The great thing about VR is the feeling you get when putting on the headset, because it allows you to travel effortlessly to other worlds. So it is only logical for players to finally go where no-one has gone before. The target audience of Star Trek has many intersections with that of Virtual Reality. Most strikingly, the experience of using VR is described by many first-time users as stepping onto Star Trek's holodeck.
After a major delay, Ubisoft finally brings together these two worlds and lets players explore the bridge of a ship belonging to the same class as the Enterprise, the Aegis. Star Trek: Bridge Crew is designed as a co-op experience. Ideally, three or four people occupy each one (or most) of the key areas on the bridge of the spaceship: a captain, a helmsman, a tactical officer, and an engineer.
In what is a rather bland training camp, we are made familiar with the many features of the touch panels, which feature the visual design of the new Star Trek films. Through dry explanations in text form, the player learns all the functions of the different stations. The captain accepts incoming hails and, if necessary, triggers the alarm, but above all else, he/she gets the mission parameters from Starfleet, which they pass on to the crew. In addition, the captain has access to the various star maps, can view warp and impulse destinations, viewing targets at close range, and determining what is visible on the big screen of the bridge.
The pilot sets the speed and navigates the ship past space scrap, asteroids, and mines using a small touchpad. Impulse power and warp drive, on the other hand, are initiated with huge levers. In addition, this station, as well as the one belonging to the tactical officer, provides access to the transporter and special systems that can be used to manipulate other vessels.
The tactical officer has control over phasers and photon torpedoes, can scan and analyse hostile ships and cosmic objects, as well as coordinate transports and hacking.
The engineer is the master of allocating power to various systems, and can increase the effectiveness of the shields, juice up the engines, or even increase the range of the phasers by appropriately allocating resources. In addition, they have command over the repair crews and can determine how many teams are engaged in the repair of a system when it's in trouble.
Some actions require collaboration between different stations. For example, the warp coils must be charged before a jump, the pilot has to keep the enemy in firing range for phaser attacks, and the stealth properties of our ship are influenced by various parameters.
The eponymous bridge crew does not serve on the Enterprise but on the brand new Aegis. Their task is to investigate an unexplored area of the galaxy, called "the trench", in order to look for a new home for the Vulcans. It is a great pleasure to finally find yourself on the busy bridge of the Aegis after the training missions. Unfortunately, this enthusiasm doesn't last very long. While the representation of the bridge is graphically convincing despite a certain simplicity, the vastness of space looks really disappointing. In particular, the "star wallpaper" and the various cosmic nebulas are muddy and blurred, and this is not due to the resolution of the VR headset, but quite simply the fault of low-res textures. The next obstacles we have to overcome are the camera tracking and the controls. Objects at close range (the control consoles for example) have a tendency to float and jitter a little, in the way the controller tracking is somewhat inaccurate in other PSVR games.
Star Trek: Bridge Crew can be played with a normal controller, allowing each of the sticks to control one hand pressing the various buttons. The game becomes far more intuitive when playing it with two Move controllers, although they do feel a bit clunky when mimicking the delicate movements of a pointing finger. In addition to this, the seat height respective to the player's body size cannot be adjusted in the settings. Thus, no matter where we positioned the camera, we had problems reaching the control panels because they were too low. Sometimes they appeared in the middle of our lap, which, despite our best efforts, did not allow us to use the motion controllers. The only remedy is to deliberately miscalibrate the setup by raising your head extra high, so that the control consoles are slightly higher in the virtual space when sitting back down.
In short, the game shows a shortage of polish from the start, and this impression persists. This is especially true in the single-player mode, in which the captain can also take over the other stations, and there are some inconsistencies. For example, the lengthy detection of the transporter is canceled when we change our position and we can't command our crew members during impulse travel, which often leaves enough time for adjustments (and cannot be skipped). The meager collection of five story episodes feels underwhelming, which is especially weird when you think how easily the designers could have taken interesting situations from the hundreds of existing Star Trek episodes.
We found it especially disappointing that there are no conversation options at all; we cannot even hail approaching vessels, even though the series often revolves around the skillful galactic diplomacy of captains like Kirk, Picard and Janeway. Our expectations were probably too high in this regard, but why the character editor offers just the two races of Humans and Vulcans (with only four different hair styles) leaves us dumbfounded. At least, we are able to choose men and women of all skin colours.
But, with all the little negative factors, there is also a very big positive counter, and that is multiplayer. When all stations are run by real people, who ideally shine with either their knowledge of Star Trek or a bit of humour, the game is a lot of fun and in a way, a dream come true for Trekkies. It seems as though Ubisoft is rolling with the idea that VR provides players will a stage on which to perform, just like they tried with Werewolves Within. It's a nice and innovative idea that reminds us that games are often better when enjoyed with friends. Everyone takes a role, brings their own unique style, and so the experience is largely shaped by the composition of the group. Unfortunately, the experiment of Werewolves Within has also shown that, despite cross-play, there are simply not enough players on the big VR platforms. Let's hope that the license brings a greater level of interest and that Ubisoft will continue to deliver content.
At the moment, the Ongoing Voyages mode offers long-term play possibilities, as they feature randomly generated scenarios. These can also be played on the bridge of the original Enterprise, where the many buttons and switches are unlabelled and thus a lot of time is necessary to familiarise yourself with the controls (although there are tool tips for those that need them). Despite that, there is plenty of vintage charm, especially for fans. However, this fuzzy warm feeling of nostalgia makes the absence of bridges from TNG or Voyager even more painful (something for future DLC or a sequel, perhaps?).
We're really hoping that Ubisoft only sees the current state of the game as a basic framework, which will be built upon in the style of No Man's Sky or Elite: Dangerous, where we will get extra content like more iconic ships, alien races and uniforms, or even player-created missions. As fans of the Star Trek universe, we're a bit torn. On the one hand, there's the feeling that this is a dream come true, on the other hand, the dream is short-lived and limited. Hopefully, this is only the start of a continuing mission...