A light sim that takes us boldly into the final frontier, but leaves a lot left to explore.
Stepping onto the bridge of the USS Aegis in Star Trek: Bridge Crew is a dream come true for a lot of Trek fans. It lets you experience the fantasy of manning a Federation starship with three of your friends (or solo, awkwardly), and like most multiplayer VR games it’s hilarious to mess around with as you learn how things work. But by the time I gained beyond a cadet’s level of understanding of its systems, it became clear that there’s virtually no depth to this simulation.
The attention to detail on the two bridge sets is great, from the captain’s chair to the consoles and the viewscreen. Some liberties are taken with the Aegis’ control panels to make them more video game-friendly than what we see in the modern Trek movies, but the Original Series Enterprise bridge is impressively accurate. I wish I could get up and wander around the bridge – or the entire ship, really – and take it all in, but you’re unfortunately glued to your seat in one of the four positions.
Using the virtual touch-screen controls in front of you feels awesome – while you can play with a gamepad if you don’t have Oculus Touch, Vive, or PlayStation Move controllers, you’d be missing out on a big part of the experience of reaching out and touching Star Trek. Considering there’s no panel there in real life it feels a little more like Minority Report’s holographic controls than Star Trek, but that’s cool too. The one thing I found frustrating was the captain’s chair buttons, which are clustered together so closely that it’s easy to accidentally call a Red Alert when you’re trying to answer a hail.
Bridge Crew isn’t really about serious simulation in the first place.
Character models and effects (like the fires that start around the bridge when you take damage) are a lot less attractive than the ship itself and don’t do much to help immersion. But Bridge Crew isn’t really about serious simulation in the first place – it feels more like an elaborate theme park ride. Sure, you can do some hardcore roleplaying if you like, but in my experience playing with both friends and random matches the mood on the bridge quickly becomes that of a comedy. Especially during the first couple of times playing through the handful of available half-hour missions, Bridge Crew is a little bit magical – it’s like living out a classic Star Trek blooper reel where Scotty forgets to turn on the warp drive, Chekov can’t figure out how the shields work, and Spock’s head turns around almost 180 degrees.
Because many of the basic work of operating a starship is made up of multi-part tasks, elements of which are divided between stations, there has to be a fair amount of interplay between crewmembers. The engineer has to charge warp coils before the helmsman can engage, the tactical officer has to scan an anomaly so the helmsman knows whether to avoid it, and whoever’s operating the transporter can call out how much longer they need the shields to remain down. That creates good roleplaying moments even among people who aren’t into that sort of thing. (Nerdy side note: for all of the technical accuracy in this game it’s bewildering that it refers to short warp jumps between locations in the same solar system as “impulse.” That’s not how that works!)
However, communication is frequently interfered with by some unreliable Uplay voice chat, which has a really bad habit of cutting out seemingly at random, causing a lot of “What was that? You cut out after ‘Set course for…’” and “I can’t hear anybody right now. Just gesture at me if you need more power.” Talking with the same group over Discord was flawless, though Bridge Crew won’t let you completely mute the in-game chat. That makes it basically impossible to use an alternate VOIP service. The silver lining is that Uplay allows you to play with any Bridge Crew owner, be they on Oculus, Vive, or PSVR.
Combat is disappointingly simple, and that’s most of what you do.
About 80% of what you’re doing in Bridge Crew’s missions is combat with Klingon ships, or trying to steer around enemies in low-power mode to avoid detection. And while it’s not always easy to win, it’s disappointingly simple, especially relative to older Star Trek combat simulations like Bridge Commander or Starfleet Command. There’s no need to rotate through phaser arcs as they charge because there’s only one. You don’t have to keep your strongest shields toward the enemy or try to hit their weakest ones because there’s only one shield strength number for your whole ship (and there’s no way for the engineer to recharge them in combat, either). There are few enemy ship types to deal with and no significant difference in how to handle them: scan them, disrupt their systems (which can disable shields, weapons, or engines for a few moments), and fire away. The most complexity I’ve seen is when you disable a larger Warbird’s weapons while going after a smaller Bird of Prey to quickly reduce the number of enemies firing at you. And in multi-ship battles, there’s no way to coordinate with other Starfleet ships, so you can’t even prioritize targets effectively.
Another issue is that most of the job of combat falls on the helm and tactical positions: helm steers and keeps enemies in your 180-degree phaser arc while tactical scans and fires phasers and torpedoes. The captain, meanwhile, has very little to do except shout out ideas for what they should do and hope the crew feels like following orders. Even when you answer a hail and talk to an ally or enemy captain on screen, there’s never a dialogue choice or decision to be made. The engineer has the job of allocating power to different systems, at least, but that station doesn’t even have a sensor screen to see what’s going on (presumably so that you have to listen for your crewmates calling out for more power). You also have to repair systems, but that involves little more than a lot of watching progress bars fill up, with no opportunity to feel like a miracle worker.
If there’s so little for each player to do, it seems like a missed opportunity to not have minigames of some kind to pass the time while those progress bars fill up, such as subsystem targeting, transporter lock-on, or system repair – all of which have been represented on screen in various Star Trek movies and episodes.
You can play everything completely in single-player.
You can, of course, play everything completely in single-player, or with less than four, by jumping between seats and giving broad commands to an AI crew. It’s totally playable, and I was able to beat most of the campaign solo, but I’ve found that going in with any less than two makes the power and systems juggling required in combat and especially stealth a hassle. I was detected a number of times because my helmsman wasn’t smart enough to avoid an enemy ship on his own. It’s also a shame the AI crew won’t respond to voice commands (you have to use a contextual menu to give them orders) though Ubisoft says there will soon be an experimental trial using IBM’s Watson technology to allow them to respond to conversational orders.
After the campaign are the Continuing Voyages, which are randomized versions of the same defend, rescue, and research missions. The randomization doesn’t add much to it, though – even though you’re warping to different locations on the star map you’re still only ever going to find one of a few different types of encounters when you arrive there. And while some of them have pitched battles with three or four Starfleet ships going at it with even more Klingons or pirates, others have next to nothing between you and the anticlimactic ending. These are getting old quickly, and playing as the TOS Enterprise bridge doesn’t help – I love the nostalgia and loyal depiction, but using the old physical switches to navigate and target enemies is just a worse way to play.
There have also been some bugs, which I will describe in terms Star Trek fans can understand. One, which I call the The Next Phase bug, froze our controls while a Federation ship fought Klingons on its own. Both ships were unaware of us until one player dropped, snapping us back into reality. In another, our captain’s sensor screen showed Klingon warships directly ahead, but the helmsman and tactical officer showed clean scopes. He was declared to be hallucinating and removed from command (which you can’t actually do, so we all quit out to the menu and restarted). Let’s call this one the Shore Leave bug.