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Star Trek Online – hands-on

Our bizarre setup actually sort of worked. Dual phasers rip through shields brilliantly on approach, so if you’re in a group, your friends can torpedo the exposed enemy hull right away. If not, you have to come about as quickly as possible to figuratively defecate photons in your enemy’s face before he can escape.

Pulling off ridiculous feats like this means tweaking your ship’s power levels and using every special ability of your bridge crew. You control the precise distribution of power between your ship’s engines, shields, weapons and auxiliary functions, and every fight requires frequent adjustments.

We pump it all into weapons on approach. Once their shields are down, we put some into Auxiliary and have Science Officer Hax activate our tractor beam to lock them in place. As a Tactical captain, one of our abilities enables us to turn the ship very sharply, so we use that to spin around. While we turn, our Tactical officer Commander Biker loads a triple volley of photon torpedoes to make the next shot really count. We route all power to weapons before firing, and that’s usually enough.

The enemy ship buckles, ruptures and finally goes critical, at which point we have until yesterday to get the everliving Christ out of the way. A warp core breach is a catastrophic event for everything in the vicinity, so it’s lucky our Engineer Eight out of Ten has the Emergency Power to Engines ability: a massive speed boost to rocket us clear of the blast.

We’ll be honest – it rarely pans out this way. Although movement and turning is slow and strategic in Star Trek Online’s space battles, you’re fighting five or six ships at once, often with several teammates, and everything is moving in three dimensions. It’s chaotic. We often ended up above our target, not sure which side of him our shots were technically hitting, or losing track of him altogether. But that’s just inexperience: the more we played, the fewer moments of befuddlement muddied things and the more effective our perverse gambits became.

You progress in Star Trek Online in about fifty hundred different ways at once. The most basic is that you’re promoted through Starfleet, from Lieutenant all the way up to Admiral: five ranks, with ten ‘grades’ within each. The main privilege of rank is a new starship at each of the major milestones, or at least the opportunity to learn how to fly one. STO is much more about skills than levels: they cover space combat abilities, ground combat abilities, passive skills such as the damage you can inflict with phasers, and your ability to pilot different classes of ships.

There are 16 basic hulls, from the generic starter ship to the six ultra-specialised Admiral-level craft. Broadly speaking, Escort vessels are the speedy damage dealers, Science vessels offer support and can target specific bits of enemy ships, and Cruisers have large crews and strong shields, making them durable and versatile. Anyone can learn to fly any ship, and its modules and your own abilities define its role much more than its basic type.

With so many skills, each with ten levels of expertise, the skill points you earn from defeating enemies and completing missions come thick and fast. Cryptic are balancing it so that at least every half an hour you’ll have enough to level up a skill or learn a new one. Even so, reaching class 10 Admiral takes at least 100 hours, and learning every skill you can runs over 300.