Everything was in place for the Romulan invasion of the United Federation of Planets. Warbirds screeched out of the shipyards of Romulus and Remus on a direct course for the closest Federation worlds, those belonging to the chilly Andorians. The real goal, of course, was neighbouring Vulcan. This was a symbolic war.
As my jade vessels bombarded the frozen Andorian homeworld, the Tal Shiar informed me that yet another Federation ship had been successfully sabotaged. When my Reman shock troops’ boots hit the icy ground, I realised that Star Trek: New Horizons, a Stellaris [official site] mod, was my favourite ever Roddenbery-flavoured game.
I noticed New Horizons at just the right time. With a new Star Trek show in production, my hunger for that venerable sci-fi universe has increased tenfold, and I’ve found myself once again devouring the previous shows. I’m going through the best of the bunch, Deep Space Nine, at the moment, and it remains just as compelling as it did back when I first sat, transfixed, after school, watching the adventure of Sisko and his eclectic crew.
There isn’t a 4X game better suited to Star Trek than Stellaris, not even the official one from 1999, Birth of the Federation, which was terrible despite the countless hours I spent wasting my time with it. Even without mods, Stellaris evokes the universe of Kirk, Picard, Sisko, Janeway and Scott Bakula’s hairy chest. The focus on exploration, sci-fi mysteries and epic yarns make them superb bedfellows.
None of this is to say that the New Horizons team haven’t done a tremendous amount of work, adding a dizzying array of Star Trek species with appropriate traits, multiple maps of the galaxy – different sizes depending on the beefiness of your PC – complete with canon starting positions and countless species-specific touches like the aforementioned sneaky buggers, the Tal Shiar.
It might be far from finished, but I can’t think of many things that could make it feel more authentic. Everything from technology to statistical bonuses has been run through a Treky filter. So the Klingon Empire uses disrupters and the Dominion uses polaron beams, and when you’re designing your own ships, you can slap on modules like tactical stations and deflector arrays. And they’re more than just Stellaris components with fancy new names.
The scale of the thing astounds me. Downloading it, I prepared myself for loads of bugs and missing features, expecting just a slice of Star Trek rather than the whole cake. What greeted me was a cake buffet. See, New Horizons simulates the entire history of Star Trek, from the pre-Federation Enterprise era onwards. And while the galaxy evolves through conquest, expansion and technological advancement, it also transforms through the events system that Stellaris uses so well.
Events run the gamut from the creation of the Federation to the development of new ship designs, reflecting the changes between the different shows. You don’t want to be flitting around the galaxy in an NX-class vessel for the whole game. At certain junctures, you’ll be notified of scientists and groups who have new ideas, eureka moments, making your ships more effective. Take a look at your shipyards after these events and you’ll notice that your vessels have been upgraded from, say, TOS-era ships to TNG ones.
In my Romulan game, the redesign event also forced me to make some important leadership decisions. I had two ship designers vying for my attention. One, a Romulan military chap, the other a member of a species that was under the empire’s control. Romulans are pretty racist, but the alien engineer was the superior candidate. By choosing him, I ruffled some feathers, but he also became a scientist I could recruit and set to work researching new engineering tech or send off as captain of his own science vessel. I wanted to make my version of the Romulans a wee bit more egalitarian.
While New Horizons gives you the freedom to rewrite Star Trek history – maybe the Romulans left Khitomer alone and became friends with the Klingons – it always feels strongly connected to the shows, full of nods to specific episodes drawn from the universe’s long history. One of my explorers was zapped by a probe that made them live out a dead man’s life in a lost civilisation. Another discovered that a transporter malfunction from years ago created second versions of themselves. For the uninitiated they are surprises rich in meaningful choices, but for fans they evoke memories of some of Star Trek’s strongest storylines.
A lot of what makes the mod such a great Star Trek game simultaneously makes it a great 4X game, taking things like Stellaris’ brilliant asymmetry and running with it, enhancing it even. Take the state of the galaxy at the start of a campaign, for example. Every species feels dramatically different.
The pre-Federation humans inhabit only a tiny part of the galaxy and start off as fairly insignificant, while older species, like the Founders, the shape-shifting rulers of the Dominion, begin from a position of strength. They’ve colonised several systems, have planets full of loyal Vorta – talented clone administrators who evolved on tropical worlds, just like their TV counterparts – and they’re effectively immortal.
All of these things make the Milky Way feel diverse and lived in, a place where thousands of years of history have already played out. There are giant empires and underdogs, blossoming friendships and established grudges. This variety makes it a fascinating 4X game, even if you aren’t invested in the Star Trek theme. It helps if you are, of course. I’ve started up a dozen different games already just to see how the team have managed to transpose stuff from the TV and cinematic universe to the game, turning the elements that make a species interesting into actual mechanics or traits like the Borg’s penchant for assimilating all life.
With so much stuff going on, New Horizons also makes a valiant attempt to fix the mid-game slog that can infect the vanilla game, where you’ve finished exploring and the galaxy sort of drifts into this status quo that’s only shaken up when massive factions decide to go to war. The politics, intrigue, Klingon civil wars and bespoke storylines keep things moving along in a pacy fashion. There are still moments where things grind to a halt, though, and the advantages that some species have go a little beyond asymmetry and threaten to enter the realm of game-breaking imbalance, but it is still a work-in-progress.
If my unapologetic gushing hasn’t already made it clear: New Horizons is something pretty special, and you’d be dafter than a dopey Pakled if you aren’t already hovering over the subscribe button in the Steam Workshop.