Friday, January 29, 2010

Star Trek Online and the mechanics of ship combat

Tactical combat will win the day, but there are many elements to consider

Star Trek Online’s spaceship combat is an odd mix of standard tactics and flexible thought. Many gamers make jokes about “button mashing” – repeatedly hitting the same buttons to win. In Star Trek you will be mashing the same buttons because starships only have a few weapons. You will, however, be thoroughly engaged. Shield power needs to be re-routed, enemies need to be kept in your weapons’ firing arcs, and some weapons need to be activated at just the right moment to get their best effect. Players need to think ahead and be flexible in order to succeed. Maneuvering your ship can be the most important part of the battle, since everything is in constant motion. Unlike other games where some players will rarely have to move during a fight, everyone must pay attention to what’s going on around them – or pay the price.

Combat is divided roughly into quadrants. For those of us who haven’t had an opportunity to enjoy the open beta experience, imagine a circle with an X in it. The X divides the circle into the quadrants players will focus on in combat. As your ship is attacked, shields in a quadrant will be drained. Repeated attacks to a single quadrant will leave your ship vulnerable. This leads to twisting, spiraling paths as you attempt to keep your opponents from hammering on a single quadrant while attempting to target a single section of their ship in response. Now in addition to the shield quadrants, weapons have a range or spread. Star Trek Online gives players a lot of options in terms of their space-born weaponry. There are phasers, disruptors, torpedoes, and even mines. With the energy weapons there are wide-arc beams, narrow-arc cannons, or even all-around turrets. Every weapon has both an advantage and a disadvantage. Players will need to carefully consider how they want to approach combat.

In general, the more “all-purpose” a weapon is the weaker that weapon is. Turrets that can always shoot the enemy, regardless of firing arc, have the lowest DPS of any weapon in the game. By contrast, torpedoes and cannons have the highest DPS in the game – with limitations. Torpedoes can do absolutely horrifying damage if they manage to hit the enemy’s hull. Against shields, torpedoes are significantly less effective. Cannons deal massive damage but, like torpedoes, are restricted to a single quadrant only. If you mount a single-quadrant weapon in the forward or rear weapon mounts you can only fire them ahead or behind your ship. You cannot fire them “broadside” in the left and right quadrant. Energy weapons deal a standard range of damage all the time – however when compared to torpedoes their damage against hulls is lackluster.

While this might sound limiting, there are some options. The wide-beam phaser or disruptor arrays are between 180 degrees and 270 degrees. Mixing and matching weapons in the fore and aft can let you build heavy broadsides. When I was enjoying the open beta I placed phaser arrays in both forward weapon mounts and the rear mount on my starter ship. While this gave up the torpedo damage against unprotected hulls, it gave me three weapons that I could fire in either broadside quadrant. I found allies willing to work with me on weapon placement and we mowed down opponents. From range I could fire several broadsides and knock down the enemy’s shields in a single quadrant. With an ally using twin torpedo launchers in their forward arc, we ended up combining for some impressive alpha-strikes.

Another trade-off to consider is that torpedoes have a fairly long re-use timer compared to energy weapons. Thus, the torpedoes are rarely available. Energy weapons refresh much faster, but firing them drains weapon power. Energy weapons deal damage based on how much weapon power you have available. When you divert all power to the weapons you can do fantastic damage with your energy weapons – as long as the power holds out. In the above example, firing all three phaser arrays would drain 15 of my maximum 100 weapon power. I had to be careful or my energy would be drained complete – leaving my energy weapons with slightly more impact than throwing Nerf darts at my enemies.

Going back to the concept of cannons, single quadrant-only weapons have the most damage possible in an energy weapon. Combined with diverting all power to the weapons you can do moderately terrifying damage to your enemies. Unfortunately that means you’re only firing at them from a single arc. With wide-beam arrays you can strafe across several arcs and continue firing. Cannons can only fire forward or backward. That means the only shields your opponents are going to be facing are your forward or aft shields. You risk leaving yourself extremely vulnerable to try for quick kills. It’s a calculated trade off. Before you assume this is a profoundly bad idea, I would remind you of the example of the Defiant.

The Defiant (from Deep Space 9) is a prime example of a ship using forward-mounted weapons exclusively. Cryptic has taken this example into the game and gone to great lengths to make sure it is a viable concept. When working with a heavy cruiser, STO’s version of a tank or meat-shield, an attack vessel armed with cannons can get a few passes while your cruiser holds the enemy’s attention. Thus, I reach my most important point about the tradeoffs – each tradeoff affects your ship. It makes things much more interesting when you are working with a solid team who is willing to equip their ships to compensate for the weaknesses in others. As I said earlier, I found allies willing to equip photon torpedoes to take advantage of my heavy phaser arrays. Their torpedoes covered for the fact that I did very low damage against the enemies’ hulls.

STO has included a fairly uncommon weapon from Star Trek lore – mines. Mines can be impressive as you can deploy them before beginning combat. I’ve seen players end up with minefields of 25 or 30 mines before a single shot was fired. Unfortunately, mines have a very short “attack” range, meaning you have to drag the enemies over your mines to make them engage. Mines also have a delay between when they are launched and when they will begin attacking. Thus, you cannot simply strafe your enemy and drop mines right on top of them for an immediate attack. (Note this tactic will work, but there’s a delay between mine deployment and the explosions.)

Finally, shields become very important when you consider the options available to players. Not only are shields charged in quadrants, players can redistribute their shields literally on the fly. If you are taking a pounding on the left side, you can re-direct power from other shields into the left quadrant. Players can also turn their ship, protecting depleted shields by moving other shields in the way. In this example, if your left shields are being pounded, you can turn towards your enemy, placing your forward shields in between your enemy and your vulnerable hull. Carried out in heavy combat, you can literally end up spinning circles so that charged shields are always available.

Star Trek Online can boast one of the most unique combat systems I’ve seen from an MMO in years. Players will be able to spend hours tinkering with their weapons, debating tactics with their friends, or trying new things. There are so many options available that players will be free to find a weapons load-out that works for their own personal style of play. I hope that players will enjoy the complex system as much as I have. To paraphrase a very, very old sales pitch:

“Easy to learn, but longer to master.”