It's Elite meets Star Trek in the fourth and final licensed Star Trek game title for the C64. In this wide-scoped mission, the Enterprise must find a way to break the effects of a mind control device which has rendered a 100 light year-radius area of space hostile to all other life forms. Unsure how to deal with the crisis, Starfleet Command has decided to seal in the entire (massive) region of space with an inescapable sphere, but will need five years to complete the project. The Enterprise must end the mind control, or be sealed in forever. Opposing her and her crew at every step of the way will be Klingons, Romulans, and even Federation ships suffering the effects of the device.
The Rebel Universe is the only title which does not expressly put you in James T. Kirk's shoes. Instead, you call upon the resources of all seven of the core bridge crew: Kirk, Spock, McCoy, Scotty, Uhura, Chekov, and Sulu. Like The Kobayashi Alternative, The Rebel Universe tries to break new ground with an innovative interface. The main game screen lets you control a particular bridge function, such as navigation or scanning. Bordering the screen are seven other possible subscreens, selected from recent visits or likely next choices.
Unlike The Kobayashi Alternative, this pioneering endeavor was largely a success. Some of the screens are "make-work," however, and only needlessly complicate certain processes, such as arming weapons or changing speed which could and should have been integrated with other screens.
At any time, the Enterprise may be jumped by enemy vessels from any one of the three camps. Although not difficult to lock on and fire, the overly fine sorting of screens makes it very clumsy to navigate during combat. Ideally, you would use the navigation globe to take a better posture to an enemy vessel and close in so that phaser and photon torpedo fire will do more damage. In practice, however, fiddling from screen to screen will only cause you to take more damage than you will save by getting the more accurate shot.
Most star systems in the region contain at least one life-supporting planet. You assemble an away team of any combination up to six of the bridge crew and beam down to the one interesting building on the planet. (Procedural generation only goes so far--more about that in a moment.) In each room is a single object to interact with—a locked door, a security robot, a useful component in a weapon against the mind control device, and so on.
Different crew members can offer advice and possible solutions to deal with the roadblocks. Spock is generally good to have on-hand to identify the purpose of mysterious new artifacts, and a landing party without Kirk, although possible, just doesn't feel right. The Enterprise can only refuel and resupply at Federation planets, but info beacons in Klingon and Romulan space can still provide useful clues about the activities in the zone.
There are hundreds of systems in the quarantine zone, all procedurally generated by the game engine—thus the comment about "Elite meets Star Trek." Mike Singleton of Lords of Midnight fame was the lead designer, and clearly brought with him his experience making small computers deliver big gameworlds. This approach keeps the entirely memory-resident game apparently brimming with content, albeit of a repetitive variety. The game has multiple solutions, another credit to its compact design. You can directly sabotage the works of the mind control device, or find more subtle ways to exert enough pressure to end the crisis.
However, this attempt at variety is hideously hamstrung by an extremely dubious design decision. Not satisfied with the five-year mission clock, the resource management problems of keeping warp and impulse drives charged and the Enterprise structurally sound, and the constant threat of attack from about 2,500 hostile ships in the quarantine zone to keep the player challenged, Singleton's team also added "Catastrophe Pods" to the zone. Various planets throughout the system have the pods as their "feature." They are alien life eggs which attach themselves to the ship and hatch approximately five weeks later, consuming the superstructure and destroying the ship.
Merely entering a system with a planet containing the pods is enough to infect the ship. The only way to get rid of them is to find an "Orbital Discontinuum"—a planet whose feature is a wormhole which sends the Enterprise to a new system and has the convenient side effect of removing pods. There is no way to know if a system has pods before you visit it—which means that it is quite possible that the very first planet you visit will hit you with pods, leaving you scrambling to find another nearby system with a discontinuum!
The presence of the pods not only make the game distinctly unfair, but they mean that, regardless of the strategy you choose to use to end the crisis, you must first engage in a painstaking mapping of the quarantine zone to flag those planets with discontinuums so that you can always find nearby relief from pods when you invariably stumble into a pod-infected system.
I use the word "unfair" carefully and deliberately here. The Rebel Universe goes to some lengths to try to simulate the experience of commanding and operating the Enterprise, yet it is patently impossible for even the most skilled starship commander to even come close to solving the crisis on the first, fifth, or tenth attempt. The pods are an element of random death almost as obnoxious as the "go west and die" rooms found in so many early text adventures. A trained version of the game which eliminated the catastrophe pods would make it far more playable.
As it stands, however, The Rebel Universe is an intriguing game with an irritating habit of stiff-arming its players.
|GRAPHICS - 7/10|
|The windowing system works well. The main bridge high-res image is a bit sloppy, but forgivable. Mostly the graphics stay within themselves.|
|SOUND - 4/10|
|A decent rendition of the original theme song is played only on the title screen. In-game, you are treated only to sound effects, many of which are obnoxious. Best to just kill the volume after the title.|
|PLAYABILITY - 6/10|
|An engaging interface, wide-open play style and multiple endings are all sabotaged by an extremely player-unfriendly design choice in the Catastrophe Pods.|
|OVERALL - 7/10|
|What could have been a truly memorable wide-open galactic adventure is let down by one bad design decision, but mapping fans will rise to the challenge. Casual Captains will lose ship after ship and grow frustrated.|