Birth of the Federation draws heavily from some noteworthy predecessors. The management of planetary resources, galactic expansion, and technological innovations all remind me strongly of the famous game, Civilization. Additionally, the galactic map grid and randomly
US, June 4, 1999 - I guess it's time I stepped out here and admitted that even though I try to hide it as best I can, I am a bit of a Star Trek: The Next Generation fan. There's something undeniably moving about watching a possible future of humanity, one in which we put aside our aggressive tendencies and step out into space as a race of diplomats and explorers who solve problems instead of causing them. That's why I was so excited about getting my hands on Microprose's newest turn based strategy title, Birth of the Federation. What Trek fan, closet or otherwise, can resist the idea of taking humanity from its pre-warp roots to lofty heights of technology and power? Unfortunately, even though the idea of combining Civilization with Star Trek is a sound one, Birth of the Federation's poor implementation and lack of vision left me frustrated and ultimately disappointed.
To understand why Birth of the Federation is such a let down, you have to first understand what it was that the team was going for. You start the game in charge of one of five of the major races in the Star Trek universe with the end goal of controlling 60% of the galaxy in the Domination mode or by utterly destroying two pre-determined enemy races in the Vendetta mode. Other options available to you before the game begins allow you to determine the starting tech level of each of the races (Beginning, Early, Developed, Expanded or Advanced), how many minor races will be included in the game, how difficult the game is, whether or not the game will include random events and whether or not you will engage in tactical combat or just let the computer sort out fights for you. You'll also need to select the size and shape of the galaxy you'll be playing in.
Once you've gotten everything set up, you're ready to jump in and start playing. After being treated to an intro sequence that reflects the basic beliefs and goals of the particular empire you've selected (and these are quite nice by the way) you are shown the main star map with your starting planets and ships. From here the game plays out a lot like Master of Orion and other turn based strategy games - you move your ships, visit each of your colonies and choose what structures or starships they'll build, pick which technologies your scientists will focus on, engage in diplomacy with other races, and keep an eye on your spy network and internal security.
In the early turns of the game, this setup is fine. You don't have but one or two start systems to keep up with, and you'll spend most of your time sending out scouts to explore the systems around you and colony ships to terraform and colonize the planets in those systems. Sooner or later you'll come into contact with one or more of the game's minor races which will force you to start paying attention to your diplomacy screens and eventually you'll find another major race who will force you to start arming yourself and setting up outposts and starbases to guard your frontiers. Eventually you'll have a thriving empire with several colonies, a strong navy and loads of potential allies and enemies. This is when the game take a turn for the worst.
Birth of the Federation features some really cool-looking interface screens that are designed to match the culture they represent. The Federation interface uses the same screens that we're used to seeing on board the Enterprise, the Klingons use a spiky multi-level interface that looks just like what we've seen on board their ships over the years and so one. Unfortunately, while each of these interfaces do a fantastic job of looking good, they're not worth a damn when it comes to controlling large fleets, massive amounts of resources or the demands of an army of diplomats. As the game approaches it 70th or 80th turns, you'll find that each round takes you about fifteen minutes to go in, watch what each one of you planets is doing and to move each of your units to where you need it to go. While the developers were kind enough to include a button that is supposed to automatically take care of production on a planetary level, the AI used to determine what should next be built is not reliable at all and will often build structures that you don't need while your people are starving. The movement set-up is particularly bad, and you'll often find yourself clicking on a group of ships just to see what they're doing and then unable to unselect them so that you can go on about your business. This same problem was also responsible for me moving my fleets when I didn't want to a number of times. Worse still, when you order a ship to move, you see no route path, but rather a green dot on the intended destination. After you've ordered a number of ships to move, you are confronted with an entire system of green dots, but have no real idea of who is moving where. But wait, there's more! Moving away from the simplicity of having an automatic report on the actions that take place during a turn, Birth of the Federation has a summary button that must be clicked each turn to receive the data. For those situations where you want to advance the game quickly (while waiting for a key structure to build, for example), you have to click the turn button, then click the summary button, then click the close button, and then click the turn button again if you want to stay informed about what's going on in the galaxy. Fortunately, certain major events do pop-up automatically, so you won't miss any important diplomatic offers or demands.
