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The USS Enterprise flies towards a docking bay in Star Trek: Infinite Image: Paradox Interactive via Polygon

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Star Trek: Infinite leans in to the best of Trek

Paradox Interactive’s 4X strategy game rewards role-playing and replaying

Star Trek and strategy games seem like they should fit like a snug, spandex spacesuit. While, in the past, game studios have attempted to apply the Star Trek brand to sexier game genres like first-person shooters or flight combat simulators, this often felt like a sweaty attempt to make Trek fit into a non-fan’s definition of “cool.” Thankfully, Trek’s fortunes seem to be changing, as for the second time this year, it’s been applied to a game that both fits the brand and can stand up next to other titles in its genre. Developed by Nimble Giant Entertainment (the 2016 Masters of Orion remake) and published by Paradox Interactive (Crusader Kings, Stellaris), Star Trek: Infinite is a 4X grand strategy game that shares a lot of qualities with a good Star Trek episode: It’s cerebral, accessible, occasionally a little clumsy, and overall a good time.

Star Trek: Infinite gives you access to the Alpha and Beta Quadrants of the Milky Way Galaxy, where most Star Trek stories are set. There, you take command of one of the four most prominent factions in the mythology and race the other three to become the dominant force in the cosmos. The object of the game is to expand your empire and to absorb as many of the region’s smaller civilizations as possible over the course of three centuries, but each faction goes about this in their own unique mode. The benevolent United Federation of Planets makes friends by sharing the bounty of its post-scarcity economy. The enigmatic Romulan Empire uses espionage and political trickery to set up puppet states, while the Klingon Empire prefers the direct approach, overwhelming its enemies like a gleeful storm of war. The Cardassian Union occupies and enslaves its neighbors for the benefit of its resource-poor homeworld. Beyond their specific forms of conquest, each faction faces parallel challenges of exploring the final frontier, acquiring and managing resources, and balancing the myriad responsibilities of maintaining a massive galactic government.

A splash screen for Star Trek: Infinite depicts the four playable factions: The United Federation of Planets, the Klingon Empire, the Romulan Star Empire, and the Cardassian Union Image: Paradox Interactive

Veterans of the 4X grand strategy genre (particularly Stellaris, this game’s direct ancestor) will be at home playing Infinite, dispatching starships across the 2D map to survey new star systems and colonize the habitable planets therein. Victory requires tempering your ambition and expanding your empire at a sustainable rate without allowing yourself to be outpaced by your opponents. Players are guided through the process by a faction-specific mission tree that encourages you to play to your empire’s strengths. The Federation’s biggest advantage is that its ability to provide nearly infinite creature comforts means rarely worrying about internal stability, so you can feel free to start exploring strange new worlds right away. In contrast, the Cardassian mission tree gives you a quota of how many forced labor camps you should build to meet your material demands, suggesting that you start building reeducation centers to keep the populace devoted to the state. Completing challenges on the mission tree grants you bonuses that will keep you competitive as the other three major powers carve out their own corners of the map.

That’s not to say that Star Trek: Infinite keeps the player totally on rails. Role-playing your faction to match their modus operandi from the TV shows will get you reliable results, but there’s nothing to stop you from veering from the canon. Each mission tree has a specifically divergent path you can follow, such as fast-tracking the peaceful reunification of the Romulan and Vulcan peoples or allowing the Federation to devolve into a fascist police state, but you can also ignore the tree completely and experiment with your own stories. Each faction has unique traits and capabilities that make it impossible to perfectly imitate the play style of another, but there’s plenty of wiggle room if you feel like creating new obstacles for yourself on repeat playthroughs. The canonical path, however, offers the least resistance and the swiftest route to victory.

I began my adventure, as I imagine most players will, with the Federation campaign, which has the most faction-specific features and perks and the friendliest difficulty curve. The Federation benefits from beginning with four stable founding worlds and a plentiful supply of Energy, which is the game’s primary currency. There are multiple minor powers in the vicinity who are easily persuaded to join your ranks, granting you developed worlds and additional starfleets upon their admission to the Federation. The challenge for the Federation is to bolster your military fleet proportional to the size of your territory, at least until you can amass so much wealth that your opponents can’t hope to overpower you. On the default difficulty of “Ensign,” I became too big to fail centuries ahead of schedule, but even on “Commodore,” the fourth of six difficulty levels against AI opponents, I was able to eke out a win long before the start of the official endgame.

