We’ve still not seen much of Star Trek. Yes, a new trailer came out at Gamescom, but we still haven’t played the game. Normally this would be a bad sign – a signal that the game isn’t up to scratch, perhaps; that it’s a bit of a rushed job. You know, the sort of thing we’ve come to expect from movie tie-ins over the years.
But Brian Miller, senior VP of games at Paramount Pictures, says that the new Star Trek game, based on the critically-acclaimed and commercially-successful J.J. Abrams’s reboot, is the exact opposite.
"We had a conversation about why movie games don’t work," says Miller. "Most of them aren’t very good. And we tried to figure out why that was. Because even though people loved the movies, and you’d think they’d want to play those games because of the characters, most movie tie-ins just don’t work.
And after sitting down with creatives from Bad Robot (J.J. Abrams’ production studio), they came up with a few reasons.
"One of the biggest reasons was that you don’t give those types of games enough time. By the time you start filming a movie to the time you get ready to have it in theatres, you’re lucky to have 12 months for a developer to really work on a game. That’s not enough time. That’s not enought time to do it right. So by the time Star Trek comes out early 2013, we’ll have been working on the game for around 3 years. So that problem has been solved."
Star Trek is the ideal property out of which to make a co-op title. It centres on one of popular cultures most enduring friendships, right up there with Han and Chewie, Woody and Buzz. At the same time there is a danger that having such an iconic, strongly-defined pair of characters at its core might prove too chafing for players. So many video game characters are, of course, purposefully devoid of personality.
Kirk is headstrong, impulsive. Spock is thoughtful, measured. The game will subtly encourage players to play in character. "For Kirk we have a lot of upgrades and bonuses for doing things that Kirk does," says Miller. "So his shooting ability is much better than Spock’s. But Spock is half-vulcan so he runs a little faster and jumps a little further." He wouldn’t be drawn on how else the game would incentivise gameplay that was consistent with the character, but it’s clear that it’s in no way compulsory. You can still be gun-hoe as Spock or a more strategic Kirk. But the personality of each character is very much embodied in their actions. I briefly saw some pre-Alpha footage of a stealth-based mission, in which Kirk and Spock have to make their way through a series of corridors down which Gorn sentinels are patrolling. If Kirk gets the jump on one the scaly foes, he brutally snaps its neck or slams its face into a nearby surface (a bit like Nathan Drake). But Spock takes them down using a more characteristically restrained Vulcan neck pinch.
A lot of times these games become a little piece of merchandise – you put it right next to the lunchbox and the t-shirt and hat that you sell.
"When you make a co-op game, the AI is the main thing you have to worry about," says Miller. "If the AI isn’t great and breaks, it ruins the entire experience of the game. So our developer, Digital Extremes, has had that at the top of the list right from the beginning. It is a little bit different depending on who you play as. We have a lot of banter that we’ve recorded where it’s Spock being frustrated with Kirk doing stuff. And Kirk being frustrated with Spock."
But it’s more than just gameplay tactics. Depending on which character you play as, you’ll experience different things in the game. One of Spock’s most famed abilities is the Mind Meld. It even featured in Abrams’s recent reboot. I was told that at certain points in the game Spock will be able to fuse his consciousness with various characters in the game, glimpsing their memories. This dreamy cinematic will only be experienced by the player controlling Spock. Kirk will just see Spock engaging in the Mind Meld. If you’re playing online with a friend, you’ll have to ask them what’s going on.
Another one the problems with movie tie-ins that Miller and his team quickly identified was not believing and funding the game properly. "A lot of times these games become a little piece of merchandise – you put it right next to the lunchbox and the t-shirt and hat that you sell. But to do a game right you can’t really think of it like that. We’ve invested heavily to compete with all of the other triple-A level games that are out there. It’s not something that is just a byproduct."
This is demonstrated by the creative talent that Miller is more than happy to boast about. From the special effects team over at ILM sharing assets of the Enterprise – so it’s the exact same model in the game as in the latest movie – to writer Bob Orci helping out with the script and Academy Award winning composer Michael Giacchino being consulted on the score. And unlike most tie-in games, it has the voices of the entire cast, giving the game that unparalleled authenticity.
It’s all very impressive, but what’s more heartening for the Trekkie is that the attention to detail and the fondness for the original show that served Abrams’s reboot so well is present in the game, too. One of the things that made Abram’s Star Trek reboot so good was it did new things without forgetting its heritage. It was, after all, that strangest and most paradoxical of things: a canonical reboot, linking together both the new and the old.
It was shocking to us that the Gorn have remained in the public consciousness for so long, and so well.
The choice of enemy is emblematic of this affection. The Gorn has endured in the popular consciousness. It might be down to the ropey effects – it’s quite clearly a green rubber suit – but Miller thinks it’s something more. "When we sat down, and said ‘Who do you pick as the villain?’ The Gorn were at the top of the list. It was shocking to us that the Gorn have remained in the public consciousness for so long, and so well. And people love that character, as do we. They were in one episode, 45 years ago. And for something to last that long and be that popular, clearly there was something in there."
The Gorn first appeared in the episode Arena. And in the style of Abrams’ affectionate reboot, it’s a moment in Trek history that will be acknowledged in the game. "That whole episode – Arena – is so imporant because it’s Kirk fighting the Gorn in an arena," says Miller. "It’s a big staged event. And we do have – and I think I’m telling you for the first time and I probably shouldn’t – but we do have a moment where we reference the whole arena fight, where we can throw Kirk back into that mess."
When I asked Miller if fans could expect any more classic Trek moments to be referenced, he smiled and said, "Yes. The only one I’ll hint at is there’s a great moment… I’ll put it this way. If you’re playing a co-op game where you’re set up to work together, it would be a great moment if Kirk and Spock were actually pitted against each other. And there’s a very classic episode we may be making reference to." Miller is alluding to Amok Time, a classic episode from the original series in which Kirk and Spock face-off in a fight to the death on Spock’s home planet of Vulcan.
Miller knows why movie tie-in games tend not to succeed. He also knows what made J.J. Abrams’s reboot so good. Hopefully, the extra time the game has been in development, its production values, and its love of the original show will make Star Trek a movie tie-in which isn’t just a glorified piece of merchandise but the quality co-op experience it could be.
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