Jean-Luc Picard looks small and lonely. Older, somehow more statesmanlike than ever, still captain of the Starfleet's flagship, but weirdly tiny, as though he is slowly disappearing. Because he's alone. All of his officers have gone. There's just all these unfamiliar young people now. Young, quiet, anonymous. Oh, and a visiting Tuvok from Voyager, but he's no Data, is he?
2003 first-person shooter Star Trek: Elite Force II was released after the Next Generation crew's final cinematic outing, Nemesis. I do not know if a final decision had yet been made as to whether they would ever have another film at that point, but revisiting it now, a half-lost offshoot of a TV and film series that was effectively erased from fictional history by the first of the JJ Abrams Star Trek reboot movies, it's hard not to approach it as something of a coda. Could this really be what became of Picard after Nemeis's credits rolled? Still there, ageing, increasingly away from the action, all his friends gone on to other starships and strange new worlds?
The tragedy of Jean-Luc Picard. And it's all in my head, a consequence of Patrick Stewart (and Dwight Schultz) being the only frontline Next Generation actor hired to voice Elite Force II. He sounds happy enough, a rather listless "these are the voyages" monologue in the opening credits aside, but I am convinced he is sad, and alone, glory years gone, and now some dull young hunk gets all the exciting away missions instead.
Alex Munro and his 'Hazard Team' return from Star Trek Voyager: Elite Force, the 'Voyager' wisely dropped for this one as the TV show in question was no longer a going concern and, frankly, never captured the public imagination as Jean-Luc & chums did anyway.
I never clicked with Voyager or with Elite Force, and this is my first time around the block with the sequel. I felt a wash of relief when I heard those sonorous Stewart tones at the start, and the namedropping of 'Enterprise' rather than 'Voyager' essentially bestowed a veneer of legitimacy that I hadn't felt in EF1. This would be Actual Star Trek.
Except 2000s FPS values are in the way. This has to be a big, ballsy, shooty action game far more than it does an extension to nice people being worried on a spaceship. So Munro does not begin with a phaser, the most and almost only iconic Star Trek weapon, in his hand, but rather some awful rifle.
The phaser's there as an option, and it looks and feels like a phaser, but it serves very little real purpose compared to the bigger boys. It's a shame we don't get the progression at least, to get used to the phaser then build up to the rifles seen in First Contact, then more beyond. Elite Force II would never get made today, of course, but if it did we'd surely spend a lot of time with a reconfigurable, upgradeable phaser rather than the 15-odd assorted spiky deathrays seen here.
In its defence, Elite Force II wants to show off almost immediately, which wasn't a foregone conclusion for the shooters of the time. We're dropped straight onto a Borg sphere, in a sequence that's apparently squeezed into offscreen gaps in the Voyager finale, and swiftly battle a horde of Borg drones.
It's probably the only opening anyone ever wanted from a Star Trek shooter set in Next Gen era, and it goes to town on it. With Elite Force II anti-aliased up the wazoo and running at 3440x1440, the Borg sequences look glorious.
Those red eye-lasers beaming out of the surprisingly ominous dark, the puppet-like but relentless movement, the eeriness of how they will not attack, will not even acknowledge you, until attacked, the terror when they learn to modulate their shields in order to make your weapons ineffective.
The Borg had their spine ripped out through overuse in Voyager, but Elite Force II makes a strong case for why we once loved and feared them so. Remarkably strong use of light and shadow for the time hammers the point home: this is quite a technical tour de force in its own way.
There's a lot of loving visual detail in Elite Force II, not just on the Borg sphere, but also in the familiar winding, carpeted corridors of the Enterprise, the silly haircuts and shoulderpads of the Romulans, and a dramatic Starfleet headquarters set in the San Franciscan valleys, the Golden Gate bridge visible behind its sweeping towers. It certainly wants to look like a Star Trek game, and (pre-reboot) frankly we never got much else at this kind of budget trying to do that.
All the more jarring that it departs from being a Star Trek game in any other meaningful sense. In fact, it tries to turn the whole shebang into endless silly action over a decade before Abrams got there. Sure, there are conversations, some wretched tricorder-based hacking minigames and some sweet sequences where you can wander starship corridors and Federation bases somewhat freely, but Elite Force is all about the shooting. So much death. More bodies pile-up in half an hour of EF2 than there are in seven seasons of TNG.
Sure, it's a shooter, that's how it was going to be, but man, now that there's a heightened sense what was lost when pre-reboot Star Trek was wrapped up, the absence of a spirit of optimism and co-operation here is all the more jarring.
This week's the 50th anniversary of Star Trek, and quite a few of us have been reminiscing about a lost vein of sci-fi that, by and large, promised a brighter future. Hope of socio-political betterment, not the banal 'kill the baddies and everything's ok' fantasy approach of Star Wars. The Elite Force games exist in a world in which violence is the only solution. It feels like so much more of a missed opportunity now.
If you squint a bit, you might convince yourself that Munro and co are a black ops units that Picard and co essentially have to pretend don't exist in order that they can keep on believing that the Federation is all sunshine and daises. They don't do that, though. The artist formerly known as Locutus seems only proud of Munro's bodycount. Perhaps he's just glad of the company. Poor old Jean-Luc.
Playing Elite Force II today was disorientating. I'd switch regularly between thinking 'Yes, this is Star Trek' and 'oh good lord no, this is the polar opposite of Star Trek.' It's a fascinating thing, half triumph and half failure, and so much of its time. It'd never get made today, and that makes me almost as sad as does the thought of Jean-Luc Picard still out there on that bridge after all these years, all his friends long-gone.
Star Trek: Elite Force II is not available for sale digitally, but can be found on the second-hand market.