By Scott Rosenberg
IF ALIEN visitors used computer games to research human culture, they'd conclude that we all live under Federation rule and wander the galaxy at warp speed. The universe of "Star Trek" has dominated and shaped the emerging field of computer gaming the way, say, the world of vaudeville shaped the early days of movie and TV.
It's difficult to imagine now, but back in the dark ages of computing (about, oh, 20 years ago), people played "Star Trek" computer games on teletype paper. As you hunted down Klingon cruisers, Battleship-style, the printer would laboriously type out the map of your quadrant on a crude grid every turn.
Today, we patrol Federation space with a full multimedia arsenal. In the new "Star Trek: The Next Generation 'A Final Unity,' " this year's state-of-the-art "Star Trek" game, the recorded voices of the TV show's cast accompany their finely rendered on-screen animations.
"A Final Unity," which took years for game manufacturer Spectrum Holobyte to produce, is the first PC game to be built around the "Next Generation" characters. This gives it one supreme advantage: You're rarely more than a mouse-click away from hearing Patrick Stewart's Captain Jean-Luc Picard declare, in his precise baritone, "Make it so."
Fun. But it also serves as a reminder that we're still waiting for the computer that understands us when we say "Make it so." Unlike most newer PC products, which run under Windows, "A Final Unity" is a DOS-based game -- and installing it may demand the skills of a Lt. Commander Data, particularly if you've got an older computer.
With its hours of lifelike sound and its richly detailed universe, "A Final Unity's" design is significantly more appealing than that of previous-generation "Star Trek" games for the PC, like "Star Trek: 25th Anniversary." But its multimedia advances only underscore the compromises inherent in its hybrid nature.
"A Final Unity" hovers uncomfortably in a hyperspace void halfway between movie drama and adventure game. Depending on the choices you make, you may find yourself sitting for several minutes at a time while action unfolds on screen without your needing to lift a finger. On the other hand, you can also get trapped in idle backwaters where you seem to be doing nothing but sending characters at a slow saunter from one side of the screen to the other.
To their credit, the game's designers have built in some measure of control over just how far you wish to immerse yourself in minutiae. Devotees of complex game-play can indulge in the finer points of astral navigation and space combat; the rest of us will hand over these tasks to the appropriate crew member. After all, delegation is half of any great commander's art.
Either way, you are still likely to wind up frustrated by "A Final Unity's" overall dynamic, which hacks up a movie plot into little pieces and doles them out as prizes for solving mysteries. Lovers of science-fiction drama will be happier with TV reruns and movies; devotees of the "Star Trek" universe itself will prefer the many encyclopedic products on the market, like Simon and Schuster's "Star Trek: The Next Generation Interactive Technical Manual." The only people who will truly love "A Final Unity" are mystery fans.
All of which leads me to wonder whether state-of-the-art games like "A Final Unity" are as great an advance over the old teletype-propelled "Star Trek" games as you'd think. To be sure, they do a better job of simulating the world of a TV show. But in the context of a different era, the typed-out status reports of the old-fashioned game gave a fuller sense of command -- and a deeper sense of wonder -- than any multimedia product today.
The old games had a couple of other advantages. As programs written in the easy-to-learn Basic language, they were simple to modify and extend; anyone with a smattering of Basic could customize the games or contribute neat new wrinkles to their code.
They were also essentially free. Today, of course, "Star Trek" is understood to be a lucrative franchise property; you can't open the manual for "A Final Unity" without sighting swarms of trademark registrations. (Somehow the dignity of the Enterprise's captain feels a little compromised when his name appears in print as "Picard (TM)." )
But the heyday of the old games, 20 years ago, occurred well after the original "Star Trek" TV series had been canceled by its network -- over the protests of legions of letter-writing viewers -- and before movie spin-offs and "The Next Generation" had sparked a revival. That meant you could create a "Star Trek" computer game as an expression of love, and distribute it free to a community of fans, without needing lawyers and agents to sign off on the deal. In this, at least, the last generation of computer gaming had a leg up on the next.
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