Grinding on the Final Frontier

by Alasdair Czyrnyj

Star Trek Online is still a work in progress, but progress has been very, very good.
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I like Star Trek. God help me, I like Star Trek. In spite all the problems the franchise has had in the past decade and a half, in spite of all the dodgy worldbuilding and poorly-thought-out concepts, in spite of the fact that the franchise is a traditional American Golden Age space opera that has somehow managed to survive after the rest of the subgenre went extinct in the 1970s, there has always been a warm place in my heart for Star Trek.

Of course, every relationship has its rough patches. While I used to be far more uncritical of the franchise than most people (hey, I was fourteen at the time), even I had to admit that Voyager was running on fumes by the seventh season. I never cared much for the whole "prequel" concept behind Enterprise, and I finally dropped the show about halfway through the second season after it became clear that the writers were kludging together random references to past series in lieu of actual writing. Seriously, there's one Klingon episode that's nothing more than a Frankenstein's monster made out of The Undiscovered Country, TNG's "Reunion," and DS9's "Rules of Engagement." I stopped reading the tie-in novels at about the same time, partly because I was in high school and there was way more stuff to read, but also because the novels, which were staring to explore events that occur after their respective series ended, were evolving into the sort of increasingly self-referential, pan-galactic-crisis filled universe that's kept me from getting into mainstream superhero comics. Last time I checked in, the Borg had just gotten through killing a third of everyone in the Star Trek universe, and now there's a cold war going on between Federation and just about everyone else.

Oh, and I hated Star Trek 2009, but this isn't the time or place for that.

So, anyway, the upshot of all this was that a year ago I had figured the Star Trek phase of my life was over, and I certainly had no interest in playing a mumorpuger based in said universe. Still, boredom and some nice-looking gameplay videos with fitting-yet-unfitting music got the better of me, and I decided to bite the bullet and give it a try.

And Now, The Portion of the Review Wherein We Make Excuses

Because I'm cool, I don't spend my time reading game reviews that aren't long, rambling personal blog posts. As a result, it was a couple months before I found out that the general consensus was that STO was rather poorly regarded by the gaming community at large, with most reviews tending towards disappointment. I wasn't playing the game at launch, but I did hear through the grapevine that it went far from swimmingly.

As near as I can gather, a number of these problems were the result of the game's development history. Apparently Perpetual Entertainment started working on the game in 2004, but the studio eventually fell apart in 2008 and the property was sold to Atari and Cryptic Studios, old hands at the MMO game with the City of Heroes and Champions titles. Unfortunately, Cryptic ended up having to start mostly from scratch AND with an early 2010 release date. Naturally, that wasn't really enough time to give the game the spit and polish it needed, and as a result it suffered.

Still, there were other complaints that are not as easily explained. Complaints that gameplay seemed to consist of nothing but repetitive "kill x ships of race y" quests, that there was little of Trek's famed diplomacy and exploration in the game, and that there really wasn't all that much to do.

Writing as someone who's been playing the game for about eight months, I've seen the game evolve as the developers have finally had the time to put in the features they wanted to put in at launch. While I would not say all of the problems have been addressed, many have been, and the game has become all the better for it.

I Wanna Be A Starship Captain When I Grow Up

Creating a Star Trek-based MMORPG is very much a balancing act. Certainly just by having Star Trek in the name, you're guaranteed to get a sizable potential market, given how Trek fandom spans about 45 years. At the same time, however, large parts of your player base are going to consist of people who like the franchise but are completely unfamiliar with MMOs (like me) and people who take their MMOs more seriously.

STO's solution to this dilemma is to go for a somewhat relaxed style of gameplay, centered around the player in the role of a starship captain. In my opinion, this was a good call on the part of Cryptic. From what I heard, Perpetual was going for the more ambitious approach of making every player a member of a bridge crew, which raised a whole mess of technical and practical problems that they could never resolve. Besides, who doesn't want to be a starship captain?

When you start out a new game, you pick one of three career paths for yourself: tactical (who can dish out damage and make it easier damage opponents), engineering (who can boost their own equipment, hinder enemy equipment, and build helpful robot buddies), and science (who can heal allies and debuff opponents). After that, you get to choose your race, physical appearance, and uniform style. This being Cryptic, there's a ridiculous amount of customization for both appearance and uniforms. After a brief tutorial jaunt against some crippled Borg, you get your own ship and first bridge officers and you're on your way.

