Thursday, 20 October 2016

Star Trek - Pirates of the Federation

Written by Joe Pranevich


Space pirates!

In our last episode, Captain Kirk and his crew saved a group of colonists from shape-changing robots guarding an ancient sleeping race. It was a fun adventure even though the space combat was tricky on modern laptops and I struggled with the eclipse puzzle. As the curtain closes on that episode, it’s time start another: “Hijacked!”

The story opens as usual with an assignment from Starfleet: the USS Masada failed to report in as scheduled. We are to travel to the Beta Myamid system, investigate the delay, and take whatever actions we deem necessary. It seems like another rescue mission, but this time we are looking for a ship. Once in the system (after passing the requisite copy protection), we are greeted by an “Elasi” captain. He’s a surly sort and tells us that we have to leave immediately because we are interfering with their affairs. Moments later, he arms weapons and raises shields; we have no choice but to fight.

Deja vu...

Before I get into that action-packed battle, I promised last week that I would take a deeper look at the interface. From the comments, I see that this is a big problem for some of you playing along. As far as I can tell, this engine was custom-built by Interplay and was only used on this game and its sequel. It is very similar to others that we have seen: the left mouse button is used to move or select, the right calls up a menu of verbs.

That’s where this gets a bit strange: the “menu” is actually a tiny picture of a golden, naked human:


Close up of “Interface Man”

It’s not all that complicated from there: we click on his eyes for “look”, his mouth for “talk”, and his two hands are for “take” (left) and “use” (right). The rest of his chiseled body does nothing, but the Enterprise logo in the upper right corner accesses the system menu. I don’t want to seem too harsh, but these are tiny UI elements on an already small picture. It’s very easy to miss your target and click off of the hotspots. Some games that we have seen used text menus so that the verbs could be situational and others used fixed text or icons at the top or bottom of the screen, but few of them were this tiny and kludgy. Devoting so much of the “UI” to non-clickable area also seems questionable.

The “use” icon is the strange one because it does several things depending on the context.
  • You can click “use” and then an item on the screen to manipulate it as Kirk.
  • You can click “use” and then a member of the away team to switch control to that person. From there, you can click on the screen again to manipulate whatever the object is as that team member.
  • You can click “use” and then an inventory icon appears in the upper-left of the screen. Clicking there lets you select your inventory items to use on the screen. With an item selected, you can click the inventory icon again to use the item on another item in your inventory.
  • Using an item with another item is very touchy. If you use a combination that doesn’t work, you select the other item instead of getting an error. It also seems that sometimes you can only use two items together in specific rooms for no plot-relevant reason. For example, you can use the tricorder on a museum item in your inventory only in the museum room. This makes solving some of the puzzles extra hard.

Six items in the default inventory.

On the topic of inventory, there are six items that we always seem to start with: two phasers (green for stun and red for kill), a tricorder, a medical tricorder, a communicator, and a medkit. Items that you pick up in one episode do not seem to carry over to the next. The two “tricorders” act as more intense “examine” functions. Spock can use the regular one to comment on the environment, computers, etc. while Dr. McCoy can use the medical tricorder to see the health of an individual. The game does not make you switch to Spock and McCoy to use these items as the relevant character will always take over when you use them. One nice touch with the interface is that the cursor changes whenever you hover over something you can interact with. This makes finding the manipulatable objects in the rooms much easier. It’s a good touch and one of the few elements of the UI which I really appreciate. As a guy who managed UI engineers for a year or two, I find the use of a non-intuitive graphic to select the “verbs” to be strange. I welcome other folks to comment. Is it just me?

One final note before I move on: after a commenter told me what 3% that I missed last week (I did not show the Nauian the skull), I couldn’t help but restore and get 100% and 4 commendations for the episode. If there is anything special about the ending later, I don’t want to miss it by mistake.


You know the battle’s going well when this happens...

Prepare To Be Boarded!

I don’t know how to talk about combat with the Elasi ship except to say that it is tougher than the mock battle we fought in the first episode. The Enterprise was damaged frequently and I kept Scotty hard at work trying to keep up with the repairs. That involves toggling the target analysis mode off to see our health, ordering the repair, then switching back to the enemy. I died constantly. The Elasi ship also will be repaired if I don’t keep damaging it, so I just had to get lucky enough to score hits in succession. It was very frustrating. After 25 minutes of running, shooting, fixing, and repeating, I get lucky enough to defeat him. Next post, I’ll dig deeper into the battle system and see if I can do a better job explaining it.


