Star Trek: Starfleet Command Review
By: ChockrickBear | Jun. 29, 2018 | Views: 133 | Keywords: strategy space starship simulator
A high-risk, high-reward starship battle simulator that tests your energy management skills, but lacks polish.
I watched a lot of Star Trek in my youth along with my brothers, which led to trying out Star Trek games. I played Starfleet Command and Starfleet Command III, but never played II. Starfleet Command had a lot of intricacies I didn't fully grasp and I even found it a bit scary because there were giant space monsters and that it had a subtly dark tone to it. Fast-forward to today, I decided to try this game again as my older, wiser self.
This game is a starship battle simulator that is all about micromanaging your ship's power consumption, weapon and system cooldowns, and maneuvering to outplay your opponents. There are six races from which you can choose to play as: Starfleet (humans), Klingon, Hydrans, Lyrans, Gorn, and Romulans. Each race has access to different weapons, which requires you to adapt your strategy to them. There's also the Orion Pirates, which you can't play as, but they have a mix of weapons from every race and serve as generic enemies every race has to fight.
All races have a similar range of ships from frigates to battleships. Bigger ships have more weapons, shields, and energy but are less maneuverable. There are different ship variants within a category. Most are straight upgrades, but others have different weapon configurations and are played a bit differently. You start off with a basic frigate and as you complete missions, you gain prestige points (which is basically money) that let you buy bigger ships, supplies, and higher-skill crew members. You can also buy two additional ships that you can give orders to or take direct control of at any time during a mission. However, you have to pay to stock them with equipment and repairs. If you lose a ship, you lose the prestige you spent on it and you can't grind for more, so you have to protect them. Alternatively, you can just focus on one ship, which I generally recommend because the AI is not particularly good and will get themselves killed. Flying bigger ships is just more satisfying as your damage output increases faster than enemies can tank them. Battleships have so much firepower that it just reinforces the feeling of ownage when you spray down an opponent at point-blank. You also have more energy wiggle-room to manage your systems.
All ships start out with Rookie officers when you first buy them, even with battleships. As you complete missions, they will level up automatically up to Veteran level. Legendary officers must be bought, are expensive, and seldom spawn in the recruitment pool, so you should buy them up as soon as possible. When you sell a ship, you also lose the officers on that ship, but you can save them by selling them into the recruitment pool and then buying them back when you get a new ship. Preserving Legendaries is important because of their rarity and their strong bonuses, but you also have to make sure that when you buy a bigger ship, you have enough prestige left over to buy them back.
The game tracks how much total prestige you earned throughout the campaign. As you gain total prestige, you gain ranks. Higher ranks make ships cheaper, so it's a good idea to save and wait for a new rank before you upgrade. You can also earn medals for completing certain missions. It is unclear what missions give you what medals, as you are not told how to get them and you are not told when you receive one.
As you get better ships, the game auto-balances your opponents by spawning equivalent class ships against you. While you can purchase ships to help you, they affect the auto-balancing and enemies will get more ships as well, often scaling more than if you just went alone, which makes this mechanic unbalanced. Even if you don't buy additional ships, the auto-balancing makes missions somewhat inconsistent in their difficulty. It works fine for most missions, but there are some odd missions that are very hard due to certain fixed elements combined with the auto-balancing tending to stack the odds against you. There are also missions that don't auto-balance, allowing you to dominate with a battleship. Some missions are easier with a team to distract enemies, but a lot of missions become harder, so there's trial and error on whether you should have a team or go solo.
You start off in a lowly frigate going toe-to-toe against pirates. You must prove yourself worthy before you can fly bigger ships and take on higher-profile missions.
As you get prestige, you can afford bigger ships. Despite the multitude of options, most ships in the same category are just straight improvements over others and it is reflected in the prices. The trade-in value of your ship also includes your officers, so don't hit that 'Trade-In' button until you save your valuable officers into the recruitment pool.
Officers on your ship will gain experience as you go on missions and will upgrade themselves up to Veteran. Legendary officers have to be bought and they're not cheap. Legendaries can give you bonuses Veterans can't, so you should save to buy them up as soon as possible. When changing ships, swap out your Legendaries so you can buy them back for your new ship, but make sure you have enough prestige left over.
Energy management and systems
Ships do not run out of fuel, but they have a very limited energy allocation pool for all your weapons and systems, which requires you to balance offense and defense. Energy is automatically allocated to active systems according to a list of priorities. For example, movement speed takes priority over weapon recharge, which takes priority over shield reinforcement. Many systems take time to charge up in addition to needing to manually turn them on, so you have to plan ahead. Any excess, unallocated energy will be used to charge a reserve battery that will allow you to slightly exceed your ship's energy limit as long as there's energy in the battery.
