Star Trek: Resurgence Review – A voyage home for 90s nerds
Can Telltale alumni transport us back to where no man has gone before, or is this another loveless riff on popular scifi’s heyday?
Cards on the table, right? I love Star Trek. More than that: I love loving it. I drive my wife mad with incessant musing about whether Ben Sisko’s birth constitutes a predestination paradox, or the sociological impact on the Federation of the Battle of Wolf 359. I have an absurd number of Hero Collector ship miniatures dotted around the place. There are more enterprises in my home than you can rent a car from.
But, I am a professional, and wouldn’t dream of allowing my personal feelings to inflate my dispassionate assessment of a licensed software product. With that in mind, I’ve handily split this review into two parts depending on whether or not you, dear reader, would consider yourself a Star Trek fan. Don’t look so concerned: it’s OK to admit it here, this is a safe space.
The Star Trek: Resurgence Review for Non-Star Trek Fans
Essentially, what this is is a mid-tier Telltale game. And I mean that almost literally: the developer, Dramatic Labs, boasts proudly on the game’s website that it is “a collaboration of 20+ former Telltale writers, developers, designers, artists, and producers.” So, if you’ve played The Walking Dead or The Wolf Among Us (those are the top-tier Telltale games, for reference) you know what to expect from ST:R – mechanically, at least. Although it’s worth noting that this is a complete 12-14 hour experience, not an episodic release.
You can probably guess therefore that it’s a choice-and-consequence adventure game driven by a conversation system that tracks your decision making in order to determine certain key story outcomes and, more importantly, whether the other characters like you or not. Add in a handful of ropey gameplay sequences, in this case focused on light puzzle solving and crappy pop-up shooting, and you’ve got yourself a fairly by-the-numbers modern adventure game.
In Telltale terms, it’s better than Back to the Future: The Game, but not as good as its aforementioned Big Hitters, which were so exemplary that you didn’t need any prior investment to enjoy them. So, it slots in rather comfortably amongst the two-dozen or so sixes and sevens that litter the back catalogue – the likes of Minecraft: Story Mode, or Guardians of the Galaxy. Competent efforts, but scarcely worth the effort if you aren’t already sold on the licence alone.
In short, move along home. If you have no idea what the Picard Maneuver is, there’s nothing here for you. Leave us now.
The Star Trek: Resurgence Review for Star Trek Fans
Right, now that those idiots are gone, let’s get one thing straight from the off: this is the best Star Trek game since Elite Force. Which is a little bit tragic, because that game is 22 years old. Nevertheless, it’s something worth celebrating: unlike the other Star franchise (not Gate), Trek hasn’t enjoyed any significant representation in the world of mainstream video gaming since around the late 90s. And even then, it was never a particularly well-funded arm of the franchise. There’s very little in terms of anything approaching a triple-A, single-player experience, with broad cross-platform appeal. No Star Trek equivalent of Jedi Survivor, or Force Unleashed, or even KOTOR, because despite its enduring popularity and influence, the franchise has never quite tipped over into the kind of mega-saturation that would make the investment worthwhile.
This is, of course, for good reason. If you compare the box office takings between, say, The Force Awakens and Star Trek 2009, you’ll find that the former did about ten times as much business as the latter. It’s instructive to compare these two in particular because they’re the most lucrative films of their respective franchises, but they’re also both directed by JJ Abrams, and so they’re very similar in terms of quality (bad).
And so, Star Trek: Resurgence is a very exciting thing for the starved demographic of Star Trek fans who are also gamers. Which is a sizable group, given that both hobbies comprise entirely of weird nerds. And it’s particularly exciting for those of us who grew up during Star Trek’s zenith, what we perhaps sarcastically call the Berman Era, because it returns us to the 24th century at roughly the point, chronologically speaking, where that era ended, occurring in the canonical Neutral Zone immediately after Nemesis.