Warp nacelles on the bottom?

After defeating the pirates, we are free orbit the planet. The Masada is there, her shields up and with twenty-seven lifeforms aboard. Spock suggests that we use a command prefix to lower their shields briefly and sneak a transporter signal across. These “command prefixes” are secret backdoor codes to override control of a Federation ship but they must not be too secret because we have the Masada's in the library computer. Her crew compliment is only seventeen so we can assume there are at least ten pirates on board. This will be fun!

Before I board, I research Elasi pirates in the library computer: they are a “Class I” threat, responsible for 46 attacks on Federation ships in the last three years. We also learn a ton about their clan structure and homeworld, but I see no immediate value in knowing that there’s an Andorian colony on their main planet. I suspect this will be more important later. All of this points to the Elasi as recurring antagonists in this game. The manual lists them as one of the big three enemy groups we might encounter, the others being Romulans and Klingons. As far as I know, they were created for this game and have not appeared in other Star Trek productions.


The art of negotiation.

Before we backdoor the ship, I try diplomacy. We hail the captain, a man named Cereth, and I get some dialog options. I accuse him of being in possession of stolen property and he disagrees. Instead, he wants us to free twenty-five Elasi political prisoners before he will release the crew. I try to get them to send over the hostages as a show of good faith, but he’s not having it. I tell him that the prisoners have already been tried in court and they are serving their legitimate punishments. He doesn’t take that very well and we’re going to have to do this the hard way.

I have Uhura send the command prefixes, but the game makes me type the 16-digit code myself. I have to go to the library computer, write the code down, and then come back. It’s simple enough, but they really could have just noted that I asked the computer first. That seems successful, but it still will not let me beam over because the shields are up. It takes me almost 10 minutes to realize that it is the Enterprise’s shields that are up! I lower them and we sneak aboard the Masada. Time to liberate.


Their transporter has a wheelchair ramp.

We arrive in the Masada’s transporter room and find it shot to hell. I send McCoy to help a wounded crew member who tells us that the Elasi boobytrapped the ship. Fortunately, he hid some tools that we can use in a secret compartment. How helpful! He gives us a “Runcinate Transmogrifier”, a technobabble device that is used to maintain transporter systems. This one is missing some bits. Spock looks at the transporter and says that it would take Mr. Scott two days to repair it. Since we don’t have two days, I guess that is moot. If not to fix the transporter, what will I use my transmogrifier on?


This place sure is a mess!

Without finding anything else to do in the transporter room, we head out into the hallway. We find a ton of junk on the floor, some of which might be useful later: five phasers without power packs, a drained “phaser welder”, scraps of metal, and pieces of wire. I pocket all of it. The door to the bridge at the end of the hall is protected by a force field, but there is also a hallway to the right. We’ll go that way first.

The side room turns out to be the brig where the pirates are keeping the Masada crew. There are two guards, but we stun them both before they can kill anyone. Unfortunately, the holding cell has been boobytrapped so that any attempt to open it will detonate a bomb and kill all of the prisoners. Even touching it causes the bomb to go off and I have to restore.


Looking for the bathroom?

I do not find anything else in the room I can manipulate so I go to my inventory. If I use a phaser on the welder, I can charge its drained batteries. I can then use it on the metal scraps to make a bit for the transmogrifier. I still have no idea what it does, but Spock seems happy. Despite telling me it was impossible earlier, Spock is mostly able to fix the transporter but he needs wires as the ones we have are not long enough. There are wires all over the transporter room and hallway, but we can’t seem to pick any of those up. Trying to weld the little ones I picked up into bigger ones just results in them being destroyed.

The answer was right in front of me: I need the wires attached to the bomb in the brig. I expected that I could beam the prisoners out of the cell, but that doesn’t seem to be the case. If Kirk tries to defuse the bomb, everyone dies, but I find that if I select Spock to do the work, he is able to do it successfully. Everyone lives! The crew tells us of a secret spot that we can use the phaser welder on that will take down the forcefield. Before I do that, I also confirm that Spock is able to finish repairing the transporter. I have two paths to the bridge. Which should I take?

