…but time and chance happeneth to them all.
The sheer number of MMOs on the market competing for the consumer dollar just seems to climb higher and higher. Even with all the examples of failing MMOs out there, studios just keep makin’ ‘em. Cryptic, specifically, seems determined to put out a new MMO every six months, so that they have no development time to actually evolve an MMO beyond the first two weeks’ worth of content. Here’s hoping they don’t Flagship themselves too much.
[image1]Star Trek Online, their most recent offering, is definitely an interesting addition to the market. Being a space-based, ship combat-oriented MMO, the natural comparison is to EVE Online. This comparison doesn’t really work, though, and if you hear people make it, they haven’t really played enough of either to know what they’re talking about. Star Trek Online is a fast-paced, casual-oriented, action-filled game. EVE Online is a slow-paced, cerebral, high-concept game filled with a lot of over-precise management of details. There’s a day and night difference here.
As is Cryptic’s standard, you are handed a great deal of control during character creation. Numerous options for adjusting the shape and proportions of your character, including creating your own alien species, are available. It’s entertaining to customize up your own alien race, though it can be a little time-consuming to get it looking just right. As a part of this process, however, you can pick out perks for your race, giving you some options to adjust their play options. A few perks, however, are only available to the standard races.
The game offers three ‘classes’ of captain: tactical, engineering, and science. Very broadly, you could claim that these translate to DPS, tanking, and support. In practice, this really isn’t true; the lines blur a fair amount, especially when you take into account which kind of ship you take – escort, cruiser, or science vessel. Mixing and matching captains with different ship types allows for a number of subtle options and role mixes.
STO puts a great deal of emphasis on the ship combat; it’s the core of the gameplay, and where everything feels most polished. At its core, STO’s ship combat is smooth, quick, and dynamic. Positioning – how you move about and which side of your ship you present to your opponents – has a huge impact. Four segments of shields protect your ship from harm, and these shields make up a lot of your ability to soak up damage; since they steadily recharge during combat, maneuvering to keep your strong shields facing your opponents, and your weak shields out of reach, is paramount. This keeps you engaged constantly, but the controls feel natural enough to make it seem engaging, rather than just busy-work.
[image2]There is a distinct dynamic between damage types and defense types going on that is very reminiscent of other MMOs at a glance, but feel much more tightly woven. Shields and hull are the two basic kinds of health you have, while beams and torpedoes are the two basic types of damage; generally speaking, beams work well against shields and torpedoes work well against hull. The game boils down to spending time clawing down enemy shields so you can shove a torpedo up their tailpipe.
Likewise, a large portion of the ship combat is getting a feel for the firing arcs of your weapons. Wider arced weapons can be used for wider maneuvers, circling your opponent and strafing him with beam after beam, while tighter arced weapons such as the cannons can be used for fly-by attacks. The variety of play-styles is refreshing, and it’s easy to see how weapon and ship choices can impact your moment-to-moment play in clearly visible and distinct ways.
Of course, there’s more than one variety of beam damage type: disruptors, plasma, phasers, tachyon beams and if the game really sticks to the Star Trek tradition, eventually a reverse polarity beam. Likewise, there are several styles and flavors of torpedo, from mines, to photon torpedoes, quantum torpedoes, and plasma torpedoes. And of course, you can acquire shields that offer an edge against a few damage types at the expense of other damage types. So in short, yes, Star Trek Online is still an MMO and does the RPG statistic thing that we’ve all been playing with since 1974.
In ground combat, things are a little less, well, good. Each away mission, you take a collection of your senior staff with you – up to five others. These officers follow you around and pretty much just shoot whatever they see, occasionally popping their abilities to support you or wreck your opponents. Where in space, the action feels contiguous, clear-cut, and well-communicated, ground combat feels like more of a mess. Folks run around in circles, gangly limbs cradling rifles and swords, and it’s frequently hard to get a clear handle on who’s the focus of your own attacks or that of others. Aggro seems to get distributed randomly, and sometimes I found my captains totally ignored as they gunned down dude after dude, while other times every klingon in a five-mile radius would descend upon him, swords drawn and guttural epithets hanging in the air.
[image3]That doesn’t mean, by the by, that the ground combat is necessarily hard – it’s frequently very easy. There is a distinct system at play that allows you to stun a foe and then vaporize him; STO refers to it as ‘expose’ and ‘exploit’ attacks. I call it kicking a guy in the nuts and then in the head while he’s down. The system keeps the ground combat moving – only a good thing – and is probably the only thing keeping the ground combat from feeling like a total mess.
STO puts a lot of emphasis on your bridge crew – the supporting NPCs who help you get your missions done, relay Starfleet’s orders to you, and smile at you as you beam down to the planet. Your captain doesn’t really have active abilities in space, but each of your senior staff can provide special abilities, attacks, and buffs to space and ground combat. Each ship carries a collection of consoles; as you gain rank and get access to bigger and better ships, you’ll slowly get access to consoles that allow your officers to provide more abilities. By the time you climb all the way up the rank tree and have a top ship, you should have around 12 bridge officer abilities on hand during space combat.
STO still has a few bugs dirtying up the corners. Thankfully, there’s little bugged content or major crash bugs; it seems the beta shook out most of the serious problems, but there’s still plenty of lesser irritations around. For example, custom keybinds are occasionally wiped, forcing you to reset all your binds. Likewise, a few aesthetic commands, like telling the game not to show your armor whenever you run around on the ground, may fail silently for no evident reason, when other times it works just fine.
In terms of content, STO feels light at this point – there’s a decent variety on hand, but it starts to feel a little samey by the time you reach Commander. The Admiral phase of the game brings the fun back, with a lot of interesting larger scale fleet actions and major challenges on hand. Borg cubes, by the way, are awesome to fight – hard, but a really enjoyable experience, requiring tight teamwork and lots of firepower.
[image4]Graphics and sound are fairly high quality throughout; there are some flaws and issues here and there, but the performance is reasonably solid, and the presentation is clean and pleasing. Some good, epic themes play throughout combat, and it’s one of the first MMOs in a while that I haven’t just turned the music off within the first five minutes of gameplay. A few animations don’t blend together very comfortably, though this is only a problem during ground combat.
On the whole, STO is very promising; it needs a little more clean-up and content, but the fundamentals of the gameplay are very strong, and the options available during character creation make for an experience with a lot of potential depth. It’s hard to say if the game merits longer term devotion yet; it will be interesting to see how it develops during its first year. If it can keep new content and options coming steadily, STO will develop into an excellent MMO.