Star Trek games have recently branched out into more than a few genres including card games, FPS and RTS titles. So it was inevitable to see a Star Trek title take on a squad based tactical setting a la Eidos' Commandos’ style. However, Away Team makes improvements to this already dated title and, at least initially, progresses nicely. It takes place in the Next Generation timeframe with you assuming the crew of a stealth Federation craft, the USS Incursion, capable of putting up holograms of enemy ships and assuming their identity. Of course, these are completely irrelevant as the plot does not take place on your ship (much) and neither does it really require you to carry out missions with this idea. Although the Away Team missions are loosely connected by plot, they are each self-contained, in that you do not really need knowledge of previous missions, or even Star Trek in general, as the objectives are more along the lines of disable such a computer, plant such a device or retrieve such an object. Assassinating a person is of course frowned upon in Star Trek and much of the later stages of the game have you avoiding killing anyone or even being detected in general.
Each mission begins with a voiceover briefing and then proceeds to allow you to select your crewmember that deploy using a shuttle or the traditional Star Trek transporters. One of the best elements of this game is the inclusion of a diverse number of Federation personnel. Each personnel is skilled in various trades and brings different items. Luckily, you do not have to think too much about which personnel to bring and which items to pack as the developers have kindly included a list of necessary skills/items and a list of nice-to-haves. There are two sides to this feature though. First, it makes equipping for missions much easier. Although each member is endowed with a unique voice and is capable of speaking every line during the game itself, they ultimately degenerate into nothing more than members bearing skills. None of them show any marked improvement through your constant grooming throughout the missions and none of them are allowed to die. So the personal attachment that you develop with your characters in titles like Jagged Alliance or Fallout Tactics is almost non-existent here. You will eventually remember characters more for what they carry than their background or stats, which are present but can duly be ignored. For example, there are various snipers in the game and if I required a sniper, I could pick between good physique, few sniper bullets (there is a definite amount a la Commandos) or poorer physique but plentiful bullets. And of course, if I did not care for any other skills, plentiful bullets would come in handy since I cannot sacrifice any of my Away Team members anyway.
Though the game plays very much like a Commandos mission, with set objectives and a preferred way of doing things set out by the developer, many times you will have to rely on trial and error to see things through. This is especially true with dense patrol patterns, or worse, cloaked mines. Luckily, there are aids like vision cones and a new innovative feature: sound cones, to help get you through. One may immediately think that a personal cloaking device, so prevalent in the Star Trek mythos, would solve any stealth problems. Though you may be able to use a cloaking device to get from point A to be B undetected, the person carrying the cloaking device may not be the person you need to perform the task at point B. And as each character cannot exchange items with each other (the argument is, one must be proficient in it), it becomes a moot point to carry around a cloaking device. The greatest frustration to me about these "puzzle" games masquerading as tactical games is the fact that the developers allow no leeway in solving a mission. I mean, I would understand if this was Jagged Alliance where the game originated from combat, or even Fallout Tactics, where the supposed emphasis is on combat, but I simply do not know why the Federation, an organization renowned for creative approaches to problems, can be expected to solve missions in such a blockheaded manner. The pity of it is because Away Team is such a finely crafted game. The graphics, though not stellar, are good for its genre. It features a colourful palette and renders luscious vegetation on alien worlds as well as the cold sterile ship environments.
Although Away Team sounds like a game where you are a special ops type of force thrown into wherever there is trouble within Federation boundaries, in the actual game, you pursue a fairly rigid campaign. Even though sometimes the game throws curves at you, it doesn't detract from the linearity. For example, in one mission, your ship is taken over and you must rescue a few characters before beginning (of course, hyposprays to heal yourself are in short supply). There is also one mission where your team is split up and you must respond to events in both places. Still, there are no gimme missions or side quests. The earlier missions are easier in difficulty and the tutorial done by Commander Data is extremely helpful. I like the fact that it accounted for configuration/hotkey changes. However, the early missions are just such, introductory missions. As the game progresses, the objectives become increasingly harder. One example is with stealth, and one of the most popular tricks is to plant cameras that a player must evade. Yet in the first part of the game, you are allowed to send a person to hack into the computers and erase the camera logs but later, there are no such options. And as the game progresses, you are unable to even kill anyone, which is rather an annoyance since people who are stunned tend to wake up at the most inopportune times.
