Star Trek Online – hands-on

The blessing and the curse of this game is that Star Trek, the series about travelling through space and making first contact with new forms of life, doesn’t cram easily into the template of a normal MMO. Star Trek is not about independent heroes, it’s about close-knit crews with five main characters. It’s not about shooting things in spaceships or exploring on the ground: it’s about both. And not everyone in it has much fun: one guy’s job is just to type in coordinates and wait for Patrick Stewart to say ‘Engage’. An attempt to butcher this elaborate format of science fiction stories into a conventional MMORPG could have been a travesty.

What developers Cryptic have made instead is a complicated, intimidating, and in its current state slightly messy game - but an excitingly fresh one. You spend at least half your time flying a spaceship, and when you beam down for a planetside mission, you’re managing four computer-controlled bridge officers of various classes in hectic phaser fights. There’s no clear parallel to killing ten rats as a fantasy swordsman here.

‘Complicated’ is a compliment, of course. Star Trek captains are defined by seemingly obtuse decisions that turn out to be fortuitous by some quirk of quarks hitherto unclear. There’s scope for that in Star Trek Online’s intricate space combat, less of it when you beam down for an away mission. But the real complexity is in the RPG that fits all this together. Its systems are so many and so interconnected that it feels like a wholly new MMO experience.

‘Intimidating’ refers mainly to the space combat: underneath it’s a thoughtful and strategic struggle, but initially it’s just chaos. Getting past the “Aaaargh what’s happening?” stage takes a few fights. And the ‘messy’ part is fighting on foot. The animation isn’t final at this point, and Cryptic are aware it looks horrible, but wow, it looks horrible. Melee blows seldom connect, and when people are knocked down they often flip back up to standing.

We have the feeling that when this game is released, the outright bugs will be gone but the general awkwardness will remain: stiff poses, little reaction to blows, and canned amateur-drama death animations. Authentic to Star Trek, at least. The personal combat does have some interesting things going on, though, and since it’s what we previously knew least about, we’ll talk about it first.

While investigating a distress call in the Kuiper Belt, we beamed aboard a damaged ship and were attacked by the Gorn. We ordered our chief Engineer, Eight out of Ten, to make use of her stronger personal shield by standing directly in front of us at all times. We sent our chief Science Officer, Hax, into the Gorn’s disruptor fire so that she could apply her excellent research skills to the burn wounds she received and learn to improve our defences.

The bridge officers are the most immediate difference between STO’s ground combat and other MMOs. You have four of your senior staff with you at all times, and you can control where they go and when they use their abilities. Since there are effectively nine classes in STO, you can both ‘buy’ ones who complement your own abilities better (with Starfleet merit), and train up the ones you’ve got to your liking.

Your task typically reduces to ‘kill a few mobs of Klingon/Gorn/Orion’ and ‘press F on each of these three objects’. But that task, happily, is always a small part of a much larger mission. STO is defined by its enormous multi-stage adventures, beaming from ship to planet to space station to enemy ship to holodeck to – in at least one case – the past. And even within the ground sections, you’re free to roam, explore the terrain, and discover anomalies, traders and even mission-givers out in the wilds.