Gameplay is broken up into two areas: ground and space. On the ground, you're in command of an away team of bridge officers, who are AI teammates you pick, customize, equip, and train in whichever abilities you want. Their job is to deal damage and keep you (and themselves) alive while you run around in third-person mode and be the big heroic captain. There's a whole range of personal weapons, armor, and shields to pick, and as the player you also get access to "kits," which will give you a particular set of powers that you can swap between depending on the situation.

Things are a little different in space. You first ship is a fairly small generic training bike designed to teach you the basics of ship combat. After your first promotion, you can choose between three different types of ships: escorts (the scalpels of Starfleet, small maneuverable ships that can pump out a lot of forward DPS), cruisers (the sledgehammers, big heavy things that can take a lot of damage and give punishing broadsides), and science ships (which are somewhere between escorts and cruisers in weapon power and durability, and whose primary job is to debuff opponents). Thankfully your career path does not bind you to choosing a particular ship type, though in the later stages of the game it's generally considered wise to find one type of ship to specialize in. There is also a ridiculous amount of customization for the ships too, with the ability to mix and match a limited selection of parts, change the paint job, and even the type of bridge you have. Your bridge officers come into play here too, with each ship having a certain number of bridge officer slots of certain ranks, allowing you to customize what abilities your ship has in battle. Starship combat itself is reminiscent of the old Starfleet Command games, though simplified and much faster. And, of course, you can change what kind of energy beams, torpedoes, shields, impulse engines, and whatever depending on your fighting style.

As for the actual appearance of these ships, it's occasionally a matter of some contention on the official forums. I actually like most of the new designs, but my heart does go out to Cryptic. After all, they had to design thirty-plus new ships, most of which had to be made of pieces that would look good when mixed with other canon ships, and a handful of ship types that had never been seen before in any series, all according to an "early 25th century" design aesthetic that no one's ever come up with before, and all in a franchise that tends to be more exacting than most regarding starship design. A daunting task, certainly, but one I feel the designers largely succeeded with.

So, What Does A Starfleet Captain Do All Day?

Before getting into the normal course of gameplay, a word should be given to the game's storyline. The game itself is set in the classic Trek universe around the year 2409, about thirty years after the events of Star Trek: Nemesis, and things are in a bit of a state. There's a shooting war going on between the Federation and Klingons, with the Klingons having recently absorbed a few minor races. As per the backstory of Star Trek 2009, the Romulans have just had their homeworld blown up, which hasn't done their decades-long succession struggle any favors. Meanwhile, the Cardassians seem to have followed the Japanese model of postwar reconstruction, becoming a more technologically savvy democratic society occasionally menaced by militarist hardliners. On top of that, just about every government in the Alpha Quadrant is struggling to deal with infiltration from the Undine, more commonly known as Species 8472, who've decided to give that whole "make the galaxy a peaceful desert" thing another try. Oh, and the Borg are on the warpath in a distant sector of Federation space.

Right now, the only two playable factions are the Federation and the Klingons, with the Federation having the lion's share of content. For both sides, you work your way up through the ranks by killing bad guys and completing missions to acquire skill points, which you put into whatever personal abilities you want to boost. Once you use enough, you get a promotion and can get yourself a bigger and better ship. For a Federation player, most of the time spent working towards a promotion will be spent facing off against one particular enemy, playing through their storyline, doing patrols in their systems, and exploring the nearby star clusters, which usually comes down to doing a few randomly-generated missions.

Fortunately, that's not all you can do; there are occasional opportunities to do diplomatic missions where you get to handle a first contact situation, and there are a few hidden missions that let you exercise your conflict resolution and investigation skills. There's also a robust PvP community on the Federation side, though most people prefer space to ground combat, as well as dungeon-like "fleet actions" that require a bunch of random players to complete. There are also the features series, little miniseries that are accessible to either faction. They usually run an episode every weekend in a six-week block, and they have some of the nicest art design and mission scripting I've seen in the game yet.

As for the Klingons, I can't really say that much since I haven't had much of an interest in playing them. There is generally less for them to do, a holdover from when time pressures led Cryptic to design them as a primarily PvP faction. Still, there have been improvements; the Klingons also have access to the featured episodes, and a number of previously Federation-only sectors have been opened up to them to allow them to perform repeatable missions against Federation targets. It's far from ideal, but it is improving.

