Call Me a purist, but there was something very wrong about the best Star Trek game available being based on one of its weakest TV incarnations. Voyager - Elite Force might have surpassed the plethora of mediocre-to-atrocious Trek games we'vthad to put up with in the past, but that doesn't excuse having to listen to Captain Janeway between missions. So when it was announced that the sequel would cast off its matronly-skippered guise and settle instead on the glowing baldness of one Captain Picard, the world cheered with enthusiasm. Well, I did anyway.

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Star Trek: Voyager - Elite Force is the first game based on the Star Trek Voyager universe. One blast from destruction, the U.S.S. Voyager is mysteriously transported into a hull space infested. A tricorder minigame. Elite Force II is a follow-on to the hugely successful Star Trek: Voyager - Elite Force.Developed by Ritual Entertainment and published by Activision, the game is a first-person shooter that employs the talents of some of Star Trek's most recognized voice actors. Following on from the original game, the player takes the role of Lieutenant Alexander Munro, a member of the.

The only cause for concern might have been the more dubious move from developer Raven to Ritual Entertainment, a company that hasn't produced much of interest since the ancient Sin. The use of the increasingly dated Quake III Arena engine was another area of worry. Having played the game to completion in its Beta form though, we can already confirm that Elite Force II is every bit as good as Raven's effort, and in some ways a whole lot better.

Borg Standard

In fact, the first thing that strikes you when you first play it, is just how similar to the first game this is, with all the small refinements and improvements you expect from a sequel. As before, youcommand the elite Hazard Team, sent out to do all the violent, dirty jobs those alien-hugging Federation officers won't touch. The first mission works as a transition between ships, set as it is in the Borg sphere seen in the very last episode of Voyager before they finally reach Earth. Unfortunately, the inside of a Borg ship isn't the best place to start a game: very small corridors, identical looks to the original (it almost feels like a cut and paste job) and enemies that have been so overused you can't be bothered to shoot them any more.

Things improve almost immediately though, as the story element kicks in and you find yourself consigned to a teaching job at the Starfleet Academy, a beautifully realised campus that you can explore at your leisure before being spotted by the eagle-eyed Picard. It's a shame more of the game doesn't take place here, as the outside locations under a pleasant blue sky would make an excellent - and different - arena for repelling alien invaders.

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Free Enterprise

Nevertheless, the move to the Enterprise continues the feeling of freedom and exploration, although, like Voyager before it, it's a shame so much of it is reduced to corridors with doors that don't open. Despite the real voice of Patrick Stewart as Picard (listen out too for Dwight Murdock Schultz reprising his Barclay role as well as the great Jeffrey Combs), it doesn't really feel quite as it should, partly because Voyager's irritating Tuvok is the only other major character (taking a temporary post here now that Voyager has disbanded), and because the Enterprise we all know from the TV series was destroyed a few films ago.

Still, your first mission inside Federation space puts you in classic episode territory: exploring a friendly vessel discovered drifting in space, with its crew either missing or dead. It's not quite System Shock 2, but the atmosphere builds up nicely as you discover bodies floating in the zero gravity and catch glimpses of whatever did the damage fleeing just out of the corner of your eye.

But elsewhere, atmosphere usually takes a backseat to pure action. Whether it's crawling alien creatures, Romulans, Klingons or some of the other species (details of which we're forbidden to divulge), the job is to blast (or, even better, vaporise) them out of existence.

The action takes place in several locations, expanding the original game's scope to include more away missions and outside settings. The best parts though, are the ones in familiar surroundings: battling some intruders on the bridge of the Enterprise with Picard by your side and taking a zero gravity spin on the outside of the ship's hull.

Tricordered

But while the whole thing is much longer than the first game, it doesn't often degenerate into non-stop mouse-button bashing, preferring instead to develop the story, add a few twists and generally keep you on your toes in more than the action department.

Not that there's anything approaching a proper, meaty puzzle (what game has anything like that these days?), but much of your time is spent exploring alternative routes and finding ways to take down force shields. Because of this, the tricorder plays a much more prominent part, providing information on anything you want to scan, detecting trip-wires and cloaks and pointing you in the direction of the next objective.

