Kenneth Ellis appears to have transwarped his STO preview to the boards before me, but even Bones McCoy occasionally needed to get a second opinion. Damn it, man! I’m a reviewer, not a blogger! Number one, lay in a course for some lame joke about “boldly going where no MMO has gone before.” Engage.
Star Trek Online has entered open beta stages, so I’ve now had a chance to test it out and give it a critical look. Like all other endeavors in the Star Trek IP, my hopes for this game were high and my expectations very low.
The difficulty curve occasionally jumps like a Nausican beamed into its ready room just while it was enjoying a cup of Earl Grey.
Star Trek has always been set apart from other science fiction by its unique view of our technology and culture. Ships operate with huge crews and fight like a hybrid of naval battles and dogfights while still remembering that they’re in space and have to deal with things like inertial dampening and faster than light travel. In the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey, we learned that a realistic space environment does not make for a good movie. Star Trek has generally failed to make good games because realistically piloting something with a crew of several hundred people does not make for fast and intuitive control schemes.
MMO control schemes lend themselves to Star Trek well, which explains why Cryptic felt comfortable recycling the Champions Online engine. Though the engine may have lost a little in translation, what with a 45 degree maximum pitch angle, the basic principles work very well. The game gives you control over reallocating subsystem power and shield power, as well as special abilities with familiar names like “all power to shields.” The graphics in space are good, with an art designer who realized that space was boring and thus undeserving of accurate representation. Everywhere you look you’re surrounded by nebulas, asteroids, stars, moons and enormous planets. When you warp out of a system, you enter “sector space” which represents a fully navigable map. And even that is filled with meaningless but colorful lines, dots and warp trails to keep you visually entertained.
STO got the voices of Leonard Nemoy and Zachary Quinto to eat up their entire voice acting budget with about ten minutes worth of dialogue. Presumably they drained some money from the ground combat department to hire the cast of House of the Dead 2 to finish the rest of the voiced dialogue. Seriously, everything except the big names is comically bad. I hope they give the option to just turn all voiced dialogue off, otherwise I may wind up vaporizing my speakers. Yes it’s that horrific.
The game has been receiving criticism for seeming unfinished, and in the ground combat that argument really holds merit. Using your phasers and disruptor rifles you and your enemies whittle away at each other’s personal shields and health bars. Your doctors and engineers use their tricorders to repair your shields and heal you, being played either by your away team or your friends. But enemies don’t seem overly bothered by being shot, and the animations can be very stocky and a bit late to react to things like knockdown effects. When you set an attack to automatically fire it can perform with a punishing lack of urgency, and frequently overrides commands to perform special attacks. Was there something wrong with the standard auto-attack function most games have? The AI is very good, using advanced maneuvers to keep themselves alive and out of harms way like getting stuck in objects at the beginning of a level and falling through the ground. I’m sure if my character could emulate these abilities, I would never take a hit.
But the space combat more than makes up for it, and ground combat can be largely avoided without much penalty. In space you must keep your best shields toward your enemy while trying to also face your best weapons toward them. The weapons offer a trade off in wider firing arcs for lower DPS. So there’s a lot of customizability in your setup, unlike most MMOs where it’s just about the gear with the better numbers.
The ship design is in true Cryptic style. For every ten levels you get a choice of a new ship from three subtypes: escort, science and cruiser, which represent DPS, support and tanking. But each subtype has three aesthetic ship choices, at least one of which is pure canon. This means you can make your ship look like a new design, an old model on a string, a refit thereof or any combination in between.
STO’s most unique feature is where player abilities come from. They’re not all bought from skill trainers based on your starting class. Each of your bridge officers confers powers to your ship which can be retrained very easily. The kit you wear on away missions determines whether you have grenades or extra tricorders filling your action bar. Weapons are so distinct that rather than having a standard auto fire you can select one fore and one aft weapon to be your designated auto-attack component, relegating the others to activated abilities, used en mass every two seconds with the space bar just to alienate the arthritic crowd. This makes for a great deal of customization from player to player without even forcing them to choose tank, heals or dps when deciding a class.
But this is an MMO, I’m a trekkie, and it’s the beta so I can hardly say I’m giving an objective look at a completed game. The truth is, there’s still a lot of room for failure here since no one has had much chance to see the end game content. Cryptic has had a history of failed MMOs and for very consistent reasons. The content is repetitive and boring, or sometimes altogether lacking in the case of Champions Online, and there’s seldom much to do after the level cap.
Cryptic has made mention of end game raiding, but frankly I don’t trust them since they’ve never done this well in the past and have focused the leveling scheme in STO on solo playability. The missions are all instanced, which can auto group you, but otherwise adjust difficulty so they can be soloed. The difficulty curve occasionally jumps like a Nausican just beamed into its ready room while it was enjoying a cup of Earl Grey. With no warnings in place advising that the mission is intended for a group, this can be more than a little frustrating.
No matter how the final product turns out, STO has already beaten my expectations and is definitely worth its purchase price. Whether it’s worth subscription fees month after month has yet to be seen. The beta is rather buggy and unfinished, to the point of being worrysome, but the core game behind it is fantastic. Let’s hope Cryptic has learned from their mistakes and isn’t just trying to cash in on a shiny new IP.
One to beam out.Tags: MMO, Online, PC, preview, Review, Star Trek, STO