Deep breaths everybody: Star Trek Online doesn’t let you explore uncharted space, doesn’t conjure intriguing, brain-taxing mysteries, doesn’t let you come up with last-minute pseudoscientific ripostes to alien threats. And the celebrity voice work is a bit bland. They’re developers, not miracle workers.
Up front, we need to say this: Star Trek Online is all MMO, and succeeds and fails because of its genre, not its licence. It’s limited by the expectations of the genre – expectations of health bars and skill points, healers and tanks. But this MMO still has plenty to offer. It’s split into two discrete sections: a compelling starship piloting shooter, and disappointing on-foot combat missions.
After choosing one of three flexible classes and spending far too long with the open-ended character creator, you’re promoted in the wake of a Borg attack, given your own little ship, and allowed free roam of the galaxy. You explore, patrol and defend Federation space – with an eye to making Admiral some day.
You choose between a science-focused, engineering or tactical captain. These give you access to certain ground- or space-specific powers throughout your career. Science captains have lots of enigmatic tachyon and neutrino-based abilities to help allies and hinder opponents. Engineering captains can strengthen shields, kick systems into hyperdrive by transferring power, and make turrets and shields on the ground. Tactical captains know how to kill people, maneuver fast and manage aggro.
Even before you get to choose a specialist ship at level 11, it’s apparent that you’re in command of a very flexible craft. Without changing a single piece of equipment or switching bridge officers (who we’ll get to in a minute), we’ve saved an ailing Federation player by stealing aggro and diverting power to shields, we’ve crippled Klingon hulls with perfectly timed aft torpedoes, and we’ve beamed some of our elite crew aboard a fellow Starfleet vessel to improve their weapon systems.
Much of this versatility comes from your selection of bridge officers, who join your crew as quest rewards, via speculative subspace communications, or are purchased at starbases. You can customise their appearance, rename them and equip them as you see fit. Each bridge officer knows a host of abilities for use on the ground and in space, and those are divided into ranks. Powers can’t be used if the rank is too high for your ship, and your first ship can staff one of each at the lowest rank (Ensign). That’s three additional powers for use in any space battle.
Every ten levels you’re promoted, whereupon you can choose from the next highest tier of ships and do your own promoting of bridge officers. The twist is that you can only get promoted when you’ve spent sufficient skill points specialising your abilities – reducing the cooldowns of key abilities by investing in that tech tree, for example, or pouring points into core Captaining abilities that improve the turn speed and shields of any ship under your command.
The latter is exactly what our engineering captain decided to do, and we were pleasantly surprised at the results. Had we begun our career as the combat-centred tactical captain, of course, we might have been satisfied with the speed boost and additional weapons power he brings to the table. Either way, when we graduated to our zippy little Sabre-class vessel at Lieutenant Commander rank we didn’t feel sluggish at all.
In addition to the increased speed, turn rate and weapon slots, this ship let us assign a second tactical officer and promote one of them to Lieutenant. Where we’d been rolling with a single ‘Beam: fire at will’ power, we now had the additional ability to buff our damage-dealing, and the lieutenant bridge officer skill ‘Cannon: rapid fire’, which turned our battery of forward phaser cannons into a ludicrous barrage of orangey death.
As you earn new ranks, you’re offered ever more slots for officers, until, as a full Captain, your ships typically allow three Lieutenants and a Lieutenant Commander – a full nine extra cards in your deck. Every time you upgrade like that, it changes your game completely. STO particularly comes alive at that first milestone: you finally have a ship that doesn’t look like the Enterprise’s little brother, you’re starting to specialise in the sort of fighting you want to be doing long term, and you’re off to farther reaches of the Alpha Quadrant.
Space combat is just brilliant. It’s impossible not to feel a complete nerd thrill. We’d spent many an hour cruising through the serene cosmos when Klingons suddenly uncloaked to port and starboard – several zippy Birds of Prey and a heaving Negh’Var warship. We ordered evasive maneuvers, shooting out of the ambush and bearing round just as the mobility buff ran out, and then killed the engines. Switching to our attack power profile, we diverted our shields to the front and harried the lumbering warship with our six heavy cannons.
Switching power profiles takes a second as the levels redistribute, but as soon as our auxiliary power hit 75%, we sent that power to the fore deflector dish and screwed up the Klingon’s shields with a tachyon beam. His front shield might as well have been a paper bag at this point.
Space combat aside, we’re not left with much to enthuse over. The actual missions you’re on are terrible: kill ten Klingons, scan five research bases for Klingons, scan five research bases and kill ten klingons... we’re waiting for ‘bring me ten Klingon pelts/wild Borg meat’. Star Trek’s universe? They’ve taken it into the basement and done horrible things to it. The Federation is at war on all fronts, and when you spot a vessel hovering by your objective and can open fire without even hailing it, it’s just not Starfleet.
Ground combat attempts to emulate the sublime celestial jousting, but is too chaotic to hold a candle to it. It’s the same situation: you spot some Gorn raiders rigging a bomb in the Starfleet embassy and you set yourself up, with a secondary team attacking from a different angle to ensure plenty of flanking damage bonus, with shield generators and mine fields, and finally you give the order to concentrate fire on the strongest foe. That’s when it gets lame. Enemies don’t use cover and they’re all far too handy in a scrap.
One of the most dangerous Klingon types you’ll run into is the Swordmaster. His whole thing is running at you with pistols blaring before tickling your intestines with a bat’leth. Most of the other types do that too; he’s just really good at it. Moments after your careful planning, you’re covered in oiled lizard men and spamming your ‘oh piss off!’ attack.
Instead, it’s all about space battles against AI, fleet actions, and space-based PvP. While the latter has been swallowed by launch hitches and queues, fleet actions are fun informal raids where you join with about 20 ships to take down invasion forces. This can be thrilling, especially when someone bothers to heal you.
Exploration missions, where great sectors of space and planets are randomly generated for you, almost deliver on the promise of that tired mission statement “to boldly go where no man has gone before”. And the loot’s pretty good – tokens for trading in high-end equipment. We have been to an asteroid belt full of Klingons before, however. Every other randomly generated mission is exactly that. Come on: where’s the endless variety of the cosmos?
There’s a sense of missed opportunity with Star Trek Online. While travelling through sector space, you can visit your bridge, but you can’t do actually do anything. By standing upright on the seat and typing ‘/emote Sitcaptain’, you can sit. You don’t get to say ‘engage’ without standing back up. Then you /facepalm. Or /KHAN!
More faults: crafting is almost absent, and the guild interface is a joke. For a game based on a show where entire episodes are just people talking, it’s doing a great job of denting social activities. Cryptic may well improve the game in the next six months. As it stands, STO is worth a tentative month’s subscription: the space combat is an iron-clad exercise in fun. But after that month: ditch it.
Mar 2, 2010