As I write this the open beta for Star Trek Online, which I’ve been playing incessantly for the last two weeks, is coming to an end. While the game itself isn’t out until February 2nd (or 5th here in the UK) pre-order customers will be able to start playing from the end of this week. I’ll be among them.
I’ve never really been the biggest fan of the MMO genre, I’ve played Eve and Warhammer Online for about a month each, World of Warcraft failed to engage me in the slightest and I lost interest in Cryptic’s previous effort, Champions Online, before the beta even finished. I am however, an unabashed fan of Star Trek from a young age, as such I’ve played more than a few games based on the license and the good ones (Elite Force, Birth of the Federation) are few and far between. So it was with some trepidation that I started up Cryptic’s latest offering.
The first thing that you’ll run into when playing Star Trek Online is the character creator, and as anyone who has ever played a Cryptic game knows, this is the one area in which they are almost certainly the best in the business. The new ‘create an alien’ feature is typically brilliant, allowing you to construct a rubber forehead to rival the best offerings of DS9s promenade. Cleverly however the bonuses for using a pre-made race are slightly higher, no created alien will ever be able to perform the Vulcan neck pinch, or have the innate leadership abilities of a human, they will however be more versatile and easier to tailor to a particular play style. Playing as a pre-set race allows less leeway in the creation process, you can have Andorians can have dreadlocks, but must have blue skin and antennae. You’re not missing out though, because your entire bridge crew can be customised as heavily as the player character, including ‘unknown’ aliens.
Bridge officers are one of STOs great innovations, on the ground they act almost like party members in a single player RPG, gaining a new ability with each promotion (once every ten levels). Away teams consist of five people, regardless of how many players are involved, so you could have one player and four officers, or five captains, or anything in between. This lets you set your own level of involvement, I regularly teamed up with only one or two other captains and let the AIs fill the remaining slots.
Ground combat is, however, unexceptional, while not actively bad, it doesn’t really stand out in any way, the fast faced run an gun style is very reminiscent of City of Heroes or Champions. It is however, significantly improved by the mission design, specifically the heavy use of instancing, meaning that the classic MMO problem of zones full of wildlife wandering in circles happily doesn’t come up, with most missions having a clear direction and impetus to them.
Mission quality can vary slightly however. ‘Patrol’ or ‘Explore’ missions will send you to a series of planets, where a randomly selected adventure might await. This is where STO is at it’s grindiest, Patrol missions in particular might have you do multi part missions on five different planets before accessing a reward, with very little story linking them. Actual story missions however are far superior, I played through one chain of quests chasing a rogue Klingon Admiral that eventually culminated in a trip back in time through the Guardian of Forever and a fight with Original Series era Klingons (complete with smooth foreheads).
The real highlight of STO though is the space combat. In space your Bridge Officers now represent powers that your ship can use in combat, again they can only access one per rank, but now the kind of ship you choose also impacts. Slow but durable cruisers have access to extra Engineering powers for example, while fast and damaging Escorts can field extra Tactical officers. Rather than the complex series of drop down menus that governs a space battle in Eve, Star Trek Online has gone for a stripped down control system that is a joy to use, you move freely in three dimensions and activate all beam or torpedo weapons with a simple key press. Cleverly, more powerful beam weapons have a tighter arc making outfitting your ship a constant trade off, manoeuvrable Escorts might use powerful Cannons that can only fire straight ahead, while slow turning Cruisers will look to make the most of Beam Arrays, whose 250 degree fire arc allows them to fire both fore and rear weapons in a broadside. Shields are split into four quadrants, so each battle is a case of careful movement in order to break down one side of shields before sending in a volley of photon torpedoes, which have enormous power against bare hull, to finish the job. It’s the sheer fun factor of this combat that really makes STO stand out, even the grindiest of missions is made palatable when each encounter is so intensely playable.
While there were clear teething problems in beta (particularly noticeable is a hilarious bug in which the player appears as a ship on the ground or a person in space) Cryptic are clearly working hard to get the game ready for release, with a massive UI and graphical overhaul happening halfway through the testing period. I don’t expect STO to be the most polished launch in MMO history, but neither to I expect it to be the worst.
Ultimately Star Trek Online has done what I had never thought possible, drawn me into an MMO, and it’s done it through the simple act of having a genuinely fun combat system and an interesting universe full of potential. It seems unlikely that STO’s casual nature (such as it’s negligible death penalty) will attract hardcore MMO players, but those of us who never got the bug for World of Warcraft might well find something to enjoy here.