As your ship takes hull damage, not only will weapons and systems become weakened or disabled, you will have less power available due to damage to the engine. Damage can be repaired with spare parts, but it takes a while depending on the skill of your engineering officer, so you need to buy time. Engines may take multiple repairs to return to full power. Since damage is quite debilitating, you should try to avoid it as much as possible through good planning and maneuvering.
Shields consist of six sides around a ship. Each side has its own shield strength, so you can focus fire on one shield side to penetrate it easily and exploit the opening for follow-up attacks. You can maneuver so that your strongest shield faces your opponent or to protect exposed sides, but you have to balance that with your weapon firing arcs to be able to shoot back, so there's a lot of dancing around involved. Shields regenerate slowly over time, allowing you to potentially squeeze out a little extra protection or recover between battles, but you won't be able to regenerate fast enough to be invincible.
You can reinforce one or more sides with excess energy to reduce damage. The energy acts as extra hitpoints that absorbs the damage first and regenerates quickly, but that energy will be divided among all reinforced sides, so you get better damage protection by reinforcing only one shield. Of course, that means you have to maneuver precisely, which you might not be able to depending on how many opponents you face and how maneuverable they are. Changing reinforcements takes time, so you have to forsee where the enemies will be several seconds later, but a well-reinforced shield can absorb a lot of punishment. You cannot reinforced downed shields, so you need to buy time for it to regenerate by itself.
Shield reinforcement has the lowest energy priority and everything else will draw from this first as needed, so you should always set shield reinforcement to maximum and let it use whatever excess energy you have that would otherwise go to waste. This also means you have to be careful of your energy consumption or else you will find your shields not being reinforced when you need it.
Despite the space setting, all action is on a 2D plane, but everything is rendered in 3D and ships can overlap and fly over each other. However, asteroids and planets cannot be flown over and you will damage yourself by running into them. All ships have the same top speed, but bigger ships require more energy to move. Regardless of ship size, maximum speed takes up all of your ships energy while adjusting your speed is the easiest way to balance consumption. However, keeping your speed up may be necessary to get out of a bad position and you have to decide whether compromising your weapon recharge or shield reinforcement is an acceptable price to pay.
Ships take a while to turn. Bigger ships are naturally less maneuverable, but different races have different maneuverability for the same category of ships. For example, Klingon ships have less firepower, but are more maneuverable. Moving too fast or too slow will make turning slower, so you need to maintain a moderate maneuvering speed. But since speed uses power, you will have to constantly adjust it according to your strategic priorities. If your opponent has weapons charged, you probably want to move slowly so that you can reinforce your shields as much as possible and tank the damage.
While ships can't run into each other, there's a strong tendency for enemies to surf you where they match your speed while sitting on top of and slightly behind you, relentlessly shooting at point blank for maximum damage. To get out of it, you can perform a high-energy turn (HET), which allows you to turn extremely fast for a short period in order to turn the table. These turns take time and power to charge up and also have a chance for failure, which causes damage to your ship and renders you helpless for a while. The chance for success depends on the skill of your helm officer, the size of your ship, and how long it has been since the last HET. If you have a legendary helm officer, you can safely do a HET on a battleship, which is very important because battleships have terrible maneuverability. You can also do an emergency stop to bring your ship to a stop instantly, but this will prevent you from moving again for a while. This can also counter surfing at high speed, causing opponents to fly past you while you can shoot them in the back.
The tractor beam allow you to grab and hold an opponent in place if they are close enough to your ship. It is used to counter an opponent who is more maneuverable than you. It is also useful for drawing an enemy away from friendly ships you need to protect. It has variable power settings and it takes time to charge depending on power setting, but higher power makes it harder for your opponent to break free with a counter-tractor as they have to match your power setting and they waste time charging their tractor. Tractor beams also makes your opponent vulnerable to guided projectile weapons because they can't launch decoy shuttles while being tractored. The tractor beam is prone to cutting itself off if you use too much energy at once, so if you plan on firing your weapons, keep your speed slow.
Special defensive tractor beams are used to protect specifically against missiles homing in on you when you don't have any phasers charged to shoot them down. Activating defensive tractors cost energy regardless if it is actually being used, but it will automatically stop as many missiles as your ship has tractors. Tractored missiles can then be shot down when you have phasers charged. Unlike the normal tractor beam, defensive tractors take no time to charge, and are top energy priority.
