'Star Trek Bridge Crew' Takes VR to New Dimensions

Star Trek Bridge Crew
Screenshot from the upcoming PlayStation VR release Star Trek Bridge Crew from Red Storm Entertainment. Image provided by ubisoft.com. ubisoft.com

Hikaru Sulu, helmsman for four years of the USS Enterprise NCC-1701's famous five-year mission, has a difficult job. Arrayed in front of him is a square grid of 36 candy-colored buttons, each with multiple functions depending on the configuration of the eight rocker switches just below. Those buttons—not any fancy joysticks, throttles or steering wheels—control the immense, Constitution-class heavy cruiser. I know because I flew the Enterprise. And I'm no Sulu.

Whether navigating an asteroid field, engaging in ship-to-ship combat or just plotting a course before engaging the warp drive, serving as a Starfleet helmsman while playing the upcoming PlayStation VR release Star Trek Bridge Crew from Red Storm Entertainment made me wish for a third hand. But working together with an engineer and tactical officer, taking orders from our captain, we completed the mission. Though linked by PSVR headsets, it didn't feel like any multiplayer game I've played before. It felt like Star Trek.

"VR could become the most social technology ever developed," Red Storm Entertainment's Senior Creative Director David Votypka told Newsweek. Votypka worked in VR in the 90s, when the technology was used in resource-intensive industrial and scientific visualizations. In the early 2000s, in tandem with the dot-com crash, virtual reality fell out of favor and Votypka moved to game design. It's only now, with the new wave of VR headsets, that his two passions find their perfect synthesis in Star Trek Bridge Crew.

While cooperative multiplayer isn't exactly uncommon, Star Trek Bridge Crew doesn't feel anything like Diablo or Overwatch. You're not an independent agent, aligned with your teammates only against a common enemy. Instead you're more like a single limb, your perspective narrowed to a portion of a greater whole. Sure, there's the viewscreen in front of you, maybe you can even all see the attacking Klingon vessel, but if it's your job to fire the photon torpedoes, you'd better hope engineering keeps the power routed and helm keeps the enemy ship in range. But Star Trek Bridge Crew felt futuristic in more than just its sci-fi utopian premise. The nature of its interactions feel substantially new, perhaps even a peek beyond any its mechanics, to a future where virtual reality becomes a surprising and powerful medium of human empathy and interconnection.

Even if the Oculus Rift, HTC Vive and PSVR (all of which will be able to cross-play Bridge Crew together) represent a technology still in its infancy, with realism-enhancing features like eye tracking and facial recognition still ahead of us, playing Star Trek Bridge Crew makes it obvious how different VR will be from traditional multiplayer experiences.

Several times while playing Bridge Crew, I found myself looking over to a fellow crewmember then looking away so as not to stare. Any experience with VR reveals the power (and current limitations) of embodiment in a player-character, but the visceral experience of other bodies came as a surprise. I behaved like a social ape rather than a gamer. Players would turn to look when someone else on the bridge was speaking nearby. Without consciously performing a game action, I pointed out a course bearing to another player on the astrogator screen between us.

In another demo, while serving as a tactical officer aboard the USS Aegis (a ship created for Star Trek Bridge Crew in collaboration with CBS) we played through the third mission in the story campaign (the Enterprise is only playable in the randomized missions of the "Ongoing Voyages" mode). There are Vulcan scientists in scattered escape pods. The tactical station scans for life signs, directing helm to move the Aegis in range for engineering to transport them aboard. But that means dropping the ship's shields (can't transport through shields), leaving the Aegis vulnerable to the inbound Klingons.

"We wanted to give players these multiple-dilemma situations and have them try and think laterally about how they want to deal with it. We want to avoid being too literal or binary about how things should be done," Votypka said. This may or may not be evident in the gameplay, but for first-timers just staying alive is accomplishment enough. The space for mastery and tactical squad behavior is obvious in every shortcoming.

Though we successfully rescued all 24 Vulcan scientists, I failed in my full responsibilities as tactical officer, leaving one escape pod unscanned for life-signs. Only the extra-narrative intervention of a post-mission stats screen informed me the escape pod had been empty. It was a relief to know they all lived, though my failure as a Starfleet officer weighed on me. It's not an emotional sensation typical of anything gaming as a medium has offered before. Unmediated through a player-character, VR feels sensorially immediate, but more engaging was the team experience, even without really knowing the people behind the uniform and behind the VR headsets.

Bridge Crew is set in the Kelvin timeline shortly after Nero's destruction of Vulcan (2009's Star Trek). "The kickoff for the story campaign is that Vulcan has been destroyed and the Federation is trying to help the remaining Vulcan population find a new home to resettle and rebuild," Votypka said. That brings the Aegis to an uncharted sector of space known as The Trench. "There was a large-scale war there a long, long time ago. And what you find there changes your whole mission and sets you on other path."

"We want it to feel like your own Star Trek episodes that have a variety of experiences in it," Votypka said. Unlike other Trek games, such as the mobile Star Trek Timelines, Bridge Crew isn't concerned with stuffing in every captain, ship and scenario from throughout the five Star Trek series and 13 movies. Votypka wouldn't even confirm or deny that players learning the ropes in the simulator bridge at Starfleet Academy (Bridge Crew's tutorial) would face the infamous Kobayashi Maru test.

Rather than capturing the spirit of Star Trek in its trivia and minutiae, recycling old villains and seeding Easter Eggs for fans like in the rebooted "Kelvin Timeline" movies (the Abramsverse, to their detractors), Star Trek Bridge Crew works upon sensation—nestling players among the view-screens with actionable data, the pings of subsystems and a perspective on Trek spacefaring that is both unlike anything in the series and perfectly attuned to its subtextual rhythms. Thrown into the body of a Starfleet officer, the tension underlying Starfleet's signature coolheadedness (even with the ship about to explode, Star Trek: The Next Generation characters almost never run) in the face of the mysterious and alien is palpable.

"We wanted to make it about you becoming a Federation officer," Votypka said. In this, playing on a bridge full of Spocks, Kirks and McCoys would detract, robbing you of a Star Trek lived experience that Bridge Crew captures so well. "It would be kind of boring trying to personify a different person."

Which is not to say that Bridge Crew is cavalier about its Trek specifics or indifferent to the TOS legacy. The level of detail aboard the simulated Enterprise is astounding.

Mapping Bridge Crew's various player subsystems onto a 1960s TV set was like "mad science game design," Votypka said. "Part of the challenge is when you watch the original show, it doesn't always give you the shot you want to look at the station and say 'alright, where are the buttons and what are they doing?'" It didn't help that Star Trek cast members wouldn't always press the same buttons for the same actions, though detailed blueprints from fan communities like CX-1 offered a helpful consensus.

Even more useful was fan film producer James Cawley's perfect recreation of the Star Trek set, now open to visitors in Ticonderoga, New York. "When I walked into the transporter room he called it a time machine and it literally felt like that," Votypka said. "I took pictures of every square inch of the bridge."

What separates Star Trek Bridge Crew from the fleet of previous Trek games is how that attention to detail feels less like a fulfillment of fandom requirements and more like a reality that insists upon itself to the players. Aboard the Aegis bridge, the human crewmembers (Bridge Crew can also be played as a single-player game with NPC "crew-bots") take on aspects of Star Trek almost unwittingly. Whether or not your crew consciously pepper communications with Star Trek lines like "make it so," scanning, punching into warp or rerouting power to bring phasers back online draws players into a Star Trek context rich in its completeness.

Star Trek Bridge Crew will be released for Windows and PS4 May 30.