Review: Star Trek: Tactical Assault (DS)

Tactics, but not as we know them

Developer Quicksilver Software is no stranger to the Star Trek licence, having developed the well-regarded Starfleet Command for the PC, which is itself an attempt to deliver a computerised version of the venerable board game Star Fleet Battles. Tactical Assault is essentially a stab at a port of Starfleet Command to the DS, but focusing on the wrong aspects of the game has resulted in a title that looks good but doesn't play well, spoiling what could have been a decent tactical starship combat game for the DS.

Initially players are put in the role of a Lt. Commander in Starfleet, set during the time prior to détente with the Klingon Empire. Through the course of the game you'll be upgraded in rank and given larger and more powerful ships to command as you attempt to keep the peace along the border of the Neutral Zone. It won't be long before poor design decisions in controls and gameplay become apparent, which only get worse as missions become more challenging.

Being a Star Trek game you'd expect that the touchscreen would be a viable interface for controlling your ship's systems – after all most of the films and series depict use of a touch-based interface known as LCARS, and for the most part it is, but for some crucial omissions. Nearly all controls are usable via the touchscreen bar the rather critical ship-targeting function which is mapped to the left shoulder button. Rather than a unified view of ship controls a tabbed format is used with separate tabs for Defence, Weapons and Navigation. There's an attempt to enable players to use any one of these screens as the primary one by having common functions such as scanning, communications and weapons available via icons in a sidebar present on all tabs, but this fails to deliver on its promise due to a lack of proper indicators and controls that simply don't work as advertised.

The Defence screen is largely wasted because the damage control and energy distribution elements of Starfleet Command have been removed. The only function this screen has is showing a schematic of your ship with shield strength (which is also shown in the top screen around your ship) and tiny little icons that appear to indicate your ship's engine and weapon damage levels, but are never actually defined anywhere in the game or manual. The only action you can take is to tap the screen, supposedly to initialise the auto-recharging of your shields, with the trade-off being less energy for recharging your weapons. Unfortunately this doesn't actually appear to be automatic and must be manually executed repeatedly, which means switching tabs a lot during the thick of combat. The whole process could easily have been mapped to a single button or better still totally automated. Considering that you have no other control over energy distribution and the impact to weapon recharging is barely noticeable, this ends up being more an annoyance than a strategic option.

As noted above there are icons for your weapons available on all tabs, but sadly these icons never change, so the only way you'll know if you have weapons in the correct facing which are ready to fire is to have the Weapons tab up. This will provide you with multiple ways to fire your arsenal and show you which weapons are ready and which can be fired at your current target. You can fire weapons individually by tapping their icon directly, by using the large ever-present icons referenced earlier, or by clicking an "Overcharge" icon which will put more power into a weapon to deliver greater damage at the cost of a longer recharge time. In Starfleet Command overcharging your weapons also included the risk of damaging them, but this has been dropped along with the rest of the damage control functions. Given overcharging is the fastest way to bring down enemy shields, we saw little reason to do anything but overcharge weapons making the presence of multiple icons for firing totally unnecessary: players would have been better served by simply having the large icons for phasers and photons light up when available.

The Navigation screen allows you to control your speed and heading or warp to a new planetary system. Using the touchscreen to change heading proves a bit sensitive and involves frequent course corrections. During combat you'll end up having to constantly tap your weapons since you'll never know when they're ready to fire, so in practice we found that holding the DS and using the D-Pad and shoulder button to control speed, heading and targeting whilst keeping the weapons tab up for fire control (with frequent shield recharging via tab-switching) proved the best option. Of course you can play the entire game using buttons, but there's a fair amount of chording involved and it feels pretty clunky and "un-Star Trek."

The real-time aspect of the game is the main reason the controls are such a problem. Adapting a turn-based board game to a real-time format was controversial in Starfleet Command, however it was largely accepted because much of the strategy was retained. Having jettisoned pretty much all the strategic elements of Starfleet Command, the combat in Tactical Assault is pretty uninspiring. The 3D effects are quite impressive on the DS, but the lack of camera control and overly zoomed-in view combine with a lack of radar for an often frustrating experience.

When you're not targeting another ship the camera is behind your vessel which takes up a very large chunk of the top screen real estate. Once you're locked-on the camera will lock-on to your target as well, which is fine for ensuring you have active weapons trained on them at all times and keeping your strongest shields facing them, but pretty poor for avoiding obstacles like asteroids, planets and space stations which your ship can – and will – collide with, often ruining your day. Given the amount of scanning that goes on in the series and films you'd think you'd have some kind of radar scope, but apparently your helmsman plots his course by looking out the window unless there's an enemy ship around. Of course these obstacles are supposed to have some kind of strategic use like hiding from an enemy or avoiding fire but, again, without a damage control aspect you're really just forestalling the inevitable and given you can only see where you're going by turning your back on the enemy you're trying to evade, you're probably just better off trying to stay away from anything that isn't shooting at you.

There's some fun aspects to the missions like changing your alert condition from green to yellow to red, and you can sometimes scan systems or ships or hail them, but these are often only allowed when a specific event in the story provides for it; definitely a missed opportunity. One of the better aspects of the game is that via hailing of other ships or space stations you can trigger different story events and sometimes you'll be given a choice of mission direction, such as pursuing enemies or limping back to a starbase for repairs depending on how well your last engagement went. At the end of each mission your performance will be given a medal rank which will result in the awarding of points to enhance certain aspects of the abilities of your key bridge crew, directly translating into performance increases for your ship. These RPG aspects are easily the strongest part of the game, but sadly they are very minor compared to the combat which ends up being monotonous and frustrating, especially given you must complete the fifteen missions of the Federation campaign in order to get a shot at the Klingon campaign.

If you want a break from the campaign you can try out skirmish mode, where you pick one or more ships of Federation or Klingon affiliation (Romulan, Gorn and Orion ships are gradually unlocked during the two campaigns) and duke it out, though you'll be dealing with the same gameplay issues outlined above. Endlessly turning your ship around to try to get your active weapon arc in the right position becomes even less interesting without the mission structure around it, though if you have a friend who also owns this game, the prospect of local multiplayer might make it a bit more engaging.

Conclusion

It's a sad fact that the Star Trek licence is rarely used to deliver a quality gaming experience and Star Trek: Tactical Assault is unfortunately not an exception to that rule. By focusing on pointless 3D visuals (ships only move/fire on a 2D plane), the developers have neglected both the controls and the strategic elements that made this game's inspirations so well-regarded.

If you're a die-hard Trek fan you can probably have some fun with this game, but be prepared for frustration and a lot of mission replays due to senseless deaths. We can only hope that any future attempt at a Star Trek game on the DS will be better executed than this.