Few things in life are certain, but I'm pretty sure of this: I won't get to captain a real-life U.S.S. Enterprise. The technology simply doesn't exist.
What technology did just let me do here at E3 2016 is take the helm of a virtual Star Trek starship. I loved every minute of it.
As I wrote this morning, Star Trek: Bridge Crew is a new game from Ubisoft coming to the Oculus Rift, HTC Vive, and PlayStation VR headsets this fall. It puts you in the captain's chair -- or the helm, or the tactical conn, or the engineering panel -- of a brand-new Star Trek starship.
You play one of those four roles, working together with three other people wearing VR headsets of their own.
You can each see each other, talk to each other with integrated voice chat, even gesture to each other if you have a set of motion controllers. And you'll need to, because communication is key.
You can't fire the phasers unless the helmsman gives you a firing solution. The helmsman can't go to warp unless engineering prepares the warp coils first. The chief engineer can't transport stranded survivors onto the ship unless the tactical officer lowers the shields. And so on.
Only the captain can see everything the crew is doing -- and relay orders from Starfleet -- to help coordinate it all. When it works well, it really does feel a bit like an episode of Star Trek. And when it works poorly, it's hilarious. WHY OH WHY are the shields still down?
At E3 I played both the helmsman and tactical officer positions, and both were a blast -- even though the early version here at E3 is a pretty simple game.
Inside the headset, you've basically got a simple touchscreen interface. You plot in a course (or select a target, if you're the tactical officer) just by tapping on an object of interest, then dragging a slider to set your speed. As helmsman, there's a second touchscreen pad you can drag around to set your heading; as tactical officer, there are toggles to raise and lower the shields and arm the torpedoes, and buttons you can tap to fire each.
But each bridge officer has a second job, too. Scotty doesn't just divert power from the engines to the shields and vice versa; he also mans the transporter bay. When it was my turn as tactical officer, I had to scan ships. I think helmsman is my favorite, though. They get to throw the silver lever that takes the ship to warp speed.
For the most part, Bridge Crew looks and feels true to its Star Trek roots. It's not the prettiest game, but the bridge has just the right luster -- and plenty of lens flare -- you'd expect from an important ship in J.J. Abrams' rebooted Star Trek universe. The initial sequence, where you ride a shuttlecraft to the U.S.S. Aegis and see your starship in all its glory, is pretty breathtaking.
Coming out of warp into the middle of a giant debris field, the wreckage of a space station in front of a sun about to go nova, is one of the coolest things I've seen in VR so far. And to think that Ubisoft is pitching this as a full game, one with a story, makes my inner Star Trek fan squeal with joy. I just hope Ubisoft has enough depth and enough scenarios to keep it entertaining for a good long while.
After my sessions, I spoke to Brian Tate, the game's director. In no particular order, here's a long list of things I learned about Bridge Crew.
- The team came up with Bridge Crew as a VR experiment, and never thought it'd actually get made. But: "We went to CBS and they loved it right away. They said this is the Star Trek game they always wanted to see made."
- Don't expect to see any familiar faces from Star Trek in Bridge Crew. Tate says the game is about your own Star Trek adventures.
- Though most Star Trek ships have the front consoles facing forward, Bridge Crew has them turned 45 degrees towards each other to more naturally facilitate communication between the players. The chief engineer is also up on the bridge, instead of down in engineering, for the same reason. Ubisoft's excuse? The U.S.S. Aegis (NX-1787) is a brand-new ship specifically made for this game, and it does things a little differently.
- While there'll only be four roles -- captain, helm, tactical, engineering -- at launch, there might be more later. Ubisoft narrowed it down to the current roles to make sure each player would be constantly communicating and always had something to do.
- Though the game's premise is that the Aegis is on a mission to find a new homeworld for the displaced population of Vulcan, that's "just the launching point for the story."
- In addition to the story, you can randomly generate missions as well.
- When the ship takes a beating, you can see it visually. Sparks fly, fires break out and poor red shirts get thrown over their consoles.
- You can play with AI instead of friends with VR headsets, if need be. They'll respond to basic commands and issue basic status updates, and you can jump into their roles temporarily.
- The game's exclusive to VR, but you can use an Xbox One gamepad to play the game instead of touch controllers.
- Tate says each crewman's station also has advanced features that have yet to be revealed.
- The team has played the similar Artemis: Spaceship Bridge Simulator around the office, but Tate says it wasn't an inspiration for the game.
- Combat isn't the focus of the game. "Combat is an essential part of Star Trek, but it's never the point of anything you're doing. It's always the thing getting in the way," says Tate. Instead, expect exploration missions, rescue missions, and more to be revealed later this year.