Sunday, January 10, 2010

ZAM Explores Star Trek Online's Ship Combat

This week, ZAM continues our series of Star Trek Online early-preview coverage by giving you a first-hand look at one of its most exciting aspects; space travel and ship combat. So far, we’ve played around with the character creation system and experimented with a few alien races in an earlier preview of the closed beta currently underway. In this week's installment, ZAM shares our initial experiences with the "space" elements of STO, which account for about half of the game.

If you've been following the MMO's development, you know that gameplay consists of two main categories; ship tactics (in space) and away missions (on a planet's surface, in a space station or even within a ship itself). Until recently, we could only speculate on the details of how players would interact with these two gameplay styles. In this preview, ZAM takes you along for the ride as we explore our initial reactions to piloting our own starship throughout the first few missions in STO's closed beta.

Even though STO is drawing closer to its official launch on Feb. 2, Cryptic hasn't unlocked full access to the game in the closed beta; players can create a couple of characters and start the in-game tutorial, which begins by teaching basic gameplay controls, UI specifics and other details. You'll begin in the third-person "away mission" mode, which is most-familiar to the "traditional" point-of-view we're used to seeing in MMOs. Within the next month, ZAM will cover this POV and gameplay style in more detail as our series of STO previews continues.

We're jumping straight into ship combat and space mechanics, because many players are looking forward to learning about it first. Once you get your bearings, in the initial stages of the tutorial, you'll receive a command as captain of your own starship. There are three different types of Federation ships in STO; Cruisers, Escorts and Science Vessels. Each of these ship types represents an overall "archetype" resembling the various classes you might find in traditional MMOs, but it's a lot more complex than just that—each ship type consists of several different models, and each model is ranked in varying degrees of "Class" (as in the familiar "Galaxy-class" or "Constellation-class" ships described in the Star Trek series).

As briefly described on the STO website, each ship type is different in both design and function; Cruisers are the biggest ships in the fleet (the iconic Enterprise is a Cruiser), giving them access to more advanced warp cores, engineering technology and a larger crew compliment. Escort ships are smaller and more agile, equipped with less technology but more-powerful weaponry and tactical capabilities. Science ships aren't as robust as Cruisers or as deadly as Escorts, but they possess the most-advanced technology in the fleet, allowing them to perform a variety of special and unique functions. These ship types are roughly analogous to three familiar MMO archetypes; tanks, damage-dealers and support/utility (although in STO, each ship can perform multiple roles—it's just a matter of how well, and to what end).

You can outfit your ship with different technology as you progress, just as traditional MMO characters can be equipped with a variety of weapons, armor and other items that enhance their power. You also have access to a crew of "Bridge Officers" that influence both away-mission and ship-based combat; each officer has innate abilities for both combat types, according to their training and rank. For example, you'll be offered the choice of a Tactical, Engineering or Science officer before you take command of your ship. Depending on which officer you choose, you'll gain an ability specific to that NPC (a Science Officer weakening an enemy's shields or a Tactical Officer firing a salvo of photon torpedoes, for example).

All these aspects (and more) culminate in an impressive style of space-combat in STO that's distinct and original, yet slightly influenced by various sci-fi shooters throughout the years. We loved the fact that Cryptic made an effort to emulate real-world physics—to some degree—for example. When we took the helm as captain of our first ship, we noticed a strong sense of realism in maneuvering a massive starship through space. You won't find yourself zipping back and forth or turning on a dime like you would in many spaceship games. Movement is a bit more realistic in the sense that it requires a lot of power and precision for a giant ship to gain inertia and execute a 180-degree turn without ripping itself apart.

Flight controls have a steeper learning curve than you'll find in most MMOs, but offer a lot of potential for rewarding gameplay, once mastered. There are a couple of main ways to control your ship, depending on whether you favor keyboard or mouse-directed movement. There's also the possibility of using a joystick, but in this preview, we assumed that most MMO gamers will opt for the keyboard/mouse combo. And of course, all of your controls can be re-configured, tweaked and key bound to your own personal preference.