The world state, should you need a refresher, is thus: the Enterprise E took a pasting off Tom Hardy about a year ago, Data is dead, and Riker is captain of the Titan. Also every Alpha Quadrant power is still licking its wounds from the Dominion War, but that doesn’t really get a mention. The things that do get mentioned may surprise you, though, because without getting spoilery, the Big Bad of this game is a fairly deep cut from an early episode of The Next Generation.
The game doesn’t demand encyclopaedic recall of Trek Trivia to understand, though: for the most part, it resists the temptation to cram every scene with references to adventures past. This is refreshing, as most Star Trek expanded universe media is preoccupied with manoeuvring the same twenty or thirty TV characters into each other's orbits, to the point where the galaxy feels about the size of a small car park, and rather like an endless high school reunion. There is the fairly egregious inclusion, however, of a character I wish they'd have left out. More on that later.
Resurgence does the clever thing that Knights of the Old Republic did, in that it leans on a lot of familiar franchise elements to establish itself as part of the same world as that thing you like, but sets itself far enough away from the usual characters and storylines that it can pretty much do its own thing. This is a previously unseen crew and ship, namely the USS Resolute, a Centaur-class vessel (this ship configuration is, itself, a DS9 deep cut) commanded by one Captain Zachary Solano, which has recently lost its First Officer in a warp field experiment gone terribly awry.
This is where you come in, initially, in the form of Commander Jara Rydek, the first of two playable characters. She’s a half-Kobliad (also a fairly obscure DS9 reference) officer brought in to help, uh, steady the ship as it gets back to regular duties following a long process of repair and refit. And this is where the various interpersonal conflicts start to become apparent: in a break with Star Trek tradition, this hero ship has an awful captain.
Captain Solano’s frayed ego is essentially the black hole around which much of the shipboard politics revolve. He’s stubborn, and preoccupied with his career and legacy to the point where it puts the crew in danger. Managing your relationship with him often puts you in conflict with other characters, and even at one point compromises the safety of the entire fleet.
He can, however, be reasoned with, as can most of the other bridge staff. Navigating these choppy waters constitutes a significant part of the game for the half that you play as Commander Rydek, which makes sense, given that the position of First Officer is all about advocating for the ship and crew while keeping the captain in check. It is, initially, a much more complex world to operate in than that of Petty Officer Carter Diaz, the game’s second playable character: an enlisted upstart engineer who’s a bit more down to earth than the officers, and very popular among the lower decks crew. Essentially this game’s Chief O’Brien, then.
As Diaz, you’ll get stuck in with the nitty-gritty of solving engineering problems. Re-routing EPS conduits, operating the transporters, repairing shuttlecraft, all that sort of thing. One of the best things about this game is its believable, tactile interpretation of how this 24th century technology actually work. Which isn’t an easy thing to pull off, given how it was all designed in the first place to look futuristic and unknowable for TV viewers in the 1980s. The way Star Trek people use technobabble and fast typing on baffling looking control panels to solve problems is, effectively, a form of magic: any sufficiently advanced technology, etc etc. It’s supposed to make Geordi and Data look clever when they’re saving the day, none of it was ever designed to actually be operated by real people. Have you ever tried using one of those LCARS desktops to operate a real computer? Don’t bother, it’s awful.
And yet, it works here. You scan the environment with your tricorder for clues and, when appropriate, alter the scanning bandwidth to find particular biological, chemical, or radioactive signatures. You’ll operate an LCARS interface to, say, retrace the route of a disabled shuttlecraft, or target your colleagues for beaming, or use the tractor beam to tow another craft out of an asteroid belt. It all occurs in a way that feels proper, and consistent with how those things appeared to work in the TV shows.
