A Star Trek MMO is the stuff that dreams are made of – to boldly go, beaming up and tinkering with your warp core, all while raising a wry Vulcan eyebrow. Cryptic has got some high expectations to satisfy. Luckily for them, Trek fandom comes in many shapes and sizes, so as long as the team gets the basics down right, they’re bound to please some of the people. I beamed aboard the beta for Star Trek Online (STO) to get a feel for life in Federation space.
It’s All in the Face
Although Cryptic is the king of character gen, I wasn’t expecting much from STO because of the limitations of the races and uniforms, but boy was I wrong to doubt them. Character customisation options are surprisingly varied, although race choices are limited at entry level, so no Klingon, Cardassian or Romulan. Vulcan, Human, Betazoid, Bajoran and Trill are some of the initial character options and each offer their own traits and advantages. The game is split into factions, so at level six you get to choose to become a Klingon, but that means you can’t be Klingon and Federation, so no Worf-style characters, as far as I can tell.
However, Cryptic also gives you the open-ended Alien character gen option, which means you can create a race of your own, with the chance to use familiar aspects of existing races, such as Ferenghi style ear frills or pronounced brow bones. Hitting random pulls up some great combinations and the options here really are endless. Even within the races you can tweak all features, hair and you can even create your own uniform style and colour combination.
Beam Me Down
With your character created, it’s time to name yourself and your ship and head to your first mission. The missions seem to be presented like Star Trek episodes, they are often short and provide a mixture of space combat and away team missions.
Although early quests seem to follow the collect ’em up format of kill five of these or deliver seven of those, it all comes organically as you push through the mission story arc. For instance, fighting through foes on an away mission, there are consoles that need switching off to allow you to progress down corridors along the way. There’s no hunting for the last console, which is hidden behind a box and there’s not a rat liver in sight.
An away mission usually ends with a boss encounter, but sometimes they escape to fight another day, or a friend turns out to be a foe. These twists in the tales keep things fresh, as does the constant switching from ground to space combat.
STO always makes it feel like progress is being made. Blast some foes in space, scan space debris and rescue a ship in trouble, then it’s time to beam down to the surface to explore a new environment. It’s too soon to tell if this will get old, but for now Cryptic seems to be throwing in enough variety to keep the grind to a minimum.
On away missions you are given a team of four. Initially, the bulk of your away team is made up of generic NPCs, but as you gain experience you are given a choice of Bridge Officers to serve on your ship. Bridge Officers come in the form of Tactical, Engineer or Science and bring different skills to the party. So Tactical is Worf, tinkering your weapons, the Engineer is Geordie, cranking up shields, while the Science Officer could be more of a Deanna Troi-style diplomat offering buffs/debuffs and so on. Eventually you will be able to choose from an array of Bridge Officers, according to their skills and your playing style.
You are able to command your Away Team, telling them to be passive, attack or target your target. However, I found the AI was sufficient to let them do their own thing. They would duck behind cover, flank foes and make sure group shields and health was topped up.
The combat favours flanking manoeuvres, providing extra points for hitting a foe from the back or the side. In my short experience with the game, I was using a phaser and then upgraded to some kind of rifle, which was more powerful. Actions are limited to two different kinds of shots and then a close combat rifle butt, which knocks foes off their feet.
Different foes fight in different ways. Borg like to surround you, coming at your relentlessly, while Klingons prefer to operate at close quarters, giving you a clout, with their blade. I have to say, the away missions were my least favourite part of the game and I felt that perhaps Cryptic had, understandably, spent more time trying to get the space combat right. That said, it will be easy to improve the ground combat as time goes on and the planets offer a variety of environments, so at least bland, repetitive play areas are not a problem.
STO really has made a great stab at the space combat and I feel this is where the most fun will be had when hooking up with other players. Space battles are all about power management and shields. Your ship has shields on four sides, so the trick is to move around to ensure damage isn’t concentrated on one side, allowing weapons to break through to the hull.
Your Bridge Officers are invaluable in space combat, as your Engineer will be able to reroute power to the shields, while the Science officer can make it difficult for foes to target the ship and can enhance cloaking and stealth elements when not in combat. You can choose how to assign the ship’s energy, whether that’s auxiliary, engines, weapons or shields and that can really turn the tide of a battle.
As you level up, depending on how you spend your points, mines become available, providing more tactical scope. Torpedos do hull damage, while phasers take down shields, so the trick is to hit their shields and then slip through the chink in their armour. And of course you can pimp your ride, both in terms of ship add-ons and aesthetics.
All the missions I played were instances, apart from an early space combat, which was an open instance and gave me a taste of what it would be like to be in a fleet of U.S.S federation ships, taking down Borg cubes.
Earth’s space port is the main hub of the game. Find your traders, upgrades, customisations, store to buy ships and auction house here. Fortunately, you can hail Starfleet for your missions, so there’s no needless toing and froing between space and docking.
The only thing missing from my beta experience was how grouping works. I didn’t get to do an away mission with other players, but I can see how space combat could be really compelling with other ships involved. I would have also liked more spoken dialogue, rather than just reams of text boxes from NPCs.
STO is definitely looking like a rich MMO experience and this preview only scrapes the surface of what’s available. I’m looking forward to the launch, so that I can explore other areas of space and of course create my Klingon character.
The bottom line is, STO is worth a look and could be the MMO trekkies have been waiting for: a game that finally does the series justice.