Star Trek: Birth of the Federation

4_1A bland space conquest game that doesn’t capitalize on the Star Trek universe.

Star Trek: Birth of the Federation is a 4X game – explore, expand, exploit, and exterminate. It’s a genre that is especially suited to players who want a more cerebral experience that the standard real-time strategy rush can’t offer. The only problem with Birth of the Federation is that it ends up being pummeled into mediocrity by lots of little problems, from bugs to interface quirks to mismatches in the universe it portrays.

You can find hints that there’s something wrong just by the official title – Star Trek: The Next Generation Birth of the Federation. Besides simply sounding weird, it’s also an oxymoron. By the time of The Next Generation, the Federation (and its associated enemies) were going concerns. The game, however, starts early in their histories, yet all of its visual and many of its functional trappings are from far down the Star Trek timeline. It’s jarring to a Trekker to see an Enterprise with the designation of 1701-A wearing the body of a Galaxy-class vessel; it’s also a gameplay problem when you can’t quickly tell that the Romulans are really still sporting an old Bird of Prey while you’ve upgraded to better vessels.

As just a game, it’s got many of the components you’d expect from a 4X space empire builder: exploration, research, production, diplomacy, espionage, and space battles. Noticeably absent from this list is ship design, something that some hardcore 4X fans may miss but that really doesn’t detract that much in the overall scheme of things. On the surface, the design isn’t bad. Maybe not a grand advancement to the genre, but certainly quite competent, very enjoyable at times even for those familiar with the genre, and probably very good for people new to this category of game. You can play one of five Trek “races”: Federation, Klingon, Romulan, Ferengi, or Cardassian. One of the high points of the game is that each of these races really does feel quite different from the others: a Federation player must use diplomacy (and is good at it), while the Ferengi player can buy himself a pretty darn strong empire. This alone strengthens the game quite a lot.

The research system is simple but effective: six categories that combine to give you different Treknologies, structures, and ship types. Diplomacy is a bit above the norm for 4X games, although it still basically boils down to bribery and, to a lesser extent, threats. One very nice feature is the inclusion of an alliance win. Production is also fairly straightforward, although there is no way to set rally points for vessels you produce. Espionage seems to be nearly pointless, but this may depend a lot on your style of play.

17_1The tactical battles could have been a lot of fun. They are turn-based, with each turn being executed in 15-second chunks. You select from a neat rock-paper-scissors-like set of orders for each of your classes of vessels, set targets, and hit go, watching the 15 seconds play out in 3D. Sounds good, but things fall apart. Almost all battles are resolved in one turn, maybe two, usually using simple tactics—only once was a full-up, multi-turn space battle encountered… and that’s a shame, as it takes away a lot from the gameplay.

There are multiple camera angles, but you’ve got to chose them during the turn replay — no way to set up your favorite angle before the battle. The 3D rendered ships are nice enough, but as the rendering is in software it can really chug when you’ve got large fleets. The idea is good enough, though, that it would have been nice to have some large battles you could play separate from the main game.

5_1Much of your time is spent on the main galactic map, sending ships hither and thither to perform various risky tasks. The map is fairly nice looking, and you can set filters to determine what’s shown. Unfortunately, there is no mouse scroll to the map, and scrolling via the arrow keys is a shockingly slow affair. You can zoom the map out (nice for the big picture), but the game becomes almost unplayable as the map gets busy — orders are often not registered, something that’s not always immediately obvious.

These problems, while many, aren’t enough to kill the game outright. At its best moments, Birth of the Federation does have that ‘one more turn’ factor that is so common with addictive 4x games, even though it doesn’t bring anything particularly fresh to the table. But its problems are hard to ignore, and in the end you’ll find that the fun will slowly get sucked away like starlight in some distant black hole.

System Requirements: Pentium 133 Mhz, 32 MB RAM, 160 MB HDD, Win95

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