Bridge Crew tells the story of the USS Aegis NX-1787 and its staff, a Federation vessel designed for long-range surveillance of early-stage civilizations. The four players each man a station on the bridge, starting with the helmsperson, who is responsible for piloting the ship. Second, there's tactical, who's in charge of the ship's weapons, shields and scanners. A third plays is the engineer, who assigns the Aegis' limited power reserves between engines, shields and phasers while also manning the transporter. Rounding out the quartet is the captain, who is in possession of knowledge the other three need to do their jobs. Oh, and they also have the important job of pressing the all-important Red Alert button.
The story begins with a message from the local admiral, which allows the crew to settle into their positions. We're told that a nearby starbase has gone silent, and that the Aegis needs to go check out why. Naturally, we warp over to find assistance, only to find a wreck scattered beautifully in front of the neighboring star, which is about to go nova. We scan the area to find three escape vessels, beam aboard the survivors and warp away before the star explodes. So far, so Kobayashi Maru,* and true to form, once you've rescued the first six bodies, three Klingon vessels decloak and attack.
Sitting in the center seat was the culmination of a lifelong obsession with Star Trek that's seen me play a lot of tie-in games. As a dirt-poor kid from a rural town, the show offered me a vision for a better future: people -- smart people -- working together to solve problems and make the world a better place. Nobody beat up the smart kids for doing well in the 24th century, or for being bad at football, which made it a pretty nice place to live -- the sort that I'd have traveled to in an instant. Or, at least, I would have, except commanding a starship isn't as easy as you think.
You can't beam aboard survivors with your shields up, and dropping them in the face of three attacks would be suicide. So while it's presented as an ethical decision to fight or save lives, you're pretty much forced into going on the offensive. But there's a problem, because while Star Trek: Bridge Crew is a Kelvin-timeline** game, ship movement has been cribbed from the original. That means the USS Aegis maneuvers like an ocean liner compared to the fighter-jet-like Klingon craft. Going toe-to-toe with three far more powerful enemies turned out to be a disaster, and no matter how many times we played the demo, we couldn't win. (Although, in our defense, Ubisoft's representatives told us that the demo would break if we let the ship explode.)
Each player can only do his or her job properly with the support of the others, and the captain is key to guiding everyone. Only captains have a readout on the status of the enemy vessel when it cuts weapon power to recharge its shields. It's their job to use this information to guide the other three in coordinating attacks and when to run away to lick their own wounds. But that's easier said than done in a high-stakes space battle in which your helmsman needs more power for the engines and the tactical officer needs that same juice for the phasers.
Yes, we were playing a VR game in the back room of a central London art gallery, but that didn't make the pressure any less real. In fact, my palms were sweating against the smooth plastic of the Oculus Touch controllers and any water in my mouth had evaporated. I began to stammer and stumble as I tried to work out some -- any -- form of strategy to get us through this. I can feel my heartbeat in my ears grow progressively louder to the point where I can no longer hear my colleagues cry for assistance. No matter how many times we played the demo, we were unable to get beyond rescuing the first "gimme" survivors -- mostly because I couldn't coordinate everyone successfully. All those years immersed in the Star Trek canon had left me more John Harriman than Benjamin Sisko.
On one hand, Star Trek: Bridge Crew breaks new ground in delivering a Trek game that actually captures the spirit of the series. The graphics are slightly cartoonish, but that doesn't detract from the immersion you feel. It's nice to notice digital extras being thrown around the bridge when you take on damage, or the consoles sparking and smoking. After a particularly sturdy torpedo hit, a ceiling panel swings down and dangles above the viewscreen, something you'd expect to see in the show. Upon leaving the demo, I was flushed, excited and desperate to spend more time inside Bridge Crew to experience all that it could offer. But we'd overrun our time slot, because even a speedy run can quickly stretch to cover half an hour.