When I reviewed Starfleet Command 2: Empires At War, I had nothing but glowing words about being charmed by the first game that I thought faithfully conveyed, maybe not the specific mechanics of the Star Trek universe, but at least the very feel and atmosphere. Fast forward from December 2000 to the dreary summer months of 2001 and you get Orion Pirates. When I first heard about the game, I was receiving a barrage of critiques about my previous review. They cited that Dynaverse 2 was not functional at launch; a much touted thing in the predecessor. Multiplayer, for them, was buggy even through the ubiquitous Gamespy service. The single player campaign was sterile where some complained that it offered too much freedom akin to Bethesda's free-form RPG Daggerfall; an immense complicated game in itself but totally devoid of life because of its randomized nature.
Thus, it was with mixed feelings I came across Orion Pirates; a supposed expansion pack to the original game. Lots of people warned me that this was the result of patch-ware, a hodge-podge version with new stories to satiate those that bought the previously bug-ridden game. I had to look at the FAQ twice because the folks at Interplay seem to be a master at double irony; what W.H. Empson calls the simultaneous endorsement of contradictory codes. Is this an expansion pack, they say? Oh yes, it is. Will it interface with the original Starfleet Command 2? No, this is a standalone product. Will it feature brand new technical elements? No, this is an expansion pack. Will I need the original games to run it? No, this is a standalone product. What kind of price will it be? This will be priced as an expansion pack. Needless to say, I was quite confused as to what to expect.
In truth, Orion Pirates is actually an expansion pack that is able to run standalone. The graphics that may have dazzled people last year are no longer as riveting as before. However, Orion Pirates has a great base to build upon. The new expansion pack includes a plethora of campaigns. You can opt to take control of an existing star empire (Federation, Klingon, Romulan, etc) or factions of the Orion Pirates. The Pirates storyline is one of intrigue and feud where each faction tries to establish their dominance. They come with a new set of graphics for interfaces and some interesting ship designs. The total amount is 30 unique ship types compiling for a total 240 variants. The campaigns are played out just as before, in the Dynaverse 2 setting. Turn-based movements through a 2D hexagonal star map dictate the flow of the game. You can still pick up random missions but from time to time, a unique mission part of the storyline will be presented to you.
Orion Pirates introduces some new wrinkles to the original Starfleet Command arsenal. There are different types of phasers now, including ablative and shield penetrating. Still, to veteran gamers, the changes might be a bit trite. I can't say the AI has improved significantly although I didn't have much to complain about them in general before. There isn't any form of new weapon, at least from a visual standpoint so the add-ons are actually quite underwhelming. Moreover, the developers have included more historical classic battles derived from the Paramount film and TV franchises.
Since multiplayer is fully functional this time around, I chose to give that portion a rigorous test only to find that even with months of patching, the multiplayer component is a bit shoddy. Local LAN games can even suffer from lag when many ships appear on screen. Several times, I ran into debilitating crashes complete with debug windows. This occurred both in Windows Me and Windows 2000. At one point, I actually started a game and my human partner was able to join along with the AI. Suddenly, an AI, in the ultimate Turing test, decided to get up and leave the game on its own. I also found the part where the host chooses ships for the AI, a little time consuming. This problem is exasperated because you can do so much to customize your own ships. Often players seeing the host isn't done with customizing AI ships, will go back to the drawing board on their own. The lengthy time at start-up sometimes doesn't pay off because some games go for no more than five minutes with a ten-minute set-up period. Orion Pirates carries over a bunch of multiplayer game types from its predecessor. However, games like hockey still boil down to wars of pure attrition where the focus is not on the puck but on the players' ships themselves. At one time in the midst of the chaos, I even found a player and AI ship launching salvos at the hockey puck itself.
The jewel of multiplayer gaming with Orion Pirates is still Dynaverse 2. My experience with it was a bit mixed. It's hard to find a Dynaverse you can honestly say you belong to especially if you're not in the community itself. Even with the promise of upwards of a thousand players registered on a server, most servers typically support 64 players and the default star map seems too big. This has to be the most promising component I feel that has yet to be capitalized on. A persistent Star Trek universe would be some Trek fans' ultimate dream.
With expansion packs like these, the ultimate question is whether for veterans to upgrade? Several mods and variants have already been released for Starfleet Command 2. Dynaverse 2, in the previous title, was fixed through patches and custom campaigns are already running. Though the new missions and Orion Pirates cartel is compelling, I don't think it is revolutionary to the franchise at all. Orion Pirates even retains most of the trappings, audio and visual wise, of the original game. The new content amounts to very little, especially if you continue to play under one of the existing star empires. If you have no interest in playing for the Pirates for any length of time, you won't be able to appreciate some of the new features. For people who have yet to experience the incredible Starfleet Command series, this is probably the most polished version of the original game you will find. With a working (albeit underused) Dynaverse 2 online component, you get the best Star Trek game to date. Its demand for strategy and tactics remains unparalleled even though it is only in essence, a 2D space game along the lines of Star Trek Armada. I fear this franchise is going to hit the same wall Master of Orion 2 did. MOO2 was the best turn based space strategy game in its time. However, a convincing enough reason to improve it did not exist until recently, with MOO3 now in development. Ultimately, Starfleet Command's biggest competitor may be Star Trek itself, with the impending Bridge Commander being lauded as finally 'getting Star Trek down right', something Trek gamers constantly relish.