Transporters and mines
Your ship's transporters can be used to beam marines onto an enemy ship to either capture it or sabotage their systems so they have a harder time fighting back. However, using transporters requires that your opponent's shields are down in your direction and you have to be close enough. You will also automatically lower your shields in the direction of the transport, which makes you vulnerable. It also takes energy to recharge transporters after each use. Using transporters is a risky action and it isn't reliable at doing effective damage on your opponent, so you're better off just shooting unless the current mission expects you to capture. Captured targets will try to flee the map rather than help you fight, but they aren't that useful anyways because captured targets tend to be heavily damaged. Capturing also rewards you some bonus prestige at the end of a mission, but it's not a lot unless there are many opponents. Marines are spent when they are used and you have to spend prestige to replace them, which cuts into the bonus prestige profit. However, in some cases, enemies are easier to defeat by capturing because they spent all their marines capturing someone else. If they have no marines, sending one marine will instantly capture them.
Mines are mainly used to redirect enemies so they don't get too close. Mines take a couple of seconds to arm and do moderate damage, but won't arm if you are too close to your own mine, which means they won't work if the enemy is following too closely or you are moving slowly. You can transport space mines a short distance away from your ship or you can drop mines without lowering your shields to discourage tailgaters. Mines also require an opponent to be travelling above a speed threshold to trigger, but it's so slow that you can easily maneuver to get the advantage.
Electronic counter-measures / electronic counter-counter-measures
Shooting is based on random rolls and ECM makes you harder to hit while ECCM nullifies your opponent's ECM. You can allocate a maximum of six points distributed between them and you can see your target's settings to counter them. The effective attack modifier is the square root of the difference between your ECM and your opponent's ECCM, rounded down. That means if your opponent has no ECCM, the only ECM allocations that matter is one or four points. All other allocations are for staying ahead of your opponent's allocation so that you are one or four points ahead. However, your opponent will be constantly adjusting their ECM/ECCM values to counter yours, so in order to remain effective, you have to constantly adjust as well, which can lead to a lot of excess busywork.
ECM is also a higher energy priority than shield reinforcement, so if you're being countered, you have deadweight energy loss that could be used to strengthen shields, although the same goes for your opponent so there is an energy manipulation game. However, evening the odds is more energy efficient than countering point-for-point. If your opponent has four points in ECM, you can spend one point in ECCM and one point in ECM to put both of you on even footing. However, your opponent will quickly catch on and will counter you almost immediately until you're spending as much energy as them, then they will try to save energy. Since ECM power priority is below weapons, allocations tend to disappear quickly as weapons are fired and speed is increased. Because ECM has a similar purpose to shield reinforcement, it just feels like a redundant feature that adds needless complexity.
Shuttles and fighters
You can launch various kinds of shuttles to help you, although you only have limited numbers of each type. They are mainly used to give you a one-off advantage that could turn the tide of a battle. Launching shuttles does not cost energy, but you can only launch two at a time before waiting for a cooldown regardless of your ship's size. You can give orders to administrative shuttles and fighters, but it's somewhat buggy as they don't respond consistently. The interface for orders is also lacking because you have to individually select each shuttle to give an order and some ships have more shuttles than the interface can show.
The administrative shuttle acts like a fighter craft with a weak phaser to help do some damage and can help protect your ship from missiles. As long as you have them, you might as well start launching them all right off the bat since bigger ships can carry a whole bunch of these and it takes time to launch them all. Unfortunately, enemies tend to shoot down these shuttles pretty quickly, although that means less phasers on you for the time being to give you an important advantage.
Decoys attract guided projectiles away from you, which waste your opponent's shots and give an opportunity to counter-attack while their guided weapons are recharging. Having a decoy out also gives you an ECM bonus. However, you have to slow to almost a stop before you launch it and you can't fire your weapons without nullifying it. If you launch it while you're moving fast, you will go into an emergency stop and can't move for a while, so decoys are only useful for emergencies. Decoys will last several seconds after being shot, so if an enemy launches one, you have to wait until it's completely gone before firing your guided weapons.
Scatterpacks turn into a bunch of slow-moving seeking missiles that will be launched at your target after a delay. The AI is good at spotting and shooting them, so you need to launch them when your opponent is cycling phasers after say, shooting down your first set of missiles. Only Starfleet and Klingons have access to scatterpacks. You can use scatterpacks in conjunction with your own ship missiles to overwhelm opponents, but ships have a missile control limit that prevents having too many missiles out at once. You can work around it by spacing out your launches so scatterpack missiles launch as soon as your first set of missiles hit or are destroyed.
Suicide shuttles move slowly and ram your opponent. Like scatterpacks, they get shot down easily unless your opponent is distracted but they do quite a bit of damage. Races that don't get scatterpacks can use these, although every race has access to them. They're best launched when you're right in your opponent's face to supplement your ship's weapons, making them work like space bombs that you "drop" on your opponent when their shields are down. Having suicide shuttles on a hotkey is useful for this.