Beaming in seems like it would give us the best jump on our enemies, but that doesn’t go as planned. We are immediately in a firefight and my redshirt gets killed. I restore and try a different strategy, but no matter how quickly I go or who I shoot first, one of the pirates always kills my security officer. What am I to do? I’m embarrassed to say I tried this nearly twenty times before I thought to try talking before shooting. If we talk to the pirate captain, we convince him to surrender. Enterprise security beams in and the mission is over!


I’ll get you next time, Gadget.

Once again, I get a 97% score. I’m pretty happy with that, but I actually restore back and this time destroy the forcefield too. Even though that is unnecessary, it bumps my score up to 100%. Go me! This episode seems shorter even than the first one. Should I try to cover two episodes in a post if I can? Or leave it at one?


I seem to always catch this guy blinking…

Star Trek Trivia
  • The Elasi pirates seem completely unrelated to the Elasians, a race of Greek-inspired people from "Elaan of Troyius". I wonder if they were originally intended to be Ferengi, a pirate-like race that first appeared in TNG. The Ferengi were a poorly-written and developed race when this game came out; Ron Moore fleshed them out considerably during Deep Space Nine.
  • The USS Masada was probably named after the Israelite fort. There is an outside chance it was named for the science officer from the USS Constellation that was killed during its battle with the “planet killer” ("The Doomsday Machine").
  • The use of a secret “prefix code” to backdoor a Federation ship and force it to drop shields wasn’t from the original series but was first used in Star Trek III: The Search for Spock. It was also used once on TNG (“The Wounded”). 
Still no direct references to The Next Generation, but I’m surprised the writers were pulling things from the films! I should have made that wager instead.


Up next: Shakespeare references

Time played: 1 hr 55 min
Total time: 4 hr 25 min

Note Regarding Spoilers and Companion Assist Points: There’s a set of rules regarding spoilers and companion assist points. Please read it here before making any comments that could be considered a spoiler in any way. The short of it is that no points will be given for hints or spoilers given in advance of me requiring one. Please...try not to spoil any part of the game for me...unless I really obviously need the help...or I specifically request assistance. In this instance, I've not made any requests for assistance. Thanks!

15 comments:

  1. I couldn't figure out how to get the transporter repaired, so I just went through the forcefield. I tried reloading a couple times to choose different dialog options with the Elasi leader at the end, and got pretty similarly bad scores. It was interesting though that choosing an antagonistic dialog option made the Elasi surrender immediately, while choosing a more diplomatic dialog option caused a firefight to break out.

    I am annoyed that there doesn't seem to be a "restart mission" option, especially since there doesn't seem to be a way to save a game between finishing a mission and seeing the intro/briefing for the next mission, which would be the natural place to want to save. So I lose track of what my mission is and which system I need to travel to if I choose to take a break at the natural stopping point. :(

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    1. I agree on the saving between missions, but fortunately I have a save right before the end of each mission. Then you hit the NEXT problem which is the low maximum number of saves...

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  2. That interface is a disaster. It looks great, but it's not intuitive enough, especially when compared to the Lucasarts and Sierra alternatives.

    At least this was made in an era where you had to read the manual, because at least that is quite good at explaining things. The only part that has driven me to complete frustration is using an item on another item, which seems to be dependant on the room which you're in, for no good reason.

    The ship interface & ship combat is similarly obtuse, but at least you can learn the keyboard shortcuts to help you out there.

    For what it's worth, I found the Elasi ship combat pretty easy now that I know what I'm doing, much easier than the mock battle in the first episode.

    My poor map reading in episode I also got me into a couple of combats with Elasi and Klingons (if you pick a star system that you're not supposed to visit you get a space combat encounter). The Elasi ships are quick but weak, but the Klingons beat me easily.

    I also wonder if this would have been better packaged as a series of episodes, selectable from a main menu. So far there's nothing to link them together, so a selection of stand-alone episodes might have been good.

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    1. Since it is taking me too posts to explain it, I think you are correct. But it's not THAT bad really, but the issue with using objects with objects is a major mess.

      And did I mention that if you leave the room after defusing the bomb but without collecting the wires, they just disappear. You can lock yourself out of that ending very easily because of this bug. (And there is no plot-driven reason for it.)

      So far, I LOVE the writing. The puzzles are... we'll see once I get a few more episodes in. But the interface just seems amateur.

