Ok, we all know good Trek games are as rare as a squeamish Klingon but Cryptic might just be on to something here. Not to say it’s “good” by industry standards but it does break the mold a bit and has a lot more potential than, say, Star Trek: Legacy.
a few moments of magic trapped in a transporter buffer that’s compensating for a phase variance.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, when looking for entertainment from the Star Trek franchise, especially in video games, keep your hopes high and your standards low. Star Trek: Online has rethought the MMO presets in designing some of its features, like space combat and bridge officers, but it finds itself sorely lacking content outside of the usual grind and more than its share of bugs.
Let me say, first, to the Trekkies that this isn’t just a bland mmo with the star trek franchise glazed over it. You can play as a Vulcan, Betazoid, Bolian, Ferengi, Andorian and most any other race in the show. And if you really want to play an excluded race like a Cardassian, just make it in the handy alien race creator. Their racial abilities are straight out of canon with an MMO twist: Vulcans with their little known superhuman strength and Bajoran’s spirituality giving them bonuses to healing received. Even humans have racial traits, like enhanced repair skill (admit it; what did Scotty, LaForge and O’Brien all have in common). So you hardcore MMO players don’t have to feel disadvantaged just because you want to play your favorite race out of the show. But as with any game made by Cryptic, the amazing character creator is where the glitz and glamor of a finely craft piece of art ends.
STO’s early leveling scheme is different from anything I’ve ever seen. Rather than a quick first few levels to get you used to basic attacks and using abilities followed by slower more difficult leveling curves, all of STO from start to finish runs at about the same rate. This means you’ll spend the same amount of time going from levels 1 to 10 as from levels 30 to 40. This also means a rather excessive amount of time in the starting ship using only three or so special abilities to smash pathetically easy Klingons and Gorn.
This leads to rather serious abuse of the game’s difficulty curve as there’s no challenge to the game until about twenty hours in, at which point you’re greeted by the Crystalline Entity, a fully fledged raid boss, and a few nasty Reeman captains who will kill you faster than a red shirt on an away team. But since there’s no penalty for dying and damage to enemy groups is persistent through your instantaneous respawn, you’re not really going to be challenged by these enemies, just frustrated that the game never gave you any warning or strategy for dealing with them. It’s sort of like putting a speed bump on a disused highway. You’re not actually going to cause people to slow down unless you warn them it’s there, you’re just going to annoy them and damage their car. That’s not to say these challenges should be removed. Far from it, STO just needs to learn how to curve its difficulty and how to give meaning to challenges.
But after 40 hours or so, the difficulty curve irons out, your ship gets distinct from other ships your allies are using and grouping starts to make a difference. At one point I was flying my Defiant-class escort through the wormhole at Deep Space 9 with a buddy of mine in a Galaxy-class cruiser about to engage some Jem’Hadar and thought to myself “this is really cool, I’m actually in a Star Trek MMO.” These moments of magic are too few and far between, and some of the writing in early quests could have Gene Roddenberry facepalm in his grave, but they’re definitely there and, for a trekkie, worth the time to get to.
Most fantasy MMOs claim they don’t want to be like World of Warcraft and eventually fail because World of Warcraft is a good game and intentionally trying to be different is like intentionally trying to make mistakes. STO is the first game to date that I have not only fully believed when its developers claim it’s not trying to beat WoW, but is actually better for it. The space combat is the defining feature in this. Though in the early levels the space fights break down to firing all your weapons while flying in circles, the strategy later on gets very intense and remarkably like the show. Ok it doesn’t make any sense that a laser beam only has an effective range of ten kilometers, but for some reason they always managed to get that close to each other in the show, so it all looks just like Star Trek should.
The ships all have four shield facings which can be brought down by weapons fire individually and recharged through their own regeneration and special abilities from your engineering officers. Your science officer’s abilities all find creative ways to cripple the enemy ship, usually by running something hard to pronounce through the main deflector dish. The tactical officers confer attack patterns and augment torpedo spreads and weapon targeting. The names of the abilities make me want to start running the game off voice macros. Another of those magical trek moments mentioned above was when I told one of my friends that I was going to break the Borg Cube’s tractor beam by polarizing my hull, then use attack pattern alpha to bring my weapons about and fire quantum torpedoes. There’s no way to roll that sentence around in my head without envisioning Sisko shouting orders on the bridge of the Defiant. Your choice of which officer your character plays determines your roll on the ground but also gives you some interesting abilities to use in space. Your role in space combat is determined by what ship you chose to fly, though you’re never locked into it like a class and can change at any time.
The real test of an MMO is how it keeps you playing month after month and in this regard Cryptic constantly misses the mark. Like Champions Online, STO has just barely enough quests and content to see you through to the level cap. Once you’re a rear admiral there is, at time of writing, one Special Task Force mission, the STO equivalent to a five man dungeon, called The Infected wherein you free a starbase which has been assimilated by the borg. The difficulty of this mission is something like a particularly hard heroic dungeon in World of Warcraft and certainly requires coordination and effort. But that doesn’t mean it can’t be beaten by pick up groups and certainly isn’t a lofty enough prize to build a fleet for. There are several more Special Task Forces announced, so perhaps STO will come into its own in a month or two but for now the content is so lacking it’s difficult to justify a monthly subscription.
The game is also subject to more than its share of show stopping bugs. At time of writing most of the very rare weapons in the game don’t even work, any ability with a shared global cooldown bounces its cooldown off the server and has a chance to not happen at all based on individual lag, this includes such basic things as firing torpedoes and switching weapons on the ground. Your bridge officers on the ground are unable to navigate even straight corridors without getting stuck in a wall somewhere and I’ve fallen through a couple floors out into space.
STO is basically a few moments of magic trapped in a transporter buffer that’s compensating for a phase variance. You can see the beauty trying to get out, but you have to work through the bugs and compensate the tachyon emitter just to make it playable at some points. It certainly justified its purchase price to me but is a bit of a letdown as an ongoing experience. I recommend you give it a couple months to work out its issues and then, if you’re a fan of the shows, see what this game has to offer.