To boldly open loot boxes where all too many have before.
“Engage?!” - Star Trek Fleet Command Review 2023
How many ears does Spock have? Three. A left ear, a right ear, and a final frontier. We've started with a joke because if you're a Trekkie looking for an exciting mobile MMO, this Star Trek Fleet Command review is going to be a real bummer.
Star Trek Fleet Command is a mass marketed F2P MMO for Android, iOS, and PC. It tasks players to make their way amidst the vast galaxies and strange new worlds of the Star Trek IP. They build and upgrade space stations a la Deep Space Nine, research new technologies, join factions and alliances, seek out new life and new civilisations, mine resources, investigate mysterious phenomena and take part in PvE and PvP battles.
Players fill their ships with the beloved characters from the many Star Trek series and films, using their unique traits to strengthen their fleet. Ships can then be sent out on missions of discovery, aid or conquest -- even including sending armadas against the bases of rival alliances. A constant flow of in-game events, such as Borg invasions, ensures there is always new content -- much of which draws upon the most epic stories of the 60-year Star Trek history.
That all sounds pretty excellent, right? It's not.
These are the voyages of Star Trek Fleet Command. Its continuing mission: to take every last penny you have and leave you with a dull sense of despair
Set Phasers to Kill Me Now
My journey to producing this Star Trek Fleet Command review began with optimism. When I first opened the app, I was greeted by the timeless soundtrack and TNG's Geordi La Forge as my guide. With open space before me and sound effects triggering my nostalgia neurons, I was ready to boldly go where...hang on a minute, this game is terrible!
Basic gameplay involves upgrading modules, buildings, ships, and research -- all of which gradually increase in time and resource demands. After the first couple of weeks of active gameplay, you find yourself logging in a few times a day to complete a build, initiate the next one, then wait. Combat involves clicking once on enemy ships then waiting for battle to finish. Then you will need to wait for your ship to return to your base where you have the exciting prospect of waiting for it to repair. Ah "waiting", every gamer's favourite part.
"Red Alert! All crew to battle stations! I guess."
The alliances are as joyless as a Borg at a barn dance. Your most regular interaction will be clicking "help" to speed up their wait times by a minute.
There are narrative missions which involve the repetition of the same tasks with different dialog-based motivations. And while much of the core dialogue feels pretty generic, there is clearly at least one Star Trek fan on the writing team adding authenticity. You can't help but wonder what game they could have created if they'd insisted everyone on the team binged Star Trek to truly understand its appeal before designing the game around that.
Standard missions can be boiled down to: 1) fly over there; 2) destroy that ship; 3) mine that resource; 4) donate resources; and not forgetting the most exciting 5) return to your space station. With such little variety for questing, the only thing left with any depth is the grind. A grind that looks suspiciously lootbox-shaped.
"Dammit, Jim! Long range sensors detecting loot boxes approaching fast."
Purchasing upgrades and completing missions takes up about half your time in Star Trek Fleet Command. So how do you spend the other half? Opening loot boxes. If you asked me to tell you the core mechanic of the game, that's it -- opening boxes.
My favourite Star Trek film as a child was Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home wherein James Tiberius Kirk and pals travel back to San Francisco to romp over the Golden Gate Bridge, party, and have a chat with a humpback whale. If you haven't seen it, watch it -- it's glorious.
They say the Golden Gate Bridge requires so much paint that by the time the painters have reached the end, a new team of painters has already begun painting over the beginning. That is Star Trek Fleet Alliance's approach to loot boxes. There are so many different types that by the time you've finished opening them, the first ones you opened are available again.
It has to leave you wondering, is this even a game? Where is the skill? It all just feels so loveless. Like it's not even attempting to hide the fact it's been algorithmically optimised to maximise playtime, retention, and in-app purchases. As Spock said, "Computers make excellent and efficient servants, but I have no wish to serve under them."
These are the voyages of Star Trek Fleet Command. Its continuing mission: to take every last penny you have and leave you with a dull sense of despair. Star Trek paints an optimistic vision of humanity's future; Star Trek Fleet Command paints a pessimistic vision of gaming's future.
Finding the Hope in the Impossible
It's not all bad. The sound effects are good. It's fun to re-explore classic missions, iconic plots, and fearsome enemies through normal missions and the holodeck/archives. And who better to do that with than an assortment of Star Trek's greatest? Continuity be damned, give me a battleship captained by Dr. McCoy with Data and Spock on the bridge. Give me a mining vessel with Scotty, Pike, and Picard. Give me an explorer-class vessel with different versions of Kirk in every role.
It's undeniably the game's greatest strength to combine the crews of the various starships which have captured our hearts over the years.
"To boldly explore in a completely straight line!"
Considering the Star Trek IP is all about exploration, Star Trek Fleet Alliance's ultimate downfall is its linearity. I can almost imagine a good game wherein player choice allows for unique Space Station builds, customisation, and strategy. Where research and construction routes take players in radical different strategic directions.
Instead, pre-requisite conditions for new constructions are designed in a way that make the game so linear it verges on the inane. It Beverly crushes variations of gameplay so that rather than Geordi La forging your own destiny, you just Chekov items on a list by following essentially the same upgrade journey as everyone else (albeit with some token choices thrown in like whether to upgrade your shields or ship health first or second).
There is a degree of divergence available in that players choose from factions including the Federation, Klingons, and Romulans. You start as an independent, however, and find yourself drug-trafficking, dusting federation starships, and committing assorted war crimes before getting a chance to align yourself in a faction.
Is Star Trek Fleet Command Pay to Win?
Yes. It is playable without paying; loot boxes are fairly generous with the game's most versatile currency (latinum) though all the wait times described earlier can be halved by adding extra research and construction queues through payment.
They always offer you just enough to keep playing, but it's clear you're on a trajectory to a state wherein resources and wait times are too frustrating without paying. By that time, they hope players will have committed enough time to the game that they're tempted to splash out $80 on one of the game's many in-game purchases. It's clearly a profitable model as ads for Star Trek Fleet Command are everywhere. Quark himself would be proud of the monetization model.
Persistence is Futile
If the end goal is living long and prospering, good luck to you. We normally finish our reviews by stating whether or not we'll continue playing the game now that the review is written. For the first time, I can say "I hope not but I'm not sure." -- that's how addictive Star Trek Fleet Command is. It straddles the almost paradoxical line of being incredibly addictive and yet almost unplayable. It is hard to put down and even harder to enjoy.
Its appeal lies in tricking you into feeling you're making the sort of tangible, measurable progress that is elusive in real life. But you're not. Like Odo's disguises, it's all skin deep. The enjoyment never increases. You might unlock a new type of loot box, an extra ship, a new fan favourite admiral, but you never unlock more fun.
In the words of the great William T. Riker: "Flair is what marks the difference between artistry and mere competence." And flair is something Star Trek Fleet Command lacks completely.