This stuff is profoundly important, because what is the point of this product if not to make you feel part of Star Trek? To immerse you, the player, inside an interactive Star Trek show, where your presence has meaning, and weight? The best bits of Elite Force, the Quake 2 based Voyager game that came out at the turn of the millennium, aren’t the campaign missions where you go around shooting things (although those are extremely good). The best bits are the Virtual Voyager segments. The off-mission stuff where you’re just cutting about the ship, chatting to Tuvok, avoiding Neelix, etc etc. Again, using the tricorder to scan things. Though Resurgence never allows you to freely explore the ship in the same way as Elite Force did, it does carry over much of the same appeal. Living and breathing life on a Federation starship. More than just being allowed to roam the sets of a TV show, becoming an active participant in an episode, and feeling the stakes.
Not only does Resurgence painstakingly recreate the production design of 90s Trek, it also uses the standard episode structure (and title font) as the basis for its twin-protagonist dynamic. Each chapter of the game plays out like an episode, in which there is an A plot playing out among the command staff, and a related B plot occurring among the lower decks crew. The game will often cleverly switch between these two strands with smooth transitions and deft camera moves. Some amazing work is done, for example, during the first set piece, in which the ship is being battered by an ion storm and Commander Rydek has to coordinate the crew’s response while Petty Officer Diaz is outside in a space suit trying to fix an EPS manifold or something.
The camera swooshes from the bridge window (ugh, yes, I know) around to the spot on the hull where Diaz and Edsilar are trying to work. Turbulence rattles the ship as an unexplained environmental phenomenon plays havok with its systems. As Commander Rydek, this is your first test in command: the absent captain dials in from the station you’re docked at and, without being aware of all the facts, demands you take a course of action which would endanger the maintenance crew, but put the rest of the ship out of harm’s way. With your bridge staff offering alternative solutions, and little time to make the call, you must decide whether or not to defy orders. Whichever course you take, several people are going to be unhappy with your decision.
As PO Diaz, you simply have to crack on. Absent the pressure of command, you’re able to focus on your work, performing the essential repair that will ultimately decide how badly the storm ends up damaging the ship. It’s a different kind of pressure, but Diaz’s duty is clear and uncomplicated: firstly, get the job done. Secondly, survive.
Christ, it’s good. The people at Dramatic Labs have really thought about how Star Trek works: how it plays out, and how to translate that into a gameplay experience. And you can tell that they understand and care about the source material. Even they way it’s “shot” feels like they’ve been studying every era of Star Trek’s cinematography, from the glamorously staged, gorgeously lit close-ups of the 1960s original, to theatrical blocking of early TNG’s polystyrene planetscapes, to the lavish camera moves of Jonathan Frakes’ directed projects such as First Contact, and the better episodes of Discovery among many others. There’s a lot of though that’s gone into camera placement and framing: you’ll often see artful shots from inside containers as they’re opened, for example. Tasteful, intimate close-up work during the more poignant or touching scenes. There’s a lot of workmanlike shot/reverse shot too, but they’ve really put the work in where it counts, and it is appreciated. In terms of its virtual cinematography, we’re talking somewhere between a normal Telltale game and Mass Effect 2 in terms of its sophistication.
I promise you, that’s high praise indeed. And it’s surprising, honestly, given the game’s obviously strained budget. This is not a AAA title, obviously. But it punches well above its weight with the resources it has.
You can see that stretched budget in the plain environments and awkward animations. The best environment art is reserved for the USS Resolute itself, as it should be, because if this game failed to sell the ship it’d be dead on arrival. But the various planetary destinations and other ships are noticeably less intricate. Wide open spaces filled up with cut & paste props. Lots of crates. A reliance on amorphous crystal formations whenever an alien setting is required. The thing is, though it’s quite unintended, it actually works. The fiscal necessity of compromising the vision, having to cobble together vast alien worlds from existing materials, archive footage, the battle bridge set, a lick of paint, and couple of strategically placed crates is, of course, exactly what the Star Trek TV shows have done since day dot. You don’t watch Star Trek for the sets, or the action, and certainly not the sex, because it doesn’t do any of those things consistently well. You watch Star Trek for the writing and the sense of adventure. You watch it because it’s about competent space people doing their jobs well. You watch it because.. It’s Star Trek.