There's no doubt that all of these issues are annoying, but none of them, in and of themselves, keep the game from being playable. That honor is saved for an inexplicable slow-down problem that seems to infect the game at about turn 110. First, your mouse movement will seem jerky and unresponsive. Second, you'll notice that the CD starts to skip every so often. Eventually the mouse will disappear for seconds at a time and will take what seems like eons to process a command. I'm not sure if it has to do with the amount of data the computer has to keep up with or a problem with flushing out old information, but every single game I played on the three different computers I tried it out on all started slowing down to the point that, eventually, the game was unplayable. In fact, the slowest system I tired it out on, a P200 MHz with 32 MB of RAM (the box's recommended system) actually crashed around turn 160 after about 40 turns of increasingly slow response. I also tried the game out on my PIII 500MHz. While it made it a bit longer, as the game started filling up with ships and star systems, the slow down eventually hit it too. Imagine, what is essentially the most powerful home computer available brought to a standstill by a turn based strategy game with five year old graphics.
That's right, I said five years old and I'm actually being kind of nice. With the exception of the game's combat engine, which is pretty nice looking, the entire title consists of nothing more than a bunch of small icons moving around a grid and static screens with sliders. I'm not saying that a game has to look great to play well, but with the time and technology that went into creating this game, you'd think that they could have served up something superior to the original Master of Orion. Even the intro screens, which are well conceived, are unbelievably grainy and prone to glitchiness. It's hard to believe that this is a mass market title that's been released by one of the biggest names in computer gaming that I'm talking about here.
The diplomacy in the game is another big negative point. In addition to the five major races in the game, there are a swarm of minor races that you can encounter and deal with. Each of these races has one or two areas in which they excel, some are great military strategists (which can help you build better startships), some are telepathic (which helps your spying) and some are superior farmers (which helps your population growth), so it's a good idea to try and get them to join your empire as quickly as possible. Each of these minor races responds differently to threats and cajoling, and a good part of the game is trying to figure out the best way to motivate them. At least that's the idea. In actual practice, none of the races act like you'd expect them to. In the last game I played before writing this review, the peace-loving Vulcans declared war on me despite the fact that I had made no aggressive diplomatic motions, the Ferengi began raiding my star systems even though we had long been engaged in mutually beneficial trade, and the Federation continually made demands for cash threatening war if I didn't comply. Those who are looking for a recreation of the Star Trek universe through a balance of battle and diplomacy will instead find that arming yourself for war immediately is the only chance they have of surviving more than a few turns in the game.
In all fairness, there are some aspects of Birth of the Federation that are pretty nice, but all of them seem flawed in one or more major ways. The basic gameplay is sound, simply because it's an almost direct copy of Microprose's earlier Master of Orion and Master of Orion II. The tactical combat screens are fun to watch, even though the orders you give to your starships rarely have much to do with whether you win a battle or not (the real decider here is who has the most and most advanced ships). The multiplayer option, which allows a human player to take on each of the game's major races is very nice, but suffers from the same problems of interface and slowdown that make the single player game nearly unplayable. The one aspect of the game that I couldn't really find any major fault with was the sound, which consisted of several nice racial themes and a load of canned Star Trek effects.
I guess what bothers most about Birth of the Federation is that it could have been a really great game. If the designers had made sure that the gameplay worked well throughout, if they had tried to actually design a new game system instead of copying what had been done before, and if they had tried to make sure that the AI handled situations in a realistic fashion, this would be a must-own title. As it is, Birth of the Federation is nothing more than a frustrating copy of earlier turn based strategy games that doesn't work like it's supposed to. My recommendation is to leave this one on the shelf.