Only Hydrans have access to fighters, which are tougher and better armed versions of administrative shuttles (Hydrans also get administrative shuttles on top of fighters). Fighters are extremely powerful because not only do they soak up enemy weapons that could be used to shoot you, they also carry heavy weapons, which greatly extends the firepower of your ship. If you're lucky, fighters can even destroy your opponent before you get to do anything and enemies are rarely able to counter them.
Cloaking devices are available on Romulan and Klingon ships. Cloak doesn't actually make you invisible, and you can still be targeted and shot at. Instead it makes you harder to hit and take less damage, which is like an ECM bonus. It also makes you untargetable by missiles and plasma torpedos. You can't fire weapons while cloaked and cloaking drains a lot of power, which forces you to be slow. There's also a lengthy transition time as you cloak and decloak, which leaves you unable to shoot during it while the power drain prevents shield reinforcement. Mines can reveal a cloaked ship temporarily, which makes transporter mines a counter to cloak. Even if a cloaked opponent is moving too slowly to trigger a mine, you can just follow closely and trigger your own mine to reveal them.
The main point of cloaking is to avoid missiles and plasma torpedos while you are recharging your own heavy weapons. However, it won't stop persistent enemies from surfing on top of you and peppering you to death with phasers, which makes cloaking not all that big of an advantage. In fact, time a cloaked ship buys for itself is time also given to opponents because they can recharge their weapons and position themselves better for a point-blank crush for when the cloaked ship reveals itself. Cloaking is only useful when you have friendlies because being cloaked will dump aggro on your friendly ships if they are uncloaked. Because it has so many drawbacks and is easily countered, cloaking is a handicap more than a useful tool.
As you approach your opponent, check your opponent's capabilities, prepare your systems, reinforce your shields, and launch your shuttles.
Hydran fighters can sometimes anti-climactically destroy your opponent before you even fire a shot. Even if your opponent survives, he'll be open to your attacks.
Cloaked ships are not invisible and are practically defenseless. All you have to do is transport a mine in front of them, then unload your weapons into their ass when they are revealed. You can still shoot them while they're cloaked, but you won't do as much damage.
Combat and weapons
Ships are armed with many weapons, with each having limited firing arcs and can only fire when your ship is pointed in the right direction. Ships are focused on shooting in front with only a few weapons that can shoot to the side and behind. They also have atrocious effective ranges and have unreliable odds to hit at any range beyond point-blank. The only way to do reliable, effective damage is to rush your opponent and unleash all your weapons in their face in the hopes of doing the most damage while bolstering shield reinforcement to tank their attacks.
Battles are pretty much decided by whoever shoots first and inflicts the most direct damage in one pass. This is because hitting their hull damages their weapons as well as cripple their energy supply, which weakens their ability to retaliate and it results in a downward spiral of taking more and more damage. If you don't do as much damage as possible, you're only giving them the opportunity to turn the tables. Battles get somewhat repetitive because there is no rock-paper-scissors of strategies. The AI behaves the same from mission to mission and falls to the same trick every time. However, you do have to make some adjustments depending on what weapons you're up against.
Long range harrassment is not a viable tactic because ships have the same maximum speed and they turn slowly. Any maneuvering to take harrassment shots will only lead to a pursuing ship closing the distance, not to mention harrassment shots do little damage and have poor hit chances. You will just end up weakening your ability to do point-blank crushes because your weapons will be on cooldown as the enemy closes in quickly. Since moving at high speed draws power from charging weapons, you won't be able to run away to recharge. Running away only works if your opponent is deliberately moving slow. Otherwise, you will find yourself getting tailed, which is a bad situation because ships have more forward weapons than rear weapons. If weapons had better effective ranges, if keeping weapons charged costed a lot of energy, and there were no upper limit to speed, there would be much greater emphasis on maneuvering.
Weapon energy consumption is dynamic. When a weapon charges, it draws a lot of power, but when it's fully charged it takes much less energy to hold. Since you need energy to reinforce shields, you have to restrict how much power should be dedicated to weapons or else your opponent will rip through your shields like wet tissue right after you fire all your weapons.
Every race has phasers, which are instant hit beam weapons that do light damage and cycle quickly. They can also be set to automatically shoot down missiles coming at you, but you need charged phasers, so you have to save them for such cases. You can disable point defense and rely on defensive tractors if you want to prioritize damaging the enemy. You can also set phasers to disable rather than destroy to help you capture targets.
Phasers themselves do not consume energy. Instead, they draw from a global phaser capacitor, which then draws from your ship's energy to charge. Power consumption and recharge speed depends on the number of phasers on your ship and the setting you choose, but a fully charged capacitor consumes no energy. Because of the capacitor's global nature, firing even one phaser from full charge will cause a massive power spike because the capacitor goes into charging mode, even for a brief moment. You should always lower the capacitor setting to minimize this and only raise it when your capacitor can't keep up with the demand.