Combat is where the most distressing gameplay fault emerges. There is essentially no friendly AI so if your character is hit, he/she will not return fire, much less find a place to hide or run away from the threat. This makes for tedious micromanagement and although there is a pause mode, managing the actions of six people in conditions where one cannot be detected becomes more of a chore than a joy. It does not make it easier that phasers set to kill take two or three shots to bring down a person while a phaser set to stun only takes one. Moreover, your team members tend more often than not to fire inaccurately, into walls or crates or anything but the target. Furthermore, it becomes even more illogical that once you stun an enemy unit, you cannot target them again to apply the coup de grace. Perhaps Federation ethical procedures are the culprit. The most effective gun is the sniper gun but snipers tend to bring very little other skills to the away team and when you do get to use them, they have a definite amount of bullets. But, some missions pit you against 30 or 40 foes, so it becomes unfeasible to kill everyone.
Those with a speedy computer will be able to skirt around these issues by quick saving and reloading at opportune times. On the other hand, I think that this is really just another tactic to prolong what is a short game. Near the end of the campaign, every few steps taken on screen will demand a quicksave when success rests on perfecting the detailed minutiae. In the multiplayer component, this becomes a more acute problem, as there is no ability to quicksave or quickload. I found the multiplayer operation, which is only in co-operative mode, reminiscent of Commandos. The first few missions were fun to play with someone else. I especially liked the fact that I could delegate someone to erase security logs while I was skirting around the cameras. Moreover, it becomes easier to overcome the lack of friendly AI if a human is controlling some of the characters. But, such a success, like a mirror of this whole game, is only short-lived in the beginning. With the later missions requiring such exact precision, I found myself yelling at my co-operative partners more than actually co-operating with them. Multiplayer is only prescribed for LAN play, so perhaps the developers were expecting us to work out a game plan on a whiteboard before actually approaching the more complicated missions. There is also something very idiosyncratic about the multiplayer component especially if you elect to play with different platforms. For some reason, those who have Windows 2000 cannot host the game and must play off a Windows Me computer. But, Windows Me platforms can play with each other as well. One would think that a computer capable of running Windows 2000 would be the one fittest to become the server but the developers (or I) do not recommend this, as it causes indeterminable bouts of lag.
When this game was released a short while ago, it competed head to head with Fallout Tactics, a frightfully similar game released in the same period of time. A local flyer of mine decided to showcase Away Team and relegate Tactics to the level of a regular software title, but Away Team seems to be loser in this head-to-head duel. Although it features excellent audio components (especially the voiceovers) and graphics that stay true to the Star Trek universe, it is unable to provide a compelling entertainment experience. If this title were introduced before Commandos, I would think it stands a very good chance in replacing all my previous references to Commandos with itself. Its reliance on precise puzzle-like "tactics" has become a little dated by this time. No doubt, some people will enjoy this but I seem to think it is more of a fault on the developer, to force players through these types of "challenges", than it is a fault of the player being
unable to comprehend it. Other than the gameplay faults, the dressing or framing on this title is nothing short of professional. The interface is truly Star Trek like and it is not confusing, as one of my colleagues here mentions, as the other LCARS interface. The forays made against the Borg are fearsome. Since this game lacks Seven of Nine, you are unable, unlike in Raven's Elite Forces, to use a special gun to bypass the Borg's adaptability. The sheer intensity of trying to best a foe that can hardly be defeated is a horrific or terrific proposition. Though I wanted so hard to be charmed by this game, it definitely is missing something that is innate in games like Jagged Alliance. The Star Trek license in PC games seems headed towards a resurrection, with such successful titles like Starfleet Command, Elite Forces and Armada. In television, the new Star Trek show that is supposed to breathe new life back into the Star Trek universe is looming ever closer. One of the potential ideas toyed for this new show would be an elite covert ops force, a kind of Mission Impossible in the Star Trek universe but it was dropped in favour of other ideas. So too, I think, is the fate that will befall this title for the gaming public.