By default, the [WASD] key setup controls your movement within the X and Y planes; [W] will pitch your nose down, while [S] will let you climb up, and the [A] and [D] keys allow you to turn left and right. However, the same can be accomplished by using the mouse, if you prefer; just hold down both left and right mouse buttons and "point" in the direction you'd like to go, taking into account the "inverted Y axis" (unless you disable that option).

The majority of your time in space will be at sub-light speeds, where all the action takes place. Ships use "impulse" engines, which you control by using key binds or a "slider" graphic in the UI. In addition to varying degrees of speed, you can initiate a full-stop and full-reverse. You can also kick your engines up to full-impulse to move significantly faster, but it requires a lot of your ship's power to maintain. It's not a great idea to fly into combat at full-impulse, because your shields and weapons won't have access to as much power as they normally would.

Power management is a juggling act that plays a large role in ship combat. By default, the UI offers several "presets" that allow you to easily switch between giving priority to shields, speed, weapons or a "balanced" option. In addition, you can manage the amount of power devoted to each of your four shield "sections" while in combat, using either the keyboard or UI. Each shield section protects one area of your ship; fore, aft, starboard and port. When one of these shield sections is completely depleted, a ship's hull is vulnerable to attack, which can ultimately lead to its destruction.

In STO, phaser beams and photon torpedoes are a ship's two main weapons. The energy-based beam weapons are better-suited for weakening an enemy ship's shields, while torpedoes inflict more damage to physical material, like a ship's hull. The basic strategy is to wear down a section of the enemy's shields with your beam weapons, then unleash torpedoes to penetrate its hull. However, each weapon has a specific firing arc; phaser beams can be shot from starboard and port areas, while torpedoes are launched from fore and aft, for example.

Like many other controls, you can either use the keyboard or UI buttons to manage your weapons. By default, the [Spacebar] key will fire all beam weapons, and [Ctrl] + [Spacebar] will fire both beams and torpedoes. When you consider the feat of maneuvering your ship both offensively and defensively, managing your own shields' power while tracking openings in your enemy's shields and attacking with several different types of weapons and abilities, it all seems a bit overwhelming.

But to its credit, Cryptic developed a UI and control system that works effectively, once you get the hang of it. Still, we got better results after tinkering with the key binds and control options to create a custom profile. Many players might come to the same conclusion, depending on their hardware (we took advantage of a nine-button mouse, mapping engine and weapon controls to our convenience).

Once we overcame the learning curve and got the basics down, we had a blast flying around in ship combat. Fans of the Star Trek franchise will probably find it the most gratifying; as a space shooter in the sci-fi genre of games, STO's ship combat isn't necessarily extraordinary. But within the bounds of the 'Trek IP, Cryptic succeeded in developing a faithful, immersive and downright fun representation of ship-based combat. As of press time, the MMO is still in beta, so the few gameplay bugs we encountered aren't worth noting unless they persist after launch.

We noticed a few things in the ship-combat gameplay that disappointed us, like the fact that Cryptic didn't take advantage of the 360-degree capability of space as much it could have. Players do have the ability to fly within all three dimensions, but most of the PvE content we encountered was "focused" on the horizontal plane, probably for accessibility's sake. In "true" outer-space, each dimension should be represented equally, and without preference. But in STO, we noticed that the horizontal plane always seemed to be the "fallback" dimension in which you could find your bearing.

We're also a bit unsure of the multi-tasking that's required to play as effectively as possible; while we're extremely grateful to find gameplay mechanics that haven't been "dumbed-down" too much, we found ourselves a bit inundated when trying to deal with multiple enemies (especially when tracking all our bridge officers' ability cooldowns— along with our own—while attempting to defend our ship at the same time).

But, aside from those and a few other smaller issues, we were thoroughly impressed with our early look at STO's ship-based combat. The graphics and special effects look amazing, and represent the TV series and movies as faithfully as possible. Check back with us as we continue our beta preview series and bring you more STO details, including a look at "away-mission" combat and gameplay!