If You Hit Him Go To Page...

One of the best features in the first Elite Force (and one not all players realised was there) was the way certain actions forked the story slightly in two directions. So, for example, in one mission I was meant to rescue a fellow officer. I failed and received a bollocking from Tuvok, as well as reproaches from my teammates for the rest of the game. I thought it was just scripted to happen that way and that the rescue was in fact impossible. It wasn't until I went back much later that I realised it was possible, and that the outcome changed people's reactions from then on.

For a while I thought this had been removed from the sequel - after failing to rescue someone in the first mission it was game over. But in fact, the device had been developed even further, with certain key moments offering a choice of dialogue responses that shape your relationship with other characters.

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The Light Fantastic

It's subtle things like that - and the addition of some diverting sub-games - that make Elite Force II a bit more than another licensed hack job. However, these are the kind of details that will only be noticed by those looking for them. For the rest, Elite Force II is likely to be seen primarily as a straightforward, if enjoyable, shooter, with the small difference of sci-fi weaponry rather than the conventional machine-gun arsenal. This is quite a big difference you might think, especially when you consider that laser blasters, phasers and other futuristic arms (including those in Voyager and the Jedi Knight titles) are often deeply unsatisfying. How can you compare the sense of realism you get when a solid piece of metal thunders out of your gun barrel and ricochets off a wall into an enemy's yielding flesh with a bright beam of light that resembles nothing more a powerful torch beam?

Luckily, this is something Ritual has obviously taken into consideration, and the weapons in Elite Force II are by far the best of their type, beefed up for a greater feeling of solidity. Apart from the usual phaser and compression rifle, you get to play with an assault rifle (which has the nice punch of a shotgun to it), infinity modulator (the weapon from the first game that no Borg-fighter can do without), sniper rifle, grenade launcher, lightning gun (not only fires bolts of electricity, its secondary fire lets out a stream of gas that can be ignited for maximum burn value), quantum burst torpedo (a rocket launcher that can be guided) and radiation gun (the ultimate weapon here).

While there's plenty that will appeal to the general shooter audience - and not just a hardcore sci-fi fanbase - it's issues like these than make Elite Force Il's battle against its rivals more of a struggle. After all, how can a game that uses the Quake III engine and is closely modelled on the first Voyager outing compete with giants like Doom III and Half-Life 2? The answer, of course, is that it doesn't even try. Ritual hasn't set out to change the face of the action genre or introduce any groundbreaking gameplay concepts. All it wants is to create a solid and enjoyable experience, with enough violence to keep shooters happy and enough story and details to keep Trek fans the same way (most will be content with the moment when you can ring Picard's door and hear the familiar shout of Come!).

In that respect it looks like the developers are on course to achieve their target and, if the almost complete build we played is anything to go by, the June release date looks a dead certainty. There's a playable demo floating around the Internet so download that and decide for yourselves.

This Is A Man's World

But It Don't Mean Nothing Without...

Voyager- Elite Force not only had a Margaret Thatcher helming your ship, it also offered you the chance to play as a male or female character, both called Alex Munro. This was really only an aesthetic choice, but it's still sad to see the option absent this time round. It's a lazy mistake, since it was definitely much more fun playing as a girl, especially when you got to 9ee yourself in the mirror. Surely another skin and a different set of voice recordings would have been a small price to pay to keep her alive. Still, it does mean that Ritual has been able to develop your relationship with the other members of the Hazard Team without any gender misunderstandings.

Hologram Mayhem

Multiplayer Stays In The Holodeck

Although it would have been nice to see the online side of Elite Force II move on from what was essentially a Quake III mod, there are at least some new modes to look forward to. The main one is the Bomb Disposal one, which is basically a plant the bomb scenario, though here both teams have a device to plant. There is a Modifier in which the job of the other team is simply to defuse though. Other Modifiers include Disintegration (aka instagib). Control Points, Elimination and Specialities, in which runes collected give you a specific character class (infiltrator, medic, technician, demolitionist, heavy weapons or sniper). Other than that there is the usual assortment of deathmatches and capture the flags.