A Few Complaints for Balance

Now, I generally like this game a lot, but even I have some problems. There are only two open PvP maps in the game; a ground one which is barely used, and a space one that tends to be infested with camping Klingon players and gold farmers. I don't dislike ground combat as much as some players, but I still find some of the targeting controls awkward, and the few times I feel silly enough to try melee combat usually has me flailing a meter being my target's back. Despite giving us interiors with limited customization, there isn't really much of an excuse to wander the halls of your ship unless you're a roleplayer. Sadly, while there are plans afoot to add functionality to the ship interiors, the nature of the game's engine means that the ability to run your ship from your bridge will likely never happen. While there has been improvements with new daily missions and the ability to replay storyline missions, there isn't much endgame content beyond the same handful of missions to grind for emblems for the top-of-the-line gear.

Then there are the special task forces, the missions that separate the hardcore MMO players from the casuals. These are the raids of Star Trek Online, and you gain access to them near the end of your leveling, and I have never found them fun. There's four in total, three against the Borg, and one against the Undine. All of them have significant ground components, and all of them require players to use a lot more teamwork that is typically required in most of STO's missions. Far bigger groups of tougher enemies span than in regular missions, and they have a delightful habit of dropping multiple holds and unhealable health degradations on players. On top of that, most of them have bugs that randomly crop up that can easily ruin an evening's worth of work. While there are some nice rewards, I'm too much of a casual player to find them worth the hassle.

The Final Recommendation

So, is Star Trek Online worth subscribing to? Well, I suppose that depends on what exactly you want to do with it. If you're a Star Trek purist, this game may turn you off with its more indulgence of more typical MMO tropes, with players running around as weird aliens with silly names, flying gaudishly painted starships with even sillier names using noncanon weapons. If you're an MMO junkie, there's probably not enough in the game to keep you going once you've burnt your way through the content.

However, if you're the sort of person who spent their childhood making starships out of Lego and having epic battles, you might enjoy it. The community is overall quite friendly, the developers routinely keep pop into the official forums to answer questions regarding the game's progress. I may be only a casual player who's only bothered to level up and fully equip one avatar (but then, once you've been a purple lizard woman scientist, why would you want to be anything else?), but I still get a little thrill of going toe-to-toe with a Breen cruiser in my tricked-out Excelsior, warping it to take a look at Deep Space Nine, or just cruising the spaceways in my deep space science vessel.

And right now, the future's looking pretty good for STO. Ever since the one year celebration in February there's been more people than ever before, and there's already plans afoot to finally release UGC mission tools to the general public within the next two months, as well as plans to revamp ground combat and add more Klingon content by the end of the year. Not bad for a game everyone dismissed as dead on arrival a year ago.

So in short, Star Trek Online may not be everyone you'd want in an ideal Star Trek game, but I'll be damned if it isn't satisfying.
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Comments (go to latest)
Wardog at 22:32 on 2011-05-04
Damn you. You've made me really want to play this! (That and a major dose of DS9)
Alasdair Czyrnyj at 02:04 on 2011-05-07
Well, if you're intrigued, I've done my job!

Sadly, I had to give this game up for the forseeable future due to some money troubles. I do want to come back to it; I just don't know when that'll happen (Although...I was vaguely considering starting a review series of some of my old Trek novels akin to Arthur's Warhammer reviews, but I wasn't sure if there was an audience for it on FB).
Robinson L at 15:00 on 2011-05-09
Alasdair: I was vaguely considering starting a review series of some of my old Trek novels akin to Arthur's Warhammer reviews, but I wasn't sure if there was an audience for it on FB

I'd read 'em. Can't promise I'd always comment, but I'd read them.
Alasdair Czyrnyj at 00:40 on 2011-09-02
Minor news update, for anyone who's vaguely interested:

Atari, in the midst of their death spiral, dumped Cryptic a few months back, but Cryptic managed to find a new home with the Chinese MMO company Perfect World. As a result, there was something of a content drought over the summer, but they look to be back on track for the fall.

Oh, and they've just announced today that STO will be adding a F2P option sometime later this year. Not surprised, really; I know Champions Online went F2P about a year after its release, so STO was about due.

Ground combat has also been rejiggered so you can play it in an over-the-shoulder Mass Effect fashion, the Borg are getting an overhaul both on the ground and in space, and there's a new Enterprise on the horizon.
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