A “Species” selection screen in Star Trek: Infinite allows the player to see which civil rights are available to the being in question, according to different in-game factions and their laws Image: Paradox Interactive

The three playable alien empires are each more challenging in different ways, befitting their disposition in the canon. Klingons can only expand their territory by force, but their warships are cheap and the Empire receives a cultural benefit every time one of their own ships is destroyed in battle. The Romulan campaign has an extra crisis to manage, as their home star system will be destroyed by a supernova a quarter of the way through the game, but they have the ability to seduce minor powers into becoming puppet states that feed them resources until they’re ready to be fully assimilated. The Cardassian homeworld operates at a deficit, but they also begin the game with an occupied minor power (Bajor, of course) and the ability to work non-Cardassian laborers literally to death to maximize resource production. (The player receives annual mortality reports from their labor camps.) It can take time to adjust oneself to the nasty ways that these empires exploit their advantages (did I mention the labor camp mortality reports?) but they certainly differentiate the gameplay between campaigns.

Players face a variety of crises, anomalies, and dilemmas throughout the campaign, presented in the form of two- to three-paragraph story cards and an array of options for pushing the story forward. Some of these stories are directly based on episodes of The Next Generation, while others are original to the game. They’re all written in a prose style that’s more flippant than you might expect from Trek, though in line with the flavor text of Stellaris or a tabletop strategy game. What’s impressive about the setup of these story scenarios is how, despite their costs and rewards being the same across campaigns, I found that the material needs of whatever empire I was playing nearly always guided me towards making the kinds of choices that my faction would likely make on the show. Choosing the most humane or diplomatic option was always practical as the Federation, but often not affordable as the Klingons or Cardassians. It feels appropriate to Trek’s ethos that the galaxy’s more brutal powers make some dubious or cruel choices, not because they’re “evil,” but because that’s where their circumstances lead them. Disrupting that is possible, but it takes a lot more work.

The game’s most underwhelming gameplay element is the Borg, which is included as a non-player faction that intermittently invades your space. The Borg is positioned as the game’s foremost ongoing threat, regardless of which faction you play, but on default settings, it’s little more than a nuisance. (Thankfully, they have their own dedicated difficulty slider during game setup.) By contrast, the Nausicaan pirates are the much larger problem, attacking more frequently and in greater force, but with no corresponding story importance.

A story card called “Reclamation” pops up, describing a Borg storyline in Star Trek: Infinite Image: Paradox Interactive via Polygon

Infinite also has some UI issues that only get more frustrating the deeper you get into the game. While it’s easy to move the camera directly to the location of any planet or starship you control, the same is not true for mission locations, which might even be in places you’ve yet to explore. The game’s search function will take you to any star system, but not every mission description specifies where it takes place, requiring that you scroll around an ever-expanding galactic map looking for a yellow pulsing indicator. The designers have also clearly made a remarkable effort to bring authentic Trek flavor to the game (even including a full Klingon language audio track in the Deluxe Edition), but that means it’s all the more jarring whenever I come across terminology that has been held over from Stellaris, from which Infinite branched at the start of development. (Never have the terms “voidcraft” or “highway node” been used in the Trek canon, though franchise-specific equivalents do exist.)

These criticisms are mostly quibbles. As with any 4X game, what’s most fun about Star Trek: Infinite is the challenge of seeing how many plates you can keep spinning. A century into the game’s timeline (or a few hours in real time), you’ll be managing the population and production of a dozen colony worlds, sprawling civilian and military starfleets, ground forces, a spy network, three streams of research projects, and your relationships with multiple friendly and hostile factions. Some of these pursuits can be selectively automated, allowing you to focus on the ones you most enjoy. The ability to control the passage of time means that you can get as granular as you want, to micromanage to your heart’s content, or to go full speed ahead and put out fires as they erupt. Star Trek: Infinite’s flexibility accounts for a lot of its replay appeal — as does the presumption that, as a Paradox game, official expansions and polished community mods are surely forthcoming. There is, after all, still half a galaxy to explore.

Star Trek: Infinite was released on Oct. 12 on Mac and Windows PCs. The game was reviewed on PC using a pre-release download code provided by Paradox Interactive. Vox Media has affiliate partnerships. These do not influence editorial content, though Vox Media may earn commissions for products purchased via affiliate links. You can find additional information about Polygon’s ethics policy here.