Photon Torpedos, Disruptors, Fusion Beams, Hellbores
These are heavy weapons that cost more energy to use than phasers and do more damage. Disruptors are used by the Klingons and Lyrans, have greater range, arm faster, but do less damage. Fusion beams are damaging at close range only and are used by the Hydrans. Hellbores are also used by the Hydrans, which distributes its damage across all shield sides with a greater share of damage on the weakest side. Photon torpedoes are used by Starfleet and can be set for ranged harrassment or close range damage. Always fire these at point-blank range because their damage and hit chance drop rapidly over distance, even short distances. Use your phasers to cut through their shields, then unload your heavy weapons directly onto their hull. These weapons can be overloaded to do double damage, but at double the energy cost. If there's not enough power to charge everything at once, only those that do have enough power will charge.
Missiles are guided projectile weapons that are often fired in salvos, move slowly towards your target, and are used by Starfleet and Klingons. Unlike all other weapons, missiles are limited per mission and must be restocked with prestige. They can be shot down by phasers, stopped by defensive tractor beams, have a minimum firing range, and can be tricked by a decoy shuttle. Missiles are subject to a control limit, where you cannot have more than a certain number of missiles out in space at a time, causing excess missiles to vanish. This limit prevents stacking missile salvos with scatterpacks or firing from across the map and wrecking your opponent before they have a chance to do anything. However, you can just time your shots and/or scatterpack deployments so that when the first missiles hit or are destroyed, the next set of missiles are launched. Despite these limits, I'd say they are the most overpowered weapons in the game. So let's see:
- They cost no energy
- Arm as fast as phasers
- Can fire in any direction
- Do more damage than other heavy weapons
- Ships can carry enough to spam them
- Do not miss
- Forces your opponent to waste charged phasers that could be used to shoot you, thus acting as a damage debuff
- Costs your opponent energy to either recharge their phasers or use defensive tractor beams, which could have been used to reinforce shields, thus weakening their defenses
However, overpowered does not mean unbeatable. Ships that have a lot of missiles can still be point-blank crushed if you disable point defense, max defensive tractors, max shield reinforcement in front, and have lots of administrative shuttles deployed. This way you can save your phasers and cripple them quickly. Then you have to run away at high speed to buy time for your phasers to charge and shoot down any tractored missiles. Missiles can trigger mines, so you can use mines to destroy pursuing salvos if there's enough distance and you're running away.
If facing multiple opponents with missiles, you pretty much have to restrict yourself to heavy weapons only and save your phasers entirely for the missiles. Even then, you might not have enough phasers and defensive tractors to keep up with the relentless spamming, so you have to quickly focus down one of the ships and flee to buy time. Without phasers, your damage output will be severely crippled as heavy weapons alone won't do enough damage in reasonable time while your opponents keep spamming missiles to overwhelm your defenses, winning the battle of attrition. Decoys are not an efficient counter unless you are right in their face with all weapons charged and ready to punish because missiles cycle fast and you'll run out of decoys before they'll run out of missiles. It's hard to come out of such encounters unscathed.
Dealing with missiles requires skill that separates a new player from a veteran, but the fact that they're much harder to deal with than other heavy weapons makes them unbalanced. The AI has a hard time countering them and missiles are the reason to not buy any friendly ships. They will just get focused down and wrecked in seconds.
Plasma torpedos are used by the Romulans and Gorn. They are powerful guided projectile weapons like missiles, except they're balanced by the fact that they cost energy, take a long time to recharge, have limited range, and limited firing arcs. They cannot be destroyed by shooting at them, nor can they be stopped by defensive tractors, but they do reduced damage if shot at and they will dissipate the longer they travel, making them ineffective for chasing opponents. You can also launch a pseudo torpedo to play mind games and trigger your opponent to shoot it with their phasers, which wastes their energy and cycle time while you follow up with a real torpedo. However, pseudo torpedos take a long time to recharge, so you should only fire one when you plan on taking advantage of it.
Decoy shuttles counter plasma torpedos. If you have plasma torpedos, you have to be extra observant to see if your opponent has launched a decoy shuttle because a botched torpedo salvo will leave you open to relentless counter-attack, which makes this a high-risk weapon. A salvo of pseudo torpedos will also trigger your opponent to launch a decoy, allowing you to target and shoot the decoy with a phaser. However, ships can launch two shuttles in a row, so you can't reliably follow up pseudo torpedos with real ones. Firing torpedos one at a time will not trigger a decoy launch, but it distributes the damage and negates its primary advantage over other heavy weapons. You can set plasma torpedos to enveloping mode, which doubles its damage, but divides its damage across all six shield sides, but it's still inefficient considering you are still stuck with the long recharge time.
