War was declared
Although it feels peculiar to watch Star Trek characters act with real emotion, Deep Space Nine has certainly improved since the war with the Dominion erupted in the final series. It's amazing to think that in a universe dominated by battleships and conflicting cultures it took this long for the writers to inject some actual grit into proceedings. Perhaps that's why it feels almost fake watching Commander Sisco admit that he no longer has the stomach for casualty reports, or the troops on AR-558 bonding as they defend the outpost from Jem Hadar. These aren't things I'm accustomed to watching as a Star Trek fan. Somewhat annoyingly though, just as soon as games developers are given something meaty to get their teeth into, they decide to stop filling in the blanks and produce a fairly bland, totally linear strategy romp through space by the numbers. Star Trek: Dominion Wars concerns the conflict between the bumbling allied forces of the Federation and Klingon Empire on one side and the ruthless, never-ending forces of Dominion-controlled Jem Hadar and their Cardassian allies on the other. Unfortunately it has been done in classic Star Trek style. In other words, you fly about the galaxy in big spotless space cruisers shooting the hell out of the enemy. There's no futility of war stuff, no painful losses, no character-based storyline worth keeping up with. It feels like we've gone back to square one. That said, the single player game is pretty enjoyable in its own right. You take on the burden of a fleet of up to six ships, which you select from a fleet of many more. Your credits can buy you one or two big ships and some really small ones, or a fleet of mediums. As you move through the game you get more and more credits, which fund the upgrade and/or purchase of new vessels. The other thing you need for your fleet is captains, and you have a decent selection of those to choose from. Captains come in various classes to fit the various ships, so you can't get snide little runts like Wesley Crusher to command towering destroyers, but you can get them to pilot smaller ships if you want to. Captains gain experience points the more missions they successfully complete, so it's worth keeping your ships in good nick throughout battle too, even if you are loaded with credits.
Straight and true
The single player game is startlingly linear, with your choice of ships making no difference to anything in particular except the way in which you dispose of your enemies. Instead of adopting a Red Alert-like sector-based conquest system (which could have been pretty interesting) the game just gives you 20 missions to overcome one by one, and they all invariably centre around the destruction of Jem Hadar or Cardassian vessels, whether they're attacking a convoy, attacking a station or another ship, or you're simply attacking them. There are one or two missions which centre around the use of a cloaking device to try and 'stealth' your enemies, but aside from that it's mostly plain sailing. During the course of a mission your enemies usually take a few chunks out of you, and if you're really unlucky you'll lose a ship, but if you lose the mission outright you can just replay it over and over until you get it right. You move your vessels around using the mouse, lassoing them RTS style and directing them toward a target. You can give them commands, like guard, cloak, balance shields and you can use the warp engines to get to a point quickly. You can even re-enact famous Picard battle strategies if you can remember them, like warping to within ten feet of an enemy ship and firing torpedoes. There are of course simplistic preprogrammed attacks if you're too boring to come up with some of your own. You can hit and run target and circle target amongst other things, and you can use multiple units together in more complex attacks. Simply sending your entire fleet towards one lone Jem Hadar ship is a bit dangerous though, as enemies tend to attack from multiple directions, meaning that you can quite easily go off, destroy three or four ships and return to discover your prize in tatters as a lone raider scampers off into the nearest nebula. Thankfully there's a useful tutorial option, which gives you a basic grounding. There are a lot of ways to control a starship though, and I felt I could have done with more instruction even after the tutorial. There must be over 50 keyboard controls to keep track of, and you can't easily pause the game to issue new instructions or look up a command; nor can you whip out a map to get a glimpse of the bigger picture.
Beyond the single player game there's a fairly handy multiplayer aspect too, although new pilots should avoid it at least until they've completed half of the single player game and got to know the ropes. The good news though is that because this is both a Star Trek game and a fairly good space strategy game, by the time you have gotten to know the ropes there will be a largish number of people willing to take you on. At the time of writing it's mostly Americans and other reviewers, but by the time you're ready there ought to be a bit of interest. Unlike the single player game, up to 48 ships can fit in a multiplayer outing, which makes real space armadas possible. It's pretty good fun, although you do occasionally lust for the odd Borg cube to fly out of the nearest nebula and attack you. There are several modes of play apart from the standard free for all; domination, find the founder, capture and hold and conquest. Visually the game is very impressive, with some beautifully detailed ships. Obviously with so much space around ships and stations were going to need a lot of lavish detail, and the developers haven't disappointed us. Even when you get close to the big ships they look just as clean, sparkling and intricate as those seen in the television series and movies. The engine can handle a lot of them on-screen too. They're big objects with lots of polygons, so this is pretty impressive. I've had ships filling up the screen without much slowdown, and I've been playing the game using an ATI Radeon, which often sacrifices performance in favour of glamour. What's annoying about the graphics is that you cannot change the resolution and colour depth. I was absolutely livid when I discovered this and refused to believe it was true for a while.
The Final Frontier
Sadly there are some rather annoying niggles that mar the otherwise fairly engaging experience of Dominion Wars. Odd bugs crop up now and then; for instance if you lasso a bunch of ships and set them to guard something, occasionally the order doesn't actually get carried out. This means that you end up learning to clumsily hit the guard button about four or five times on each object just to make damned sure. Another issue is the way the game gets into a muddle when you save mid-mission. All the ships start to act like hyperactive children, jerking about involuntarily. There are patches available that supposedly fix these issues but they only work with the American version. The biggest problem with Dominion Wars though isn't some silly bug, the lack of grit or its somewhat troublesome learning curve; no, the difficulty is that you're in a war, and actually the so-called heat of the battle is lukewarm at best. The pace of the thing is completely wrong. These are great big lumbering starships, but they can get their skates on every once in a while, surely. It wouldn't be so bad if they could actually turn either, but as it happens even the smaller ships apparently need a decent sized moon's worth of space to slingshot themselves in the other direction. Ultimately then, Star Trek: Dominion Wars is an interesting, occasionally exciting game that suffers from a few notable flaws. It's not really an accurate portrayal of the final series of DS9 because it's so faceless, but it's pretty good in its own right. If you think the bugs and plodding pace won't trouble you too much, and you like the idea of piloting a band of huge starships around the universe, you could do worse than to check it out.