Star Trek games have carried a stigma almost as large as the shows themselves. Some games were poorly made ports with the Star Trek banner slapped on them, and many were seen as sub-standard products designed to get quick cash into publisher's pockets. One game, however, managed to be a commercial hit with high critical acclaim: Star Trek Voyager - Elite Force, the third game for the franchise under publisher Activsion.
Released in 2000, many factors contributed to the title's success. The game was developed by an experienced team at Raven Software, using the new Quake III engine that had become both familiar and popular to FPS gamers. Elite Force also succeeded in creating an immersive Star Trek atmosphere, putting the player in locations and situations that mirrored those from the show and putting them in charge of a squad of security officers, known as the Hazard Team - essentially a creative way of explaining why Starfleet officers would 'shoot first, ask questions later' and keep the game fun and interesting. The game also featured the entire main cast from the show, voiced by the original actors from Star Trek Voyager.
Reviews were overwhelmingly positive, and a community of multiplayer gamers and modders was growing in strength. It made perfect business sense for Activision to organise a sequel. As Raven were tied to other projects, Activision searched out another veteran FPS development team. Eventually the task fell to Ritual Entertainment and pre-production on the title began in late 2001. Star Trek Elite Force II, commonly referred to as EF2 among fans, was officially announced in a press release on April 4th, 2002.
Elite Force was moved into the setting of Star Trek: The Next Generation, a more popular and longer serving part of the franchise, and would see the Hazard Team transfer to the Starship Enterprise, under the command of the legendary fan-favourite Captain Jean-Luc Picard. The game story was to take place after the events of the upcoming movie, Nemesis. Ritual were given access to production art from the movie to keep their recreation of the 'Big E' as up-to-date as possible, which, along with the rest of the game, was again being created in the venerable Quake III engine, although it was beginning to reach the end of its life cycle.
"It did not limit creativity," recalls Richard Heath, a level designer for the game, "The engine proved to be a great platform for us to launch the rather large number of features the game had to offer. The visual detail that was placed into the world was far ahead of its time, and the tiki-scripting was so powerful that it even allowed us to create games within the game. When you look back at EF2 and all the different environments, weapons, characters, mini-games, bosses, and game sequences, you realize that the game was far from limited in creativity." Of course, Ritual had the advantage of enhancing the engine with their own UberTools, which were also used to great effect in games such as American McGee's Alice and Medal of Honor: Allied Assault. This allowed the sequel to feel and look improved over its predecessor.
Enhancing the engine and changing the setting were not the only ways Ritual set out to differentiate the game from the original title, as Heath explains, "Originally, nearly every feature in EF1 was to stay in the game, and we were to improve on all of the features, as well as add more. As you can imagine, this was quite a task to try and achieve, considering we were starting from scratch ourselves. The two biggest things for us were definitely storyline and the character/enemy AI." The storyline of the game, like many other games and films at the time, was affected by the events of September 11th. In the early days of pre-production, Lieutenant Munro and the rest of the Hazard Team had to defend Starfleet Academy on Earth from 'space terrorists,' but this part ended up being cut after terrorism struck in real life.
The story was revised and put Munro and his team on the heels of the Exomorphs, a manufactured and controlled race of aliens, and how they figured into the struggle between the Attrexians and Idryll, two new and original races created by Ritual. Familiar races, such as the Romulans, were also thrown in for good measure. The storyline was not the only strength of the single player experience. Richard Heath feels the biggest accomplishment was the diversity in gameplay featured in Elite Force II; "There were always new puzzles to solve and completely new enemies to combat. Each area was vastly different than the previous, and the player was constantly being challenged to do something they hadn't done in the game before." Indeed, the game offered mini 'puzzles' using the famous Tricorder to progress through certain parts of the game, larger outdoor planet environments not featured in the original game and variation in mission objectives and play styles, from espionage to calling in planetary bombardments.
Heath however, was not perfectly satisfied with the finished story, "I felt that one of the weakest parts of the single player game was the lack of continuity at parts. We warped the player all over the universe, literally, and sometimes it felt a little forced. We never revisited an area, and never really let the player get a feel for where he was, or where he was going." Overall, however, the single player was a solid experience and was generally well received.
Where Elite Force II did not manage to achieve the same success as the original game was multiplayer. Elite Force had many different game modes, which were built upon by an expansion set that was released just prior to the start Ritual's work on the sequel. Many would suggest that Ritual did not focus on creating a substantial multiplayer component to the game, but Heath reveals this was not the case. "One of the strengths of the MP was the ability for us to have spent quite a bit of time trying to tweak the actual gameplay. A lot of the weapons, movement, and play modes went through many balanced and tweak passes for the MP."
Ritual added new gametypes, such as 'Bomb Diffusal' and 'Action Hero' in an attempt to not clone, but bring something new to the table, but the lack of dedicated maps tailored to the game modes offered led to the multiplayer component falling short of its potential. "The biggest weakness of the multiplayer, I believe, was the fact that most of the maps had to support tons and tons of game modes," says Heath, "Instead of allowing maps to focus on a single purpose and excel in that purpose, most of them had to be muddled down and support multiple modes." Of course, by this time, the gaming community had many dedicated multiplayer games on offer, leaving Elite Force, and indeed the Star Trek franchise, not the first place to choose for online play.
Many development teams would continue to add to their games through patches and updates to fully flesh them out, but the possibility of post-game support was crushed by Activision's decision to file a 'breach of contract' lawsuit against Viacom, the owners of the Star Trek franchise, claiming, "By failing and refusing to continue to exploit and support the Star Trek franchise as it had promised, Viacom has significantly diminished the value of Star Trek licensing rights including the rights received by Activision. Moreover, in so doing, Viacom has breached a fundamental term of its agreement with Activision and has caused Activision significant damage." As a result, Activision pulled away from its licence deal less than a week after the release of Elite Force II in June 2003, leaving it without the marketing needed to make it a commercial success and bringing a halt to the game's production run, ending any hopes of high sales numbers.
Nevertheless, the game did appeal to press reviews, and despite a sharp decline in the Star Trek gaming community over the year following the release of the game, it is still highly regarded as one of the hits of the Star Trek games line and some dedicated fans are still supporting the game with the release of new multiplayer maps and the creation of modding projects. For Ritual, it added another solid game to their portfolio. "EF2 taught us many lessons, both good and bad," explains Heath, "The largest ones I walked away with were how crunch can cause more mistakes and bugs than it fixes and how feature creep can be both a developerís and the gameís worst nightmare."
Despite the game's premature end on store shelves and with its existence now limited to eBay and second-hand bins, it seems that the final word on Elite Force II isn't written yet. "We really enjoyed creating EF2 with Paramount and we would love see it made available to gamers again," shares Ritual CEO Steve Nix when asked about the possibility of the game being re-released. "There are multiple parties involved and Bethesda currently owns the Star Trek license for games, but it is definitely something that we are looking into." So, with any luck, these complexities will be untangled soon and pave the way for Elite Force II to be available again.