The best way to use plasma torpedos is to use a tractor beam on your opponent and unload on them since they can't launch decoys while tractored. Chances are, if your opponent has eaten a faceful of plasma, they're not going to recover from it. If you can't tractor your opponent (e.g. against starbases), you have to fire one torpedo at a time, maybe fire two to bait them to waste decoys and then unload the rest when they launched two in a row, but like I said, it will distribute damage, which gives the enemy opportunities to shoot back. Trying to use plasma torpedos without a tractor beam is hard and makes them feel underpowered.
Expanding Sphere Generator
This weapon is unique to Lyrans and generates a temporary energy circle that does massive damage on anything and everything caught in its field, so it's used to ram opponents. ESGs will destroy missiles, shuttles, and fighters quickly, but it does cost energy that could be used on your opponent. It's very short ranged, but considering all heavy weapons have very short effective ranges and that you can't harrass effectively, it's not a real disadvantage. The damage is dependent on the set radius and the amount of energy in its capacitor.
While the ESG can be fired often, it won't do its full damage unless you have enough energy in the capacitor, which takes a lot of energy to charge. The capacitor draws as much power as possible to charge so that it charges as quickly as possible, but it leaves no energy for anything else. You can reduce its power consumption like the phaser capacitor, but its consumption scales so much that you have the set the power slider to be very low to have a practical impact on consumption, especially for bigger ships that stack ESGs.
Tractor beams can prevent an ESG ship from ramming you, although the ESG can be set to have a radius farther than the tractor beam at the cost of damage. The AI always tries to go for a zero-radius ESG attack for maximum damage, so in an ESG vs ESG combat, you can tractor them and unleash a maximum radius ESG to hit them. You could also set a radius of 1 to hit them before they hit you, which can cripple their ESG and prevent retaliation.
Lyrans do not have a means to waste enemy phasers because they have no missiles, plasma torpedos, or fighters. They can use administrative shuttles, but so can every other race. They're limited and easily destroyed, making them ineffective for extended fights. When you close the distance, there's a good chance you will end up eating a faceful of phasers, which makes Lyrans a risky race to play.
Once you tractor your opponent, he cannot defend against plasma torpedos. Dealing with plasma torpedos is a mind game that expects you to keep distance, bait opponents to waste shots, and have a counter-tractor ready for this situation. However, due to how movement and weapons work, it is hard to maintain distance and do effective damage, which makes this strategy hard to counter.
Controls and interface
You control your ship through a somewhat cluttered user interface with lots of small buttons intended for a low resolution display. You can play the game entirely with the mouse because anything with a hotkey has a corresponding user interface button. But chances are, you won't be fast enough to execute certain commands on time, so hotkeys are highly recommended. One thing that annoys me is that the phaser capacitor has a separate power meter on the top of the screen rather than in the main side panel where you manage everything else. It's better to be able to toggle through the various panels and adjust each of their settings without needing to move your mouse much.
The default hotkeys are not exactly ergonomic, but they are rebindable and they cover all of the most time-sensitive actions. For example, the default button to fire weapons is bound to 'Z', which requires you to move your hand up and down the keyboard when selecting control groups and firing them. Something like 'Q' would be better. However, you can't rebind mouse buttons. Left-click is used for turning, while right-click selects a target. You can select specific weapons and assign them to control groups 1 to 4, making it easy to fire only the weapons you want. The game also remembers your control group assignments for each ship, so you don't have to reassign them every mission.
One questionable design is the keys for shield reinforcement. There are separate keys for each shield side, but the hotkeys toggle shield reinforcement for that shield rather than focus reinforcement. This makes it difficult to reinforce a specific side on the fly because it means having to manually toggle off other sides. If you reinforced all shields, and you want to just reinforce the side, pressing the key for side reinforcement actually turns it off. As a result, I always use the mouse for shield reinforcements because you can just select the side you want and it will always reinforce only that side you selected. However, shield reinforcement is a bit clunky because you have to select the sides you want and then press the 'Reinforce' button, adding an excess button press when they could have just let you click the sides you want reinforced.
There are two kinds of missions, generic missions, and story missions. All races have the same generic missions, which typically involve defending yourself or convoys from Orion attacks. After completing several generic missions, you will get offers to join your race's special forces, where if you join, you will start the series of story missions. Some races have multiple special forces. They all have the same missions, but have different objectives. You can opt out of playing the story missions and just play the generic missions if you want. There's a good variety of missions, but it does get repetitive when you play the same missions for each race.
