Even when my Star Trek fandom was in its infancy, I loved Star Trek: Armada. At the same time, I’ve always been creeped out about it. It’s not just the usual thing of witnessing the Borg as a kid in the show and the game, which apparently left quite a few today-adult Trekkies scarred for life from what I’ve seen and heard in recent times (and this game is VERY Borg-centric), it’s pretty much the entire atmosphere and some subtle little details both intentional and accidental. And this is why I’d argue that part of what makes Armada so good is that it’s so wrong.
Even though the graphics were done in the time when every 3D RTS looked pathetic compared to other genres due to the need to display lots of objects at once, the visual style is what makes this one stand out. Each map has one invisible light source object in the center of the map, and is positioned in a rather gloomy and ominous way, often colored so the battlefie… battlespace is either in a sunset-like light or covered in the same colors as the dominant nebulae on the map. The textures are understated, and nebulae swarm the maps. Some ships have somewhat erroneous appearances (e.g. Nebula-class ships have circular saucers instead of oval-shaped ones). It starts to feel as if a horror film character was thrown into a world alike the one they know, but small details start going wrong and they wonder if something larger is looming.
Unless you’ve watched the hands-down biggest spoiler in the history of video game intros (it goes well into the second half of the game!), you’ll witness a perpetual rise in tension and dip in hope. Star Trek rarely does any high-risk storylines that would imperil the Alpha Quadrant races. Here’s the first detour from that – a time-traveling Federation ship called the Premonition (in the mission called Premonitions because symbolism) warns Captain Picard of a Borg incursion that overran the quadrant. Albeit reluctant to disobey Starfleet regulations and involve himself with changing the timeline, Picard listens to these omens and investigates the initial attack location. And is almost late, as the Borg have already arrived and, uncharacteristically for them, left an outpost standing but assimilated the crews of the defending ships. Meanwhile, as the Klingons fight amongst themselves in yet another power struggle, they have to fight the Romulans… and the Borg. Then, the Ferengi discover the Omega Particle, an unstable substance that can be used as a nigh-infinite source of energy, the Romulans grab it before the Ferengi sell it to the Cardassians, and poof – the Borg arrive, since they deem it close to perfection and will try to claim it at any cost.
Yes, as said before, the Borg are quite central in this game’s storyline. And they are not the pansies they became in Voyager, no sir! They spread their presence quickly and intensely, their ships are powerful and eerily sluggish, their innumerable voices set bones aquiver, and their race-specific soundtrack can only be described as dark and cybernetic (I will never understand which combination of instruments, software, and samples resulted in that) with its wailing samples as if there are lost souls in the Collective aimlessly crying out for help - Trekkies will know each drone is fully aware of its deeds, but is unable to control itself. To add insult to injury, they capture a Dominion cloning facility, somehow obtain Federation DNA sample archive, clone Picard and assimilate him to the (mostly) same Locutus from The Next Generation. Although he would canonically have little use since his character from the series was a misled attempt by the Borg to convince humans to submission (and, of course, steal his knowledge), Locutus in this game is cold evil – none of that “we wish to raise quality of life for all species” bollocks. He isn’t much of a commander, more of an agent in Armada, and serves as a good demonstration of the new-found Borg sadism. What Picard knew at the time of assimilation, he knew. Just when the Klingons and Romulans were set to negotiate a peace treaty, the Borg assimilated Ambassador Spock who was supposed to lead the talks before he had a chance to arrive to the conference.
All Borg soundtrack files from the game. The longer ones from 2:53 onwards were used in non-cutscene gameplay, and boy, did that set the tone!
This entire storyline did not even reach its most grim part. On a fresh playthrough, you will only see four campaign menus, the last one being, you guessed it, the Borg one. The last mission? Assimilation of Earth. You, the player, are the one who gets to do what is otherwise unthinkable in any other licensed Star Trek game – obliterate of the Federation stronghold in the Sol system, and witness the succeeding silent cutscene that shows how a mere 3 days later, the entire Earth is mercilessly covered in dark metallic constructs. Worf is dead, the Klingons and Romulans never came to help, and the Premonition is destroyed or assimilated. Nothing in Star Trek was ever so bleak and hopeless.
Licensing agreements wouldn’t allow that (remember, Star Trek: Elite Force had the Holomatch mode instead of a regular deathmatch theme to bypass the limitation that prevented any canon characters from dying), so the game goes “PSYCHE! There’s a secret fifth campaign now!”, and you get to fight as the Federation-Klingon-Romulan alliance in a new altered timeline, even redoing the last Borg mission from the Federation perspective. Even in that resurrection of hope, everything is still at risk as nothing short of retaliation against the Borg in their own space is apparently an option. Seeing just the flagships and one construction ship each per race in Borg-infested territory would’ve felt suicidal if it weren’t a mere real-time strategy game with delayed AI attack triggers, but if you have any feelings towards Trek, you’re well beyond the immersion point by then.
While the game does end happily, with Unimatrix 001[sic] wrecked, Locutus killed, and all canon characters very much alive and well, the player has already been tossed and turned throughout the storyline. The audio-visual experience still left a mark, and the otherwise amazing soundtrack (righteous Federation fanfare, Klingon battle compositions, moody Romulan meandering, and skin-crawling Borg voices) set the shifting nature of the story’s tone perfectly, even if the handful of tracks are looped and similar in theme within each race.
The narrative in the game’s 20 (not 16 as it would initially lead you to believe, heh) missions wouldn’t win many awards on its own, but even in the otherwise superb gaming year of 2000, I’d have personally given Star Trek: Armada accolades for worldbuilding and setup. It’s a shame that this was the second-last game ever directly developed by Activision (the last one was Call to Power II released months later), and the 2001 sequel that came out of Mad Doc Software, who gave a helping hand in the first one, did not even marginally reach the amount of suspense that the original Armada had.
(Note because I KNOW you will ask: to run the game on modern systems, get the official 1.2 patch, then the unofficial 1.3 patch, then this modified DirectDraw wrapper. You’ll even get modern resolutions in the settings menu, I tried it myself with 1920x1080).