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    2. Finished episode 2, with a score of 77% and 2 commendation points.

      Finally combined items (had to be in the corridor, rather than the transporter room).

      Third episode starts well, but now I'm stuck again. Some tricky puzzles! Not even sure what I should be doing, but I'll talk about that next time.

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    3. The interface most annoyed me when I had been looking at stuff, but then wanted to use my tricorder. I consistently forgot to deselect 'look' before going to my inventory and clicking on the tricorder, which just made me look at it, so I had to leave the inventory screen, right-click somewhere to deselect 'look' then go back to interface man, and click on use again to be able to select the tricorder.

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  3. Your screenshot captions are really funny! I laughed aloud at the Inspector Gadget reference.

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  4. This game has a truly terrible UI. Tht said, I'm up to mission 3 now and it's enjoyable overall. I found the Elasi mission far more difficult - working out that I had to get Spock to interact with the wires under the panel was not intuitive at all, nor charging the welder. I've been reading the 'cluebook' as I play through a mission. It gives a lot of info that I just couldn't get through the UI (Spock only volunteers that we need something for the engineering do hickey once we already get it on for example.)

    One interesting thing possibly of note - the Admiral is a woman in the enhanced CDROM version, but I've otherwise noticed no real differences between your play and my own.

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    1. I am currently stuck on EP3 so the post may be delayed until I solve it because I'd hate to do a "Request for Assistance" here already. I have the cluebook as well, but it's sitting far far away from me so that I can take a look at it when I'm done.

      In the original game, the admiral is also a woman in EP2.

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    2. I found Episode 3 tricky, and did rely on a couple of hints (from here: http://www.uhs-hints.com/uhsweb/st25.php - so it didn't spell it out like the official hintbook). I missed a door early on, so I had problems finding a couple of items. After that, it wasn't too bad (some trial and error required, and the interface can be quite fiddly for that).

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    3. Episode 4 is so far the most perplexing. Not helped by what I think might be a major bug, and my general bafflement as to what I should be doing. And of course I missed a room entirely because it wasn't clear that there was a door.

      This is certainly an interesting game. Not sure how much I'd be appreciating it if it weren't Star Trek though.

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    4. I should clarify that I'm reading the cluebook post episode to see what I missed. Lots of dialogue I've simply no idea how to trigger it seems!

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    5. Hints for mission 3, in order:
      - Pbhagvat gur ebbz lbh fgneg va, gurer ner sbhe ebbzf npprffvoyr ivn gur (J)nyx pbzznaq
      - Gurer ner fbzr srngherf va gur raivebazrag lbh'yy arrq gb (H)fr, rvgure qverpgyl be ivn gung jerapu
      - Gurer vf fbzr svavpxvarff vaibyirq va hfvat gur jerapu ba gur tnf gnaxf
      - Lbh arrq gb znavchyngr gur tnf gnaxf zber guna bapr :(
      - Fcbpx pna or hfrq ba gur rdhvczrag va gur ebbz jvgu gjb tnf gnaxf
      - Lbh pna jnfgr n arj tnf lbh'ir perngrq ol hfvat vg va gur jebat cynpr. Cebonoyl jnag gb fnir orsber gelvat gb hfr vg, whfg gb fnir lbhefrys fbzr urnqnpurf, gubhtu lbh pna nyfb whfg tb perngr vg ntnva
      - Vg'f cbffvoyr gb perngr n arj vgrz ol chggvat na vgrz vagb gur bhgchg punzore bs gur znpuvar, gura univat Fcbpx eha gur znpuvar ntnva, vs lbh unir gur pbeerpg tnf plyvaqref ubbxrq hc
      - Vs lbh whfg jnvg nebhaq, bar bs lbhe ceboyrzf jvyy fbyir vgfrys, ohg gurer'f n zhpu orggre nafjre

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    6. I ended up with 68% and only 1 commendation point the first time I finished Mission 3. And that's without getting the redshirt killed, which is possible. I wonder if I would have gotten zero commendation points for getting the redshirt killed!

      I had some ideas about how to do better though, and got 100% with 4 commendations on a re-play.

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  5. Like others, I also had problems throughout the game of not knowing an exit exists and totally missing rooms. I ended this mission with 85% and 2 commendations, and don't think I even repaired the transporter as I could just walk through the door after destroying the force field.

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