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Star Trek Online – hands-on

At the higher levels there are thirty-ship Fleet Actions to get involved in – raids in space, against genocidally powerful enemies such as the Borg. Designer Craig Zinkievich tried to show us the scale of a Borg Cube by using a developer console command to turn his ship into one. The screen went black. After some long seconds of wheel-scrolling, it became apparent we’d been inside it – a thousand-man Starfleet cruiser nearby was now barely a speck. The idea of fighting that in a 30-man war gives us tingles.

At lower levels, it’s up to you how many people you want to go on a mission with – most of the story ones are instances, so they’ll scale to however many you can muster. Rather neatly, if you arrive at the mission co-ordinates shortly after someone else has just started playing that mission, you’ll join them instead of starting it from scratch alone.

In Star Trek Online, of course, you’re levelling up for five. Your four bridge crew members each have their own skill points, equipment, and rank for you to manage. You can acquire ultra-rare bridge officers with hugely powerful abilities, more common ones with random attributes, and even visit an ‘auction house’ to ‘trade’ them on. You’re really arranging transfers, for Starfleet Merit rather than cash, but it’s mechanically the same. “We have themed everything to be as far from slavery as possible,” Craig hastily adds.

Star Trek Online is set after the far-future catastrophe that sends an angry Romulan back in time to cause all the destruction seen in Star Trek’s recent cinematic reboot. In this timeline, Romulus is destroyed, Vulcan is fine, Spock is gone and Simon Pegg never played Scotty.

The Klingons have discovered a race of shape-shifters quietly assassinating and replacing intergalactic leaders, and so have become wildly paranoid. The shape-shifters have taken over the Gorn – who were compromised – and declared war on the Federation. You start Star Trek Online as a Starfleet captain, but once you’ve been through the tutorial you can create a Klingon. You can, we couldn’t – they’re not showing this side of the game yet. Player-versus-player combat is in, but where and how it takes place we don’t know.

The story is communicated half through the people you meet, in normal dialogue text boxes, and half through your own bridge crew reporting to you. “Sir, we’ve scanned the anomaly and it appears to be full of tribbles,” and so forth. The writing retains the slightly chipper tone of City of Heroes, which feels less appropriate outside of a comic-book world.

When you’re not actively engaged in the plot, through the multi-part and twist-riddled Episode missions, you genuinely can boldly go where no player has gone before. The game uses its Genesis system to procedurally generate new stars, planets, and dynamic missions among them. You can travel to this wild, unknown space at any time, alone or with friends, and just do whatever you most enjoy: there are distress calls to respond to, roaming enemy ships to fight, anomalies to scan and strange new worlds to beam down to.

If the game generates a particularly beautiful nebula or a cool planet, you can save its co-ordinates and send them to your friends: the engine will know not to generate a different one when they get there. We didn’t get to see the Genesis system create anything, but the story missions are all based on cleaned up versions of worlds it created.

There’s no avoiding the ground combat in Star Trek Online, no denying that it’s ropey in its current state, and no real chance it’ll be brilliant by release. If it were most of the game, we’d be worried. But from our experience, you spend more of your time flying an awesome customised Starfleet craft around a spectacular procedurally generated galaxy, cultivating a five-man cast of officers with unique talents, and getting mixed up in wonderfully convoluted stories.

It’s the ridiculous level of freedom you have that most excites us – in leveling up your character, fitting out your ship and cherry-picking your crew. We’ve changed our mind three times about what kind of captain we’re going to make first, and we never really dared hope we might get a Star Trek game that would inspire such a geek-out in us.

If we’re wrong, and the ground combat does ruin it, at least we know there’s an emote for the occasion: /facepalm makes your character do a pitch-perfect impression of Captain Picard’s ultimate expression of exasperation and dismay.

Dec 17, 2009