To have not at least heard of Star Trek or any of its diminutive spin-offs these days I would guess is well beyond the means of the average TV viewer. Whether it's being sidelined on BBC2 because of sport, or being shown almost perpetually by Sky, sometime, somewhere, everyone's seen it. Not everyone approves of its unambiguously American apple pie future, where peace and love and honest family values pervade a universe inhabited by strangely nosed aliens, but they are few and far between. Star Trek is a phenomenon that has spanned four different TV series, films approaching double figures and has made millions for a few clever people in merchandising. But you don't need me to tell you that. What does seem strange though is that it's taken five years for the name to arrive on the Playstation. Now as it does in the elder years of its reign we find a game which betrays Star Trek's stereotypical pacifistic outlook and beams us down to a very definite post Deep Space Nine universe of boiling tensions and intergalactic war. The Stardate is 54111.79. In the wake of the war with the Dominion, Federation forces are spread thin across the Alpha Quadrant and border incursions are using what few ships Starfleet and their Klingon allies can muster. The Borg are on the prowl though and Lieutenant Commander Worf has been placed in command of the USS Typhon and its squadron of Valkyrie fighters, charged with the task of assisting the beleaguered Klingon Empire. As the game proceeds however we find ourselves embroiled in a story involving rogue starships, mysterious alien aggressors and plot twists which inevitably threaten the delicate balance of Federation power.
We Come In Peace, Shoot to Kill..
What this boils down to is out and out space battle action as the Valkyrie fighters meat out vengeance with an array of weapons that would have seen many a doomed red shirt safely back on the Enterprise. Peace is certainly not the order of the day here, phasers are definitely on kill. Despite an extensive training level, ship control is something that takes a considerable time to master. Invasion is one of those games which frequently requires use of all of the Playstation's buttons simultaneously. To accelerate and strafe needs four fingers on the shoulder buttons and weapon selection uses a slightly unwieldy combination of thumbstick and square to bring up the list of primary and secondary weapons available for selection. Some buttons too hold multiple uses. A quick tap on the triangle for example will target your closest opponent, but if close enough holding it will perform a motion lock, keeping your ship glued to the tail of the target. Steering, avoiding attack, selecting the right weapon and making sure you're still on target is something that takes a great deal of skill. The motion lock is a neat idea, but in reality is more a beginners aid than a useful tool. When close enough to hit, adversaries bank and climb with such speed that the simple Valkyrie seems unable to keep up. Despite the fact that the target lock keeps you pointing at the ship, reaching the small blue target square in front of it is usually impossible unless the ship is at a virtual standstill or heading straight toward you. The Valkyrie just can't turn fast enough while matching an opponent's course and velocity. Disregarding the locking idea though and with practice the Valkyrie can eventually be maneuvered with laudable accuracy, but it does take time to get used to the slightly overreactive thumbstick control.
Blaze of Glory
The niggles of flight mechanics aside, Invasion excels in is appearance. Its no secret that developers Warthog include a number of ex-Psygnosis employees responsible for Colony Wars, and what we find here resembles the seminal series to the letter. From the murky blurred glossiness of the cut sequences through the polished front end, level descriptions and loading screens to the ring explosions, bright beam lasers and stunning capital ships of the game itself, Invasion screams Colony Wars from every pore. A Colony Wars though adapted to a Star Trek theme. Ship phasers mimic those of the series exceptionally well. Photon Torpedoes and shots bouncing off the larger shield protected ships look the part, as do the vessels themselves. Avoiding the clinical sharpness of its forebears Invasion chooses to blur the proceedings a little to add scale to the larger ships, the slightly softer image adding a previously unseen sense of depth and size to the grander and richer textures. These visuals are matched by a soundtrack that has had considerable thought put into it. Truly cinematic in feel it mimics rather than adopts the Star Trek themes (presumably for copyright reasons despite Paramount's role as executive producers) and during the ingame sequences leading up to missions enhances the storytelling superbly. It is though a flawed masterpiece. The music accompanying levels is beautifully done, but is far too short. As would be expected the tunes adapt to support the mystery, tension or all out dogfighting going on but each piece loops with a pause at the end that becomes very quickly annoying. At times you can almost feel the frustration of the orchestra launching into the same piece for the tenth time as you fail once again to knock down the elusive adversaries darting about the screen. On long levels it is guaranteed eventually to drive you insane.
Make It So
As is the game itself. For all its brilliance Invasion is very hard. Frustratingly annoying and without a suitable step down for less able players. The game's easy mode is far from being that and without any form of warning will finish after the seventh level, forcing a restart. In doing this it will undoubtedly short change many players unable to grasp the almost superhuman control and targeting abilities needed to progress on the medium or hard settings. Invasion has a dumbed down feel to it compared to the involved plot politics of Colony Wars, perhaps with a younger audience in mind. The difficulty though hasn't been adapted to match and I feel the game imposes too many restrictions to make it truly enjoyable. Power ups for example needlessly fade very quickly after appearing giving you one shot at picking them up. Worf also has a tendency to get tetchy with the slower player and impose totally unnecessary time limits on some levels. Phenomenally annoying when after ten minutes of blood sweat and tears the mission is curtailed suddenly just as you are chasing down the last handful of attacking fighters. There is also no variation at all in the mission objectives, they all ultimately boil down to shooting everything which quickly becomes repetitive. The linear mission structure does reward the persistent player with occasional sub missions, weapon upgrades and new ships, but nothing that makes the frustrated space cadet want to return to the game after replacing a control pad broken in anguish after yet again falling short of clearing the screen.
These complaints aside Invasion is a competent and engrossing title so far as it is playable with lovely touches such as Patrick Stewart and Michael Dorn's voiceovers. A marked departure from normal Star Trek licences that might have made more sense under the more conflict oriented banner of something like Babylon 5, I for one hope that Warthog use this as a springboard to something greater on the Playstation 2. They certainly know how to make a game look nice and with a little refinement of a needlessly complex control system could provide us with the greatest sci fi shoot'em up ever to grace a console.