I’m a Trekker (or Trekkie, I’m not getting into the terminology debate). I’ve followed the show since its first run, and while it may take me a second to recall the name of Admiral Archer’s prize beagle, I can still give you a data dump of information on a fictional universe that I love.
Star Trek Online filled me with a certain degree of trepidation, though. My hopes for Champions Online (produced by the same company, Cryptic) were… tarnished. I LIKE Champions Online, but I don’t love it. I see the skin of the RPG I used to love stretched over the skeleton of the defunct Marvel Universe MMO and I don’t think it really does justice to either.
I’m happy to report that Star Trek Online is a different kettle of fish. I still don’t LOVE it, but I definitely like like it. Let me hit some highlights.
Setting: The game is set some decades after the last Next Generation film (Nemesis). The recent reboot movie is treated as creating an alternate timeline, with no influence on established continuity, meaning the planet Vulcan is alive and well (but Romulus has been destroyed and Spock is MIA, though Leonard Nimoy delivers flavorful narration for the game).
This is fertile ground for the developers. The established history of the Federation is there to draw upon, but by pushing the timeline forward they’re not locked into a sequence of events (as is the case with Star Wars Galaxies or Lords of the Ring Online).
And things have moved. Klingons are at war with the Federation, backed by the Orions, Gorn, Nausicans and others, providing the meat for the PvP portion of the game. Romulans are courting allies from the Delta Quadrant (perhaps to form the nucleus of a third faction). The Borg seem to be starting to regroup. And a mysterious alien species is infiltrating all sides, fueling the conflict.
These are interesting times. It’s not as optimistic and diplomatic a universe as envisioned by Roddenberry, but it’s one rife with story possibilities.
Character Creation: As might be expected from Cryptic, the customization options of your character’s appearance are varied. You can choose from a number of established races (human, vulcan, bajoran, etc) or create your own personalized alien race.
The options for creating non-standard races are somewhat limited at this point, but Cryptic has always been proactive in adding customization features and art assets, so I hope this will be expanded soon.
Starfleet has also loosened its uniform code, so each player can create his own look. Again, options are a little skimpy at this point, but I expect they’ll expand with time.
Tutorial: I don’t want to spoil the fun by describing the tutorial in detail. But it IS fun. You get all the basics handed to you step by step in the context of a simple but satisfying storyline that explains how you, a mere ensign, wind up in command of your very own (small) starship.
My only complaint about the tutorial is that it’s not optional; you have to go through it with each character. But with only 2-3 character slots planned at launch, that shouldn’t be much of a chore.
Missions: Quests in Star Trek are referred to missions, and they vary in quality and content. Some are based around space combat, some around ground combat, and many have both elements. While some are very much in the ‘kill ten rats’ tradition, others play like an episode of the TV series.
That’s good and bad. Like a TV show, the plots are all linear. Your options are to succeed, in which case the mission plays out to its prescripted conclusion, or drop the mission. That’s very much in keeping with the rest of the industry, but I would have loved to see stories where instead of charging the Klingons, guns blazing, you could choose to arrange a truce and negotiate. As it stands, your body count would make the mirror universe Kirk stand up and salute.
I believe it was Disraeli who originally said, “Violence is the first refuge of the incompetent”.
Combat: Speaking of violence, you dole out a lot of it in this game, in space and on the ground. The space systems are complex. Your NPC bridge officers don’t do anything much unless you specifically order them to, which means you’re handing the helm, firing the weapons, balancing your shields, deciding how to distribute ship’s energy, and triggering special attacks and defenses. I find it more taxing than flying an actual airplane (which I’ve only done once, and I think my instructor is still recovering because I kept trying to handle a Cessna like it was a P-51D Mustang… but I digress).
I think where Cryptic may be going with this (speculation alert) is to allow multiple players to crew a single ship, which would be fun and interesting as long as it’s optional. I would also love, love, love the capability to ‘script’ my officers to follow preset battle plans (reinforce forward shields, full power to weapons, fire torpedos the moment the target’s shields drop), so I could focus on flying the boat.
By comparison, ground combat is pretty straightforward. You have a handful of combat options for yourself, and you can give simple commands to your crew, but left to their own devices they’ll pick targets, use their specials, heal each other and fight in a disorganized but reasonably effective manner.
Advancement: STO has the most skill-based system I’ve seen since Ultima Online. There are three “classes” (Tactical, Engineering and Science) with specific skill trees only they can access, but the vast bulk of skills are available to any character. Level is tied to rank, which grants a generic combat bonus and determines which ships and equipment you have access to, but in order to gain rank you earn and spend skill points pretty much as you please.
It works, I like it, but I wish for more detail/help/suggestions on each individual skill. It’s too easy to make a big investment in a skill you end up not using very much, if at all, and there’s no mechanic for ‘respeccing’ those points back into useful skills.
Conclusion: I bought the lifetime subscription. The game clicks for me on a number of levels, and I think it’ll be sticky enough that the lifetime sub is the logical choice. But I don’t think the game is perfect. It’s alarmingly buggy for this stage in the Beta process, and I’ve outlined my quibbles with some of the core mechanics. Still, overall, I think this is a good title with strong potential to develop into a great one.