Fans of Star Trek, brace yourselves. Cryptic Studio’s Star Trek Online is just around the corner. Some are already scrambling to get lifetime subscriptions and all the extra goodies they can, whereas I’m just trying to determine if this game is worth my time and money. From what I’ve seen of the open beta, it could be. There’s a lot going for it, but the game suffers from a few flaws that may prove fatal to the experience of other players.
When the latest Star Trek film was released in 2009, some blabbermouths in the media talked about how it made Star Trek ‘cool again’. Star Trek Online has somehow pulled off the opposite. Star Trek Online has returned Star Trek to the bailiwick of the nerd. I happen to think this MMOG is pretty cool, but I’m a Star Trek fan, and that’s the target audience for this game. Not the general public, but Star Trek fans.
While Star Trek Online doesn’t boast the story emphasis BioWare is touting for Star Wars: The Old Republic, a good number of Trekkies are more interested in becoming part of the Star Trek universe and its ongoing story than they are the universality of the gameplay mechanics. This doesn’t mean that Cryptic Studios has skimped on the gameplay, because there’s plenty to be had. It’s just not the same kind of experience one gets from World of Warcraft or Aion, and that can be an obstacle too great for some to overcome.
Gameplay in Star Trek Online is divided between ground combat and space combat. Ground combat is typical MMOG fare. You have abilities with cooldowns used to defeat your enemies. When defeated some enemies drop items for you to use, equip or sell. Your primary attack abilities are based on your equipped weapon. It’s nothing terribly new here, but there’s an aspect of it that feels different from other MMOGs that I’ll address in a moment.
Space combat, on the other hand, is likely to be the biggest stumbling block to people, because there’s a good amount of it in Star Trek Online. Space combat in Star Trek has been depicted as battles between capital ships more often than not. The game aims more for that feel than that of a frenetic dogfight. Like the tabletop game on the subject, Star Fleet Battles, or its tall ships cousin, Wooden Ships & Iron Men, the mechanics of space combat focus on positioning, hit location and resource distribution. If you’ve played Wing Commander, you’ll be familiar with this form of space combat and you’ll find it happening at a managable pace from an outside perspective rather than being in the cockpit of a starfighter.
Instead of the traditional quest structure, Star Trek Online divides its content into “missions.” From anywhere in the galaxy, you can hail Starfleet to get a new mission. These missions vary from general exploration and patrols to an arcing story about escorting a diplomat, investigating the theft of precious material or rescuing colonists. Missions are geared to take about 45 minute to 1 hour, slicing the content up into very managable chunks. While most of them fall into a specific pattern – warp into a system, shoot at enemy ships, beam down to the ground location, blast people down there, beam back up for another space battle and warp out – there’s enough variety in the types of missions and stories to keep things interesting.
The party system also bears a mention. If you’re not in a party already, and you warp into a system where others are on the same mission, you’ll be automatically rounded up into a party, and the difficult of the mission will scale accordingly. While this idea seems innovative on paper, more often than not you’ll find yourself staring down a well-armed enemy fleet while you and your fellow players float there in your starting ships. Even on your own, the combat can be challenging. However, when it comes to facing ground combat alone, you’re never really alone.
If you beam down to a location without a group, Star Trek Online provides you with an Away Team. Your Bridge Officers, who have abilities that can assist you in space combat, fill in the empty spaces in your party. Other MMOG players are familiar with ‘pets’ and the Bridge Officers do fall into that category. They have abilities of their own and participating in a mission with them, for me, almost makes the game feel more like Mass Effect than an MMOG. Of course, the Bridge Officer AI isn’t overly complicated, but you do have the option of having a ‘red shirt’ run in front of you to take all of the enemy fire while you come in behind them to clean up.
These somewhat unique elements make Star Trek Online feel like a different MMOG experience. For most MMOG players, though, ‘different’ does not necessarily mean ‘good’. A lot of players are going to be put out by the space combat mechanics, the brevity of missions, a lack of clearly defined ‘dungeons’ and the overall aesthetic of the game. Even some Star Trek fans won’t be able to overcome these obstacles to the fun. It really comes down to personal taste.
The game has come under ‘enemy fire’ of its own for a variety of reasons. It’s not the most graphically advanced game out there. Aion is by far a prettier game. Sector space, the “world map” is huge, mostly empty and somewhat lonely as you move from one system to the next. And expect to see a lot of loading screens as you transition from instance to instance. Every system, ground location and starbase exist in their own instance, and the game doesn’t exactly handle the transition delicately. The levelling system is different in Star Trek Online than other MMOGs, as it is based on skills rather than overall experience, and most of your character’s abilities are based on the weapons, ‘kits’ and other equipment they carry rather than their overall rank. Veterans of other MMOGs may struggle to overcome all of these points, if they decide it’s worth their time to do so. Frankly, I can’t blame them if they don’t.
What nudges this game over to the ‘worth playing’ column, for me, is the sense of immersion the game provides. This feels very much like Star Trek. The music, the sound design, the user interface, the variety of characters and life forms – it all contributes to the atmosphere of a rich and detailed universe that many people have dreamed of joining for years. Hearing Alexander Courage’s music at the completion of a difficult mission seems to have an almost magical quality for me, washing away frustration at pirates or Klingons that was gnawing at my patience. I feel that Star Trek Online has a lot of potential. It’s made some mistakes here and there, but there’s a sense of overall improvement that, hopefully, will continue into the future.
It really does come down to personal taste if you feel Star Trek Online will be worth your time and money. I can’t blame the people who will decide that it isn’t. I, on the other hand, will be setting my course for the release date of February 2, and it is my sincere hope that as much fun as I’ve had so far in the beta, crashes and bugs and lag aside, Cryptic has even more to offer. Cryptic, make it so.