For much of the 1990s, Star Trek games that were not called 25th Anniversary or A Final Unity had a stigma that they were generally mediocre. At that time, the rights for Star Trek-licensed games were mostly held by Interplay, MicroProse and Simon & Schuster, with the last one being more to blame for this stigma than the other two. Things took a 180° turn in 1999, when three companies, one of them new, became the big three names on the licensee list – MicroProse, who would release the interesting 4X game Birth of the Federation; Activision, who would obtain the license around that time and eventually make the strongest mark in the golden era of Star Trek titles, and finally our publisher star of this retro review – Interplay, who, intentionally or not, raised the bar for Star Trek licensees out of the blue in that same year with Star Trek: Starfleet Command, which turned out to be a series, but also the start of the aforementioned golden era of Star Trek-licensed games.
Starfleet Command is a space simulation, mostly revolving around combat as "peaceful" parts of certain missions involve tedious scanning with one button, and was greatly based on the vintage table-top game Starfleet Battles. There are six available races: the Federation, the Klingons, the Romulans, the Hydrans, the Lyrans, and the Gorn, plus the unplayable Orion Pirates. Each race has its own ship characteristics and weapon specialties, and ships are further categorized from humble frigates to mighty battleships. Whether the player is going through a singleplayer campaign or a single scenario, they can control between 1 and 3 ships from the same race, in-game credits allowing, and shift back-and-forth between them if needed.
Two of my favourite things combined in one screenshot: a destroyer dogfight, and a hellbore doing a nom-nom on enemy shields
All ships have six "sides" on which they have shields, strongly varying loadouts of weapons that can only fire in specific angles, limited power supply depending on the ships’ size and class, crew members who vary in skill levels, tractor beams, transporters, mines, shuttles, and spare parts for when things get hairy.
Each weapon takes a while to reload, and they work best at close range for the most part, so while waiting to fire the next volley, the ship’s "captain"can manoeuvre around their enemy and make tactical decisions to make the next hit count. Do I fire all my remaining phasers at their weakest shield, or do I target the second-weakest with just enough photon torpedoes after I slow down a bit that I don’t hurt my own ship? Will I take advantage of their lowered shields to transport marines to their ship and have them destroy a subsystem or weapon, or just throw a hellbore to end their misery? …you get the idea. There are so many approaches that you can take, and it is quite satisfying to see the debris of a freshly destroyed ship that you outsmarted.
Each ship class has a certain "BPV" number which determines their, for the lack of a better word, value. When selecting ships in skirmish or multiplayer matches, limits to this BPV value can be set, with one great big asterisk incoming - this does not apply as much to the Klingons. Since they are lore-wise poor shipbuilders, their ships in Starfleet Command have a generally lesser BPV value than other races’ ships of the same type – to the point where you can set a skirmish match where the opponent (AI or human) can get ships with the maximum type of, say, war destroyer, the Klingons will choose a standard light cruiser instead, which is one ship type above a war destroyer, which is quite frustrating. That aside, the era in which you play (early, middle or late) will give you different ships to play with, each giving you better ones than the last, but there are some ship classes that will be useless in any point in time and some will be an obvious choice for most missions. The Orion Pirates do not have proper dreadnoughts and battleships, and only became playable and complete in the standalone expansion to the sequel, but each time you encounter them, you will see them having different weapons, which goes with their theme of stealing other races’ wares and putting them on their own ships as they see fit, so if you are still on heavy battlecruisers or weaker, these pirates will keep surprising you.
One of the questions you'll keep asking yourself: will my beefed up light cruiser take on an average heavy cruiser? (The answer is yes).
The singleplayer campaign is played on a tiled map with fixed regions assigned to each race, though wars and peace treaties can change the ownership of individual tiles over time. You start out at your race’s homeworld, which has all the facilities available to you such as the complete shipyard from where you can buy and repair ships with the widest range to choose from, and a menu through which you can hire new staff and distribute them among your ships. With each tile you move away from your homeworld, you get one set of ships and crew to purchase less, and when you’re in enemy territory, you’re very much on your own. You can move between these tiles for a very low cost, so unless you have somehow run out of money, you can always retreat if you need to. But wherever you go, you’ll have missions waiting for you. The Gold Edition of the game, which is the only one that is sold digitally, includes all the missions that used to be downloadable on the official website back in the day (and not even Archive.org saved them), but I do remember what it was like in the original version, and it got horribly repetitive after a while, so if you are entering the world of Starfleet Command just now, you will be spared of tediousness that early players faced. For each campaign mission you complete, you earn prestige (actually credits that you can spend on ships, stock, and crew), and if you turn out to be a good captain, you can enter your race’s special forces to get higher-risk but higher-monetary-reward missions, and only then do you get to see the actual storyline that differs in perspective depending on the race you play. There are also enough non-campaign scenarios for each race when you need just that short fix of SFC, though some races get disproportionally more than others.
Graphically, it looked on par with the time it was released in, and the music is apt for a game set in Star Trek’s TMP era. In general, everything feels (subjectively) just as it should for a game set in space that can hide so many different perils. The AI, while it will give you a proper fight in the right difficulty settings, seems like it is set on a certain range of decisions and if it feels like it’s losing or similarly progressing as you are, it will try to just circle around you and not try to engage you much.
Can the Klingons please stop being at war with everyone? Thank you.
Starfleet Command was, up to its release date, the best attempt at getting the player to feel like they are the captain of a Star Trek starship, and was only maybe surpassed three years later with Totally Games’ Bridge Commander. With all the races having their own different ships and mission sets, this game is worth being in the collections of all Star Trek fans, but also any combat sim fan.
PROS: singleplayer idea, variety in gameplay and ship types, tactical possibilities, graphics (for its time), atmosphere
CONS: odd AI, imbalanced Klingon race, underdeveloped Orion Pirates, single mission variety for some races
9.0 / 10
Developers: Quicksilver, 14° East
Release year: 1999 (initial) / 2000 (Gold Edition)
Star Trek: Starfleet Command – Gold Edition is available on GOG.com with all the official content (except DRM) included, as well as Steam if you really need to. You can also grab a fan-made high-resolution patch here! Finally, for Windows 10 users there is a tweak that's necessary to avoid crashing, which works for SFC 2 and Orion Pirates as well.