With top-notch Star Trek games being so aggravatingly rare, Raven Software’s Elite Force was a breath of fresh air. Short and punchy, the first-person shooter took the niche-within-a-niche and turned it into a pretty solid frag fest. Several years and one expansion pack later, a sequel was on the horizon, this time from Ritual Entertainment. Elite Force II once again features the Hazard Team lead by Alexander Munro, a rather more combat-oriented variation on the typical Federation away team. Instead of calmly reasoning with alien life forms, the Hazard Team just vaporizes them.

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One aspect of the new game is adding more depth to the original’s linear shooter gameplay or heavy use of the Tricorder, that ubiquitous and mysterious Star Trek device that seems to do everything from analyzing xenomorphs to mixing martinis. Here, you’ll often face things that can’t be blown up or perforated. You can “modulate†some controls simply by “firing†the Tricorder at them. Others require more dexterous manipulations. In one type of puzzle you have to match two waveforms by modulating amplitude, frequency, and period. In another, you have to connect a circuit in a manner reminiscent of the System Shock games.

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Still, the game’s 11 missions, 12 environments, and 70 levels are mostly about boldly going where no one has gone before, and blowing up what you find. The weapons include the usual Trek suspects like phasers and compression rifles, plus some new toys from the Romulans, Klingons, and various other alien types. Combat retains the feel of the first Elite Force, which is either good or bad depending on how okay you are with slower-than-light-speed projectiles, and a near total absence of visceral feedback. It is all consistent with the source material, though, and quite attractive to look at in action.

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Like the first game, Elite Force 2 starts deep in Borg territory. Upon boarding their sphere, your team is misplaced and you find yourself playing the rescuer. Once you make it back to Starfleet Academy, the headmaster decides to split up the hazard team and assigns each elite soldier to relatively menial duties. Eventually, Jean-Luc Picard, while on federation business, notices Munro kicking some serious tail in one of the holodek’s combat simulation programs, and snatches him and the rest of the old crew back for work on board the Enterprise.

The plot in this sequel is a lot more consistent and believable than that of the first Elite Force, and includes enough interesting, true-to-the-show elements to keep fans enthralled till the end. But Ritual Entertainment did not rely solely on elements of the established Star Trek universe in order to construct Elite Force II’s story, they have taken a few liberties and introduced three new alien species that work their way into the game’s plot. First on the list of fresh interspecies faces is the Attrexians, who reside near the Neutral Zone and have inexplicably fell victim to another alien species known as the Exomorphs, who have declared war on the Attrexians for reasons unknown. The history of the Exomorphs is shrouded in secrecy, even their origin is unknown. You’ll also come across an interesting species called the Idryll, who are widely known for holding a few grudges against the Attrexians.

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* * *

While the original Elite Force focused almost entirely on mindless combat, with a slapdash story thrown in, Elite Force II is decidedly more of a Star Trek fans dream when it comes to friendly interaction, interesting exploration, and inside references. The in-game cut-scenes interspersed throughout the experience help to push the story further and between combat missions you’ll get a chance to check out the various locales of Starfleet Academy or chat up crewmembers aboard the Enterprise. The sheer geek-factor of being able to realize the various nuances of the Star Trek universe in all their glory via a mouse and keyboard is off the charts.

Multiplayer offers its own bucket of cool. Deathmatch, CTF, Tag, Control Points, Power Struggle, and Bomb Diffusion modes are all included and spread across 10 different multiplayer maps. As expected, these modes are playable online and via LAN, but also offline via bots! In all, Elite Force 2 is light years (groans!) ahead of its predecessor, offering just about everything you might expect from a high-tier shooter in general, and one aimed at Star Trek geeks in particular. It has enough content to guarantees a prolonged lifespan on your hard drive.

System Requirements: Pentium 200 MHz, 32 MB RAM, Windows 95

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