Missions sometimes have objective markers in the form of an arrow telling you where you need to go, but many times they don't. There's also no convenient objective list to tell you what needs to be done and whether you have done them. Some missions have undisclosed secondary objectives, some missions end as soon as you finish your objectives, and some missions won't end until you leave the map, which makes it easy to feel like you're missing something when you're not. Some missions are also bugged where it doesn't register an objective as complete even if you did them.
There is also a galactic map, which shows the territories of all the different races. You have the ability to transfer to different sectors on the map, which allows you to get different generic missions and face different enemies depending on which race controls the territory. However, venturing into hostile territory means you won't have access to repair and resupply. This also means possible opponents are limited as well. You are not required to move around the map to finish the game, but staying in one spot will just mean doing the same missions over and over again against the same enemies. Regardless of your location, you will get the same story missions and you can't choose what your next mission will be. The map forms the foundation for a sort of territory domination game, but it is not fleshed out. You are automatically retired after completing the story campaign or if you play enough generic missions, so there is no unlimited play.
You can also play custom skirmish missions outside the campaign. Skirmishes let you setup your own battles, and you can fight opponents you might not have seen in the campaign. There are also a bunch of pre-made custom scenarios as well that you just play once and be done with them. However, skirmishes lack the feeling of progression that comes with earning prestige and buying ships, and there is a lot of setup every time you want to play a mission.
Nebulas cause a bunch of limitations to everyone's ship and serve as a way to shake things up and use different strategies. Your shields will be minimal and you can't reinforce them, so you will need to bolster ECM/ECCM for defense. Missiles and plasma torpedos take damage as they travel, which makes them shorter ranged. ESGs do not work, which puts Lyrans at a disadvantage. You can't use tractor beams, transporters, shuttles, or mines. Nebula battles are all about high-speed hit-and-run. Missile ships are at a disadvantage as long as you maintain distance, bait attacks, and then move in with high-energy turns to score as much damage as possible while they're cycling. These kinds of missions make for some high-risk battles of wit.
I got one starbase assault mission playing as Romulans and it was pretty much impossible because I was given only two allied ships while my opponents always spawned missile cruisers that would utterly wreck my allies while we were stuck with slowly charging plasma torpedos and cloaking devices that do not hold up to gang-banging by multiple ships. Whoever decloaks, gets blasted to smithereens by missiles. However, starbase assault missions are not equal for all races. When I got a starbase assault mission as Hydrans, I was given a large fleet of ships and, suffice to say, we just steamrolled the base. Auto-balancing on Romulans seems to be messed up because often times the game would spawn ships that are a higher class than mine (e.g. I have a battlecruiser and they spawn dreadnoughts, I have a dreadnought and they spawn battleships).
There is also a Klingon mission where you have to draw fire from enemies with a weak ship you are given while a freighter rams into a starbase to destroy it. You are hopelessly outnumbered and outgunned, so it's a get in and get out mission. But since you have paper for shields, it's a very trial-and-error based mission requiring precise management of speed, mines, shield reinforcement, maneuvering, and knowing the mission-specific AI behaviour. They start focusing on the freighter if you stop escorting it and the freighter will often get wrecked before it reaches the base. If you escort the freighter for too long, you won't be able to escape. The mission can only be done with extremely precise timing and perfect play. I suspect this mission was not play-tested for balance when the latest patch halved all shields, making such an endurance mission much harder than it should be.
While on a mission to protect a freighter testing new technology, you encounter Orions trying to raid the freighter conducting the test. You encounter an old friend of yours who comes in to help, but soon he betrays you and goes after the freighter. It turns out that he among many other Starfleet ships came through a rift in space from a mirror universe where Starfleet is evil and are referred to as the Imperials. These Imperials have been using their Starfleet appearance to start wars with other races. Their objective is to conquer your universe through the use of planet killers. You must clear Starfleet of its name to the other races, seal the rift, and stop them from destroying Earth.
A wormhole has appeared that allows the Klingon Empire to strike at their enemies, the Lyrans and Hydrans. However, using the wormhole seems to be making Klingons go crazy and betray the Empire. It turns out they are being controlled by a psionic race that the Klingons thought they destroyed a long time ago. They were hiding in a pocket dimension while controlling the wormhole, and they plan to make the Klingons pay for their crimes. You kidnap a psionics scientist to develop a counter-measure for the mind control and you use it to save the Klingon homeworld.
There are two elite organizations you can join: the Tal Prai'ex or the Tal Shi'ar. You play the same missions, but have different objectives depending on who you join. A fatal disease has been ravaging Romulan ships and colonies and causing social chaos. As the Tal Prai'ex, you have been tasked to enforce order and discover the origin of the disease. However, the Tal Shi'ar has been engaging in shady activities and undermining your efforts. It turns out they engineered the disease in order to install a new leader of the Romulan Empire, so you must stop them from making a push to Romulus to release the disease. If you choose to join the Tal Shi'ar, you will help spread the disease, weaken the Tal Prai'ex, and install the new leader.
