Saturday, December 26, 2009

Star Trek Online Hands On Preview [PC]

In February, Cryptic Studios' highly-anticipated MMO Star Trek Online goes on sale, so we've been exploring the closed beta for the last week to see if the Trekkies will be pleased with what they find. As a massive Trek fan myself, I was keen to get stuck in and see what the game has to offer. As always, beware of plot spoilers as I take you through the first 20 hours or so of Star Trek Online.

One of my favourite parts of starting a new MMO is the character creation process. After experiencing the character creator in Cryptic's Champions Online earlier this year, I wasn't entirely surprised to find that the system in STO was just as robust. First of all, you choose your career, which is equivalent to picking a class. A Science officer can provide healing and buffs, Tactical officers are your weapons experts and can deal out a lot of damage, Engineering officers can take a lot of damage thanks to upgraded shields, and can draw enemy attention.

Star Trek OnlineAs Starfleet, you have a number of race choices when making your character; Human, Andorian, Bojoran, Bolian, Vulcan, Feregi or unknown. Unknown means making a character from scratch, adding forehead ridges, antennas, weird lip fringes and what not – all the racial features from the universe of Star Trek at your disposal. Each race has different abilities, such as Acute Senses which helps stealth detection. Once that's decided upon, you get to choose more character traits that improve certain aspects such as survivability or overall damage dealing. This allows players to specialise in certain areas, or perhaps create hybrids. It also helps to make characters that little bit more unique.

When the stats and abilities are out of the way, you move onto the visual customisation. In addition to a plethora of facial options including hair styles, eye shapes, skin tones, and nose sizes, there are many other customisation choices such as hand and foot size, torso build, and leg length. There's a great uniform designer too, which lets players mix and match many styles and colours. Yup, Starfleet are slackening up on uniforms these days it seems.

Star Trek OnlineAs usual, the first part of the game teaches you how to move around, interact with others and use objects. At this point, your character is fresh out of the academy. One of your very first tasks is to deal with a group of invading Borg drones. Anyone who's seen the series and films will recognise the expressionless faces and shambling movements immediately, and it's suitably menacing. Cryptic has done a great job on capturing the relentless threat that emanates from these cyborgs.

Fallen enemies drop items that can be used by your character and, later on, by the rest of your NPC away team. You'll find things like weapons, personal shield generators and hypersprays. If they are of no use to you, keep them, they can be sold later on, and the credits can be used to purchase upgrades, better armour or ship improvements.

Star Trek OnlineNot long into STO, you are placed in charge of a ship, and must seek out and destroy malicious probes and enemy vessels. This gives you a good idea of how to cope in hostile situations when aboard your ship, but doesn't prepare you for a multi-ship encounter.

At the end of the tutorial section, you find yourself at the Starbase orbiting Earth in the 'Sol' system. This is where you can mix with other players, sell any goods that you don't need, purchase upgrades for you, your officers and your ship. This is also where you'll find the usual MMO regulars such as the bank, auction house and mission givers, and there are NPCs that you can visit to change the appearance of your ship and your character.

Star Trek OnlineYour success or failure in the game has a lot to do with your Bridge Officers, and the skills they bring with them. Each officer begins with one skill that can be used when in ship mode, ie. in space, and one that can be used on away missions. Bear in mind the careers of your team – Science officers are good for healing, Tactical deal out good damage and Engineering can take a lot of damage, that's your standard tank, DPS and heal setup, however it's not necessary to stick with that formula. You could just have Science officers, allowing you to focus on healing and beneficial effects, but it would mean sacrificing survivability or damage dealing. You can pick your BOs or train existing ones with different skills, at the starbase.

The first few missions involve travelling to a planetary system to investigate potential problems, which usually have to be remedied by taking part in a ship battle or beaming down to the planet.

AStar Trek Onlineway missions, quests that take place on the surface of a planet, are usually a lot of fun. Some require your character and his or her BOs to fight Klingons, Borg or other enemy races, other missions may need you to speak to the inhabitants to negotiate deals or act as a mediator. On combat missions, as you take out your enemies, be sure to pick up anything they may have dropped. You should redistribute new weapons and gadgets as you find them amongst the team to ensure the best performance from your NPC officers. If one of them is overwhelmed during a fight, they will be revived once the combat stops by another officer - this applies to your character too. If you are all defeated, you re-appear back at the last spawn point. These points are automatically saved as you progress through the mission.

Space battles usually go something like this: you arrive at the desired system and are informed via comms that there are enemy vessels lurking among some nearby asteroids. You must locate and destroy them. Sometimes they'll be cloaked, appearing when you approach, other times you can see them from a distance and have time to prepare. You may have to deal with one tough ship or three smaller ones, sometimes several very easy fighters at once. In the early missions, you have three weapons to use against ships in these situations; front phasers, aft phasers and photon torpedoes. Each of these have a firing arc, so you must be facing the right way to be able to open fire.

Star Trek OnlineYou do take quite a battering, especially if there is more than one ship attacking you, and you may find that one of your shields, port, starboard, front or rear, starts to deteriorate rapidly. You can divert power to one area specifically, or distribute power to all shields, which spreads the damage across all areas. I found spamming this the easiest option, along with the “fire all” button, which fires everything that your ship is capable of, depending on cooldowns and the direction you're facing in regards to your opponent.

When fighting in space, you also have the special skills that each of your BOs bring. One skill may be to reduce your opponent's shields, another could be the “Fire at Will” command, which reduces the cooldown time of all attacks for a short period. Another might be the ability to recharge your shields – that was another one I found myself using constantly.

Star Trek OnlineOverall, space battles are quite slow-paced against computer-controlled opponents, if the numbers are roughly equal. When an enemy ship is destroyed, it often drops an item that can be used in your own ship, things like shield or engine upgrades. Items are equipped to your ship in the same way you distribute weapons and shields to your BOs, by bringing up the ship in your party interface and selecting the item you wish to equip.

Each enemy you kill and each mission you complete awards your character with points that can be spent to 'level up'. You spend these points by investing them in special talents which improve your character in certain areas, such as better healing or better damage-dealing. Once a certain amount of points have been spent, your character gains rank. It works in a similar way with your BOs, and as they level, more skills open up for them.

My first impressions of this game are positive so far. As with Champions Online, the character creator is very thorough and provides the chance to make a truly unique avatar. Progression is different than many other MMOs, using a skill-based system instead of regular experience points. This does away with the grindy feel that you get from some titles. Away missions are always something to look forward to and, if anything, I'd like to see more of them in the game. Personally, I enjoyed them a lot more than the space combat, which sometimes goes on for a little too long and can involve simply pressing the same two or three buttons repeatedly. Fitting out your officers and ship with upgrades is enjoyable, and after most missions it's always worth seeing if you can swap out something for a better component.

Star Trek OnlineKlingon play isn't available on the beta right now, so I couldn't give it a try. We do know that there's not much PvE content for them, but that they can level through PvP gameplay, as can players who opt for Starfleet. Without any Klingons around, trying out PvP was a bit tricky, but hopefully beta testers will get a chance before the game is released.