Friday, January 29, 2010

Star Trek’s final beta closes with a bang, a star system full of phaser fire and a few torpedoes up the nacelles

Borgs and Klingons and Federation … oh my! Beta closes with full-on invasions, and gets ready for release

That the Borg was on the move was known. That the Borg would invade Sector Space was probably not anticipated by many … well, with the possible exception of the Cryptic development team for Star Trek Online, the massively multiplayer online title being released by Cryptic and Atari on February 2.

The Open Beta phase came to a conclusion last night, and those thinking to avoid conflict on a massive scale had to work to do that. The Borg were everywhere – as were the Klingons. But whereas the Klingons were much easier targets for the fleets of Federation ships engaged in the brutal brawl, the Borg were more high-powered, more precise in targeting, more prone to attack with numbers favoring that attack, and more than capable of shredding shields and ripping through the hull of the starships of young captains.

But that didn’t mean those young captains ran from the fight. On the contrary, the fight was on and while the Federation may not have given as good as it got, it didn’t back down.

Until the final beta session, Sector Space is usually wide open
with only friendly ships and systems dotting the landscape

There is always a sense of wonder when coming to the end of a beta. The launch of the game is just around the corner (in the case of STO, the head-start is on the 29th and the game goes retail live on February 2), and it is the last chance for the devs to throw a curve at the players, reveal deeper gameplay elements and just have a little fun. It is a time of joy and sadness. The joy comes from the fact that the ‘real’ game begins soon; the sadness is in saying goodbye to new friends and companions in the journey to date.

Of course, promises are made to try to find battle companions when the game goes live, but seldom is that possible. Games release with multiple servers, and sometimes names change in the creation process (not only in subscriptions but of characters) and it’s hard to hook up in retail. About the only things that can be said are to offer well wishes and hope to meet again.

Friendships are formed in the heat of battle, and when someone ‘has your back’ it is easy to make certain you have theirs in return. The chance to fight together, to laugh and even – as in the case in battling the Borg last night – die in the effort brings MMOers together. It is a celebration of the very thing that MMOs are all about – socializing and enjoying time in the company of others. When the enemy is light-years ahead in ship design and armament, it is not the time to be playing the role of the loner.

Ok, my ship got hammered … every time. And while the cliché may be that in space no one can hear you scream but in my space (the monitor and the walls that make up the gaming area), there were some exclamations of astonishment at how fast I got obliterated and then some chuckles.

Federation shields up, Klingon shield down = bad day for the Klingon ship

One of the best elements of STO is the way instances are handled. You fly into an instance and if there are others there on the same mission, your ship becomes part of that team. What they accomplish is credited to you. You don’t have to fly to that beacon that is guarded by a swarm of Klingon Birds of Prey. Nope, an ‘instance’ teammate picks it up and your quest updates as well. You can spend time keeping those trigger-happy Klingons off the ship picking up the quest object. If the quest calls for destruction of a number of enemy squadrons, you don’t have to kill all of them. Hopping into an instance and finding several starships there ready to get happy with phasers and torpedoes is a lot more fun than having a battle cruiser target you with four Birds of Prey cutting off evasion routes because you got caught alone in a sector where you should not be alone.

Last night, though, Sector Space was swarming with enemies that flying too close meant being warped into an instance and a huge battle. Should players expect that in retail? Maybe … and maybe not. There will undoubtedly be areas of space that are a lot more hostile. But for the end of open beta, for the last beta session before release, the dev team pulled out a few stops and made it a frantic and fun experience.

Star Trek Online leaves space dock very soon, and the final party for its testers was not only one to remember, but portends that some intriguing and entertaining elements lay ahead for subscribers.