There are three elite organizations you can join: King's Guard, Defenders of the Egg, and Guardians Errant. The Queen has laid eggs and it is up to you to escort them for ritual blessings. However, Orions are after them for their value, it seems. Despite your efforts, they eventually get stolen. The Queen had secret dealings with the Orions and apparently wanted them to be stolen. The Defenders of the Egg are loyal to her and carry out her wishes, but the King wants the eggs under Gorn control. Because of this political division, the King's Guard and the Defenders of the Egg have begun fighting one another, while the Guardians Errant try to keep the peace. With the help of a smuggler for the Orions, you find the eggs. But at the same time, you find out that the mastermind behind it all was the Gorn's ancient god king who was banished a long time ago for his wickedness. He stole the eggs to breed super soldiers for his return. So you destroy him, retrieve the eggs, and go home to retirement.
A planet has vanished and you are sent to investigate. It turns out it was part of a new defensive shield that sends attacks into subspace to nullify them. However, it's an extremely costly project that has crippled the Lyran economy. The Mountain Watcher clan of the Lyrans have been behind this sabotage of the Lyran Empire. They have been building up military and technological might, and you learn that they are a front for an old enemy whose name must not be said. The Lyrans thought they destroyed this enemy, but they were just posing as the Mountain Watchers and preparing for their grand return. They begin building the subspace shield around their planet, which will assure their survival and dominance, so you stop the Mountain Watchers and you retire.
The Hydran Keepership worships intelligent space beasts and manages their preserves. However, there are other Hydran factions that hold different beliefs, and it is your duty to protect the beasts from poachers and radical cultists. Your missions involve caring for the young and honouring the wishes of the elderly. Unfortunately, the campaign bugged out and gave me nothing but generic missions, which prevented me from continuing, so I can't provide further details.
If the synopses seem short and simplistic, that's because the stories are short and simplistic. There is no voice-acting beyond the tutorial levels and there are no cutscenes; you read a quick briefing summarizing the events behind the mission and then jump straight into the mission. All in-mission dialog is presented through short pop-up text while missions have only simple scripted events, such as ships spawning, shooting each other, or blowing up. There is no diplomacy, contrary to what Star Trek is about. Hailing other ships often just gives you a quick statement of their intent and you must destroy or capture them. I can recall only one mission in the Romulan campaign where you have to hail ships to get them to stand down, even then it was a very simplistic process of pressing two buttons with no convincing exchange involving mutual understanding.
There is little structure to the campaigns. A lot of missions are standalone scenarios rather than logical steps to resolving the main plot such as the Klingon mission to destroy the tribble homeworld because why not? Motives and methods are barely explained and plot twists come out of nowhere, requiring you to just accept everything at face value. For example, how did the Mountain Watchers bankrupt the Lyran economy without any checks and balances? What was the Tal Shi'ar's motivation for overthrowing the Romulan leadership? Why are the Orions powerful enough to have a presence in the space of every major galactic power and why are they so suicidally overconfident to attack everyone? Stuff just happens and you deal with it with starship violence. Political conflict is represented as a simple us-versus-them dichotomy with the occasional backstabbing. However, it does successfully create a sense of paranoia about allied ships because you have no idea whether or not they will suddenly turn on you and catch you when you're exposed.
Just about everybody is an unnamed generic with a couple lines of dialog expressing friendliness, hostility, or the current situation. What few unique characters exist are barely less generic by speaking a few more lines. They are often used for only one mission each, where you destroy or capture them and never hear from them again. A lot of these unique characters don't even have names. A particularly awful example is in the Gorn mission where you abduct an Orion smuggler from a Starfleet prison and literally, a "Legendary Starfleet Captain" appears to challenge you to a duel for violating their space. This captain is so legendary that he or she couldn't even be named or made into a recurring character. This captain boasts about having fought Gorn before and is looking for an excuse for another challenge and that's it. The mission doesn't even require you to fight this legendary captain, so you can just run away and win. Your encroachment into their space and destruction of their ships is left unaddressed as well.
Starfleet Command is a complex game with lots of factors to consider and you have to understand your own and your opponents' capabilities to win. It's fun to pump an enemy hull full of overloaded torpedos while they just sit dead in the water completely stunned at the ownage they just experienced. But because the design and balance create a dominant strategy, the skill ceiling caps once you know how things work, resulting in a game that has more breadth than depth. However, with some re-working, it has potential to be a very deep and replayable game.