"Minor races" have unique ship designs as well.

Each faction also has its own unique combination of Tradition trees to give them a little more flavor and varying playstyles. I'm not sure if these are just re-purposed versions of the base game's various Tradition trees, or if the mod designers created new trees. For example, the Federation has trees for exploration, scientific discovery, colonization, diplomacy, and more. The Cardassians, on the other hand, have trees focused around military conquest, the subjugation and enslavement of other races, industry, intelligence networks, and so on.

Starting to feel "Episodic"

The modders have even redesigned some of the familiar events from Stellaris and given them a Star Trek overhaul. Whole new events have been added that provide situations based on episodes of the show, complete with several stages of choices. In many cases, these events can be trivially easy to resolve if you're even remotely familiar with the source material. I know how to escape the Pakled's "Samaritan Snare", for instance. But choosing to resolve these events in different ways can sometimes lead to surprising and creative surprises.

Events often mirror familiar episodes of the show.

Familiar events and situations are also scripted to happen at certain times or under certain conditions. The formation of the Federation, for instance, is scripted to happen. Unfortunately, it happens rather quickly in the game and without any real active involvement from the respective factions. This means that there's never any sense of there being conflict between the Vulcans, Andorians, and Tellarites. If you start the game as the Romulans, for instance, there's little point in trying to use the Tal'shiar to sabotage relations between Earth, Vulcan, and Andor, because they're going to form the Federation no matter what.

My playthrough of the Federation on the Milky Way story campaign even had me dealing with the whale probe from The Voyage Home, the Planet Eater from "The Doomsday Machine", the discovery of the Bajoran wormhole, and many other significant events in Trek history. I even managed to get the original [refit] Enterprise blown up by Klingons. I don't know if all these events happen in the procedurally-generated maps, or if they are limited to the Milky Way story campaign. Of course, the focus on humanity and the Federation within the Star Trek franchise means that your story event mileage may vary depending on the faction that you play.

The Birth of the Federation successor that I've been waiting 20 years for?

"New Horizons" also excels in other areas of production. There's optional mods that you can use to swap out the U.I. to look like Federation LCARS, or Klingon, Romulan, Dominion, Cardassian, or Borg displays. Of course, you have to exit the game and enable the specific U.I. mod that you want.

The soundtrack contains phenomenal medleys of Trek themes.

The soundtrack is an exceptionally-arranged collection of musical medleys from all the Star Trek series and some of the movies that really does a fantastic job of getting the nostalgia juices flowing. It even includes the reboot movie's theme (which I actually quite like) and an arrangement of Picard's "Inner Light" flute solo. Though it does include an arrangement from The Wrath of Khan / Search for Spock, I've yet to pick up any arrangements from The Undiscovered Country, which is my favorite Trek movie score (and favorite Trek film, in general).

It would also be cool if they could throw in some alternate tunes for wartime or battles. A mash-up of tunes like the "Amok Time" fight theme, "Balance of Terror" theme, "Doomsday Machine" theme, or other similarly-recognizable Trek tunes that aren't the theme songs from a series or movie would sound pretty cool backing up my epic space battles. The Star Trek VI overture would be an awesome war-time tune as well! At least throw the instantly-recognizable Klingon theme in there somewhere! Damn, Star Trek has always had some fantastic music...

When I'm in the mood for some Star Trek gaming, and I can't get two-to-four friends together for Star Trek: Ascendancy or Star Trek: Fleet Captains board games, then "New Horizons" will be my go-to game. I'd still like to see an actual licensed Star Trek 4-x video game, but mod or no, "New Horizons" seems to be the most complete and robust Trek video game experience available right now.

I just have to hope that Paradox (in their infinite wisdom) don't update Stellaris and bollock it all up.

The Undiscovered Country overture would make for a great war-time theme.

WHAT I LIKE

  • A 4-x game set in Star Trek universe!
  • Leverages the built-in strengths of Stellaris base game
  • Very content-rich, including era-specific ship designs for many races
  • Large map supports an extensive roster of Star Trek races and factions
  • Soundtrack is an exceptionally-arranged medley of Star Trek themes
  • Scripted events that replicate events or episodes from the series
  • Maintains the warp drive mechanics from the original Stellaris release

WHAT I DON'T LIKE

  • Hamstrung by some of Stellaris' more annoying features
  • Many scripted events are trivially resolved if you've seen the source material
  • Does not do justice to the Romulan cloaking device
  • Glitches involving diplomacy, ship designs, ship ugrades, and more
  • Includes anachronistic content from the reboot movies and ST: Discovery

FINAL GRADE: B+

This is a review for a Mod of the game Stellaris by Paradox Interactive.
See the full review for the Stellaris here.

Developers: Grinsel, Shaggo, Walshicus, Harel, Osito, Zoom, and many contributors
Original release: 20 May, 2016
MSRP: $40 USD (for Stellaris). The mod is free.
Player(s): 32
Official site: https://steamcommunity.com/sharedfiles/filedetails/?id=688086068

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