"We're not trying to make a Trek game."
That's how director Steve Sinclair begins his E3 presentation of, well, his new Trek game. The ebullient Canadian is working at Ontario's Digital Extremes (currently also making The Darkness II) on a game tie-in for the next Star Trek movie from J J Abrams' Bad Robot production company, due in 2012.
What Sinclair means is that his studio is taking the same approach Bad Robot did. Abrams decided his 2009 reboot should be an "amazing sci-fi movie" before it was a Trek film, and he emphasised action and spectacle at the expense of the sober tone of classic Trek. Not all Star Trek fans appreciated it - but you couldn't deny the film's rambunctious entertainment value.
Digital Extremes' game represents a similarly unashamed lunge for your fun jugular, and it doesn't care if students of Federation politics and the Klingon tongue disapprove. It's a breakneck co-op shooter starring Kirk and Spock which hustles the chalk-and-cheese friends from one death-defying scrape to the next blazing laser-gun battle. The Next Generation this is not.
It's set in between the two films and pursues its own storyline, the reasoning being that the most successful film franchise spin-offs in recent years - The Chronicles of Riddick springs to mind - have chosen to work around rather than translate their source material, and spin stories more suited to games. The writers of the first movie, Alex Kurtzman and Bob Orci, are working with God of War writer Marianne Krawczyk on the script.
Sinclair - whose irrepressible blow-by-blow commentary on the on-screen action added so much excitement to the demo it should probably be bottled and added to the disc - describes the game's genre as "bro-op". That might induce a wince but his point is the team wants to evoke the contrasting characters of Kirk and Spock, as well as the camaraderie of a buddy movie. And so the game has been designed with "asymmetrical" co-op in mind.
It's not just about banter (although there will be plenty of that, judging by the way Sinclair bemoans the predominance of "severe, emo bulls**t games"). Kirk and Spock will have different tools at their disposal. They will have contrasting but complimentary tactics and will be thrown into situations where they have different roles to perform.
With that in mind, although Star Trek supports drop in, drop out online co-op, it won't be possible to switch characters in the middle of one play-through; you'll have to unlock chapters sequentially for each. Digital Extremes is obviously hoping you'll enjoy the ride so much you'll want to run it a second time from a different perspective.
The demo begins with Kirk and Spock returning from a mission aboard a shuttle to find the Enterprise trapped in a web of energy beams of alien origin. Unable to dock, they sieze LSPUs - life support propulsion units, rocket packs like the scuba divers' gadgets in Bond movie Thunderball - and simply jump into space, roaring through the vacuum and dodging mines in a vertiginous chase sequence.
Spock lands with neat precision while Kirk barrels messily into a stack of crates. They take of their helmets and reveal good likenesses of Chris Pine and Zachary Quinto. Talks to get these actors involved to voice their film parts is "ongoing", apparently.
It's a glossy-looking game, this, rendered in Digital Extremes' proprietary engine and, although pre-alpha, already showing the benefit of a year and half of well-funded development. The film's signature cool yet colourful look has translated perfectly, right down to the excessive application of lens flare.
It's a very slick piece of work all told, and a pleasant surprise to find it at E3 with no prior announcement and without the backing of a big games publisher. Paramount Studios, no doubt eyeing Warner Bros. and Disney, has decided to get its hands dirty in games itself.
But it's just starting out, and didn't want to tip anyone off to the game's existence - so we discover one of E3's bigger games in a tiny office cubicle in the shabbiest section of the LACC, far from the ostentatious swagger of the show floor. Oddly, it's more exciting this way.
Back to the action. Kirk and Spock creep through infested corridors scanning doors and dead red-shirts with their tricorders. Soon they're facing enemies who I am forbidden to describe to you. I hope it's not revealing too much to say that you shoot at them, and they shoot back.
These... Enemies ambush the intrepid duo in the shuttle bay, triggering an interactive cut-scene in which the two lunge cinematically for cover while blasting away with their custom weapons. The aiming remains under player control even as Kirk races out of the screen, shooting over his shoulder.
Those custom weaopns - quite a liberty with Trek lore and unique to this game - are designed to reflect their personalities. Kirk's phaser is a sci-fi version of a loud six-shooter and can of course be set to stun; Spock's particle cannon is a sleeker, quieter tool that put enemies in frozen stasis. Rather than physically customise their weapons, the two heroes gain weapon experience that unlocks new tricks and skills.
Spock can also sneak behind enemies to nerve-pinch them or mind-meld, sending them into confusion that draws enemy fire away. He is the "ninja" of the pair, Sinclair says. We're a long way from Leonard Nimoy. This game is so combat-focused that even tricorders are battle-ready, deploying shields and overloading panels to take out nearby enemies.
At one point Kirk is felled by a nerve toxin. Spock must drag him to the Med Bay and then preform a mini-game operation on him with a medical laser, tracing a route to kill parasites. Since the Spock player can't shoot while dragging Kirk and manipulating the laser, Kirk's player provides covering fire throughout this sequence, shooting one-handed.
It's neat idea. While many co-op games use design and tactics to encourage collaboration, Star Trek employs scripted story beats that give you contrasting jobs to do. It might not be emergent gameplay freedom but at least it guarantees you get a dramatic, and dramatically different, sense of helping each other through the game.
And after the Med Bay... Wait, I'm not allowed to tell you about that either. Suffice to say that, while Star Trek is definitely all-action, running around blasting isn't all you do. The opening jump sequence with LSPUs proves that, and Sinclair tells me afterwards the story takes the intrepid space adventurers to a mysterious location which "opens out the gameplay and really lets it breathe".
Just don't expect to be debating ethics with any high councils or plotting any courses. Star Trek is a breathless cinematic action game for two players. It doesn't have particularly lofty goals either for the games medium or for its source material, but it looks well put together and has a vigorous, no-nonsense approach to co-op dynamics.
Is it appropriate for a Trek game? I'm not going to get into that debate. But is this the right way to go about making movie spin-offs? I'm going with yes.