And Resurgence is Star Trek, thank god. It might seem like giving out participation trophies to praise a Star Trek thing for successfully being a Star Trek thing, but consider: it took actual Star Trek a good number of years to start doing that again after its resurrection in 2009. Over a decade, really, given Discovery’s penchant for making stupid changes for the sake of making changes (bald Klingons, anyone?). You can rest assured, and rejoice, that this is definitely Star Trek. Warts and all.
We now move on to the warts. There’s nothing wrong with Resurgence’ story, actually. It kicks off when the Resolute is sent to the Hotari system in order to help negotiate a dispute between two factions, the Hotari and Alydians, concerning the rights to mine and export dilithium from a nearby moon. These are new races created for this game, but there’s a little of the Cardassian/Bajoran situation going on here. Essentially, the Hotari system is rich with natural resources, but the Hotari themselves don’t have the technology to exploit it. The Alydians do, and have been doing so on their behalf, sort of, for the past few centuries. But this has become something akin to an oppressor/oppressed relationship as far as the people working in the mines are concerned, and so they’ve done an uprising. Because the Federation is the biggest buyer of dilithium in the galaxy, the Hotari government has asked it to oversee negotiations for a new settlement between the two races.
So far, so Star Trek. This is the sort of thing Picard used to stick his oar into all the time.
Where it gets silly is the inclusion of Spock, one of a handful of TV characters to make it into the game. He is, of course, not played by Leonard Nimoy, who died the best part of a decade ago. Instead, his likeness is voiced by actor Piotr Micheal, who does a perfectly decent impression of Nimoy’s voice (specifically when he played the character in the JJ Abrams films, which makes sense given the timeline). Unfortunately, that’s all it is: a passable impression. As a performance, it’s incredibly flat, and has none of the wisened gravitas that Nimoy himself brought to the role. But that’s to be expected: the actor has been given an impossible task here.
And you have to wonder… why? Because honestly, it’s more disappointing than anything else that they felt the need to include Ambassador Spock at all. There are dozens of characters from the 24th century era - diplomats, ambassadors, admirals - who could have filled Spock's role in the story, which is simply to be an overseeing politician from head office. If anything, resurrecting Leonard Nimoy's likeness in order to have him perform a function that any other Federation official could have, that amounts to representing its interests as a buyer of space petrol, feels profoundly unnecessary. Honestly, just let the man rest.
It’s not helped by the fact that Resurgence’s character design and animation is generally quite Uncanny Valley. Everyone’s gait is a bit weird: they all have the same “just nipping to the toilet” run. The facial animation is expressive enough, but when mapped onto a face that you know from the real world, be it Leonard Nimoy’s or Jonathan Frakes’, it really struggles to maintain a coherent illusion.
It’s nice to see Frakes, by the way. But it’s not nice at all to see Spock: it’s honestly a little unsettling. And given that nothing about this story even necessitates Spock being there, it constitutes the biggest and saddest misstep in an otherwise pretty decent game.
Still, look, he’s not even in it that much: the ambassadorial aspect of this story is just a framing device, the actual meat is far removed from the mining dispute, and deals with elements from Star Trek’s past that have rarely been touched on. Which sort of helps make my point, but also means that Spock’s presence doesn't ruin the experience: I just wish they didn’t feel it necessary to include him, because it feels like a concession to the long-standing misapprehension that Star Trek can’t be bigger than Kirk, Spock, and Bones.
Still, as I said at the start of this review, Resurgence is the best Star Trek game since Elite Force. To expand on that, I’d say that Elite Force is the better video game based on Star Trek, because it’s a decent shooter (and there’s a handheld photon launcher, which is basically the most gleefully stupid thing ever conceived). But Resurgence is the best Star Trek Game. As an interactive adaptation of the popular television franchise, it succeeds. And though there are areas where it could do with more polish, where better decisions could have been made, and where I wish there was extra money to spend, all of that melts away when I consider that as someone who grew up watching The Next Generation, playing this game felt like returning home.