Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Star Trek Online: Launch Report

Reviewer Kyle Horner gives some in-depth impressions based around his time with Atari's highly anticipated space-faring MMO, Star Trek Online, in our first ever GamePro Launch Report.

If you haven't seen our new approach to reviewing MMOs here at GamePro, head on over to my recent feature discussing the matter.

Welcome to the very first MMO Launch Report here at GamePro. Normally this feature would go up much closer to launch day but because this new review method was only recently enacted, I'm a little late this time around. However, the upside is that the extra time has allowed a slightly more in-depth look at the game.

To date, I've put in about 38 hours of Star Trek Online playtime between the game's beta release and the first official week of launch. While this is by no means the final review, I've certainly played enough to form some definitive opinions on the title, and so far, I continue to want to come back and fly around in my Enterprise-looking ship, butting heads with Klingons and hassling Ferengi merchants trying to break the rules. The game definitely has weak points, but I'm okay with that because it does a great job of making me feel like I'm in the Star Trek universe -- and that's a lot of fun.

It turns out that Star Trek Online is very similar to the television and film series it's based upon, although not in the way some might assume. It evokes all of the sounds, music and visuals any fan expects to experience with a game brandishing the Star Trek name. However, the way in which I find the game and the franchise similar is how they're both a mish-mash of several differing ideas that shouldn't work together, but somehow do.

Everything about the game feels as though it's opposed against one feature or another -- chief among them, the game's two core factions. Where the Federation strikes a balance between story-based mission content and PvP content, the Klingon faction is almost entirely focused on player vs player gameplay, leading to some interesting conflict between the two play styles. The game's biggest opposing element is how wildly different the space combat is from the ground combat, requiring the player to master two battle systems concurrently.

Yet, like some kind of virtual one-man band, it all blends together into a curious and surprisingly entertaining symphony.


Thankfully, Star Trek Online merges experience points and skill points together. As you defeat enemies and complete missions, you'll earn skill points for your Captain and also for a pool shared by all of your Bridge Officers. Your "level" is determined by how many skill points your Captain has, and after gaining 11 levels, you'll be contacted by an Admiral for promotion. There are five ranks (not counting Ensign, which is a tutorial-only rank; it goes Lieutenant, Lt. Commander, Commander, Captain, Admiral) and all but one contains roughly ten levels to move through -- Admiral only has five.

So, basically, there are about 45 levels in Star Trek Online, but really, it's all about your rank. After completing the tutorial, you're a Lieutenant. Then, after moving through the 11 levels within that rank, you're promoted to Lt. Commander and given a free new ship. When players look at your character in-game they see your rank as represented by an insignia, not a number.

The system represents Star Trek well, while still serving the required leveling mechanics for an MMO. You get a cool "ding" graphic and sound when you reach a new level and there's a nice ceremony on Earth Station when you're promoted.

The Fluffy Stuff

Episode Missions are really the coolest type of mission I've encountered so far. These play out like an actual episode from the television series and are rife with references. They're filled with story, space combat, ground combat, and lots of Trek.

In fact, the Star Trek Online development team has a real penchant for pulling Trek fans' nostalgia strings, with enemies dropping all kinds of memorable food items from the series. I'm still holding on to my bottle of Chateau Picard, and I've also replicated "earl grey tea, hot!" and some self-sealing stem bolts for pure enjoyment.

A lot of the best parts of Star Trek Online are related to the IP fluff. For instance, you can sell off loot directly from your inventory screen. Why? You've got a Replicator, of course. I'm also a fan of being able to beam directly to my ship whenever I complete a mission or finish roaming around some space station. And if you were wondering, yes, a couple missions have employed the dreaded "teleporter inhibitor" plot device. I can't really knock the game for doing it though -- it was used often in the TV series.

Overall, I've been very happy with all the cool Star Trek moments I've been able to experience in the game. Simply creating my character with the super-extensive creation tools Cryptic is known for was a trip -- doubly so when I got to do it with my ship. While we're on the topic, I feel like I should mention ship customization is sadly limited to coloring only on Klingon vessels.

The Crunchy Parts

Star Trek has always adhered to the "Space is an Ocean" concept -- thus, spatial movement with your ship feels exactly as it should: grand-scale nautical, yet also three-dimensional. Movement around the galaxy proper is handled via a super-imposed map that your ship "warp" flies through. It's challenging to explain, but think of a map of Earth. Now divide each continent into a couple of large zones -- or as Star Trek Online calls them, Sectors. When you move between these large zones (AKA Sectors) you'll be loaded into the next large Sector, and when you visit a smaller location like, say, New York, you'll be loaded into a separate instance representing that location.

Every space station, space combat encounter with a roaming enemy or star system you encounter will load up as its own zone. This is why the game can feel very much like a solo experience, but also like an MMO in that you see and can interact with other players flying around the big Sectors of space.

When you're in those instanced areas of space, steering the huge ships feels very natural. The WASD configuration handles maneuvering well, although the mouse can be used to point the nose of your ship in any direction you like. I prefer to keep my mouse free so I can click around the UI, especially where using Bridge Officer powers like "Emergency Power to Shields" is concerned. Firing all available phasers is done with spacebar, and pressing Crtl-Plus-Spacebar brings all your available torpedo bays to bear.

And really, that's the essentials of space combat for the first ten levels. I recently acquired my first new ship after around 12 hours of play time, and the space combat's complexity is quickly beginning to grow. My new ship came with more equipment and weaponry slots as well as an extra seat for a fourth Bridge Officer. This new seat is actually better, in that it's for a higher ranking Bridge Officer. You see, higher ranks mean more space and ground combat abilities. This is something you can only do if you're at least two ranks above the Bridge Officer you're promoting. So, deciding what officers to have sitting in what seats is slowly becoming part of configuring your space combat setup. It all feels very Captain-y.

Where ground combat is concerned, much of it isn't anything too new to the MMO space. The player -- being an all-important Captain -- gets a special piece of equipment called a kit. You can only equip one kit at a time and each kit you find can only be equipped on a single class type. My Engineer is basically a Paladin archetype (IE a meat shield with some support powers) so my kits are all focused on things like recharging personal force fields, teleporting turrets into play, weakening enemies, or empowering allies. Tactical officers bring massive amounts of firepower to combat, while Science officers heal and deal heavily in support.

Ground combat certainly isn't bad, but during most ground sequences I find myself thinking about returning to that gleeful space combat. I don't think the problem is that ground combat is bad, but rather, I think space combat could be too good.

There are also various problems with ground combat. Big firefights usually get unmanageably chaotic, resulting in death. On the other hand, respawn points are plentiful, meaning you and your Bridge Officers are almost always resurrected (with full health) very near where you died, and that's it -- no skill points are lost and no repair bills are accrued. It almost feels like the respawn points and lack of death penalty are there to lessen the morale blow dealt to the player by ground combat death -- something I experienced far more often than space combat death.

I feel fairly certain in saying that Cryptic is probably aware of the slight disparity between the two forms of combat in Star Trek Online. Many features like crouching for better aim and double-tapping movement keys to roll were added to ground in beta, and I get the feeling more improvements are coming down the pipeline.

The Buggy Bits

I've personally only encountered a few bugs in my 15 hours of live play. Some of these are pre-existing minor bugs from beta, like a bug that causes your ship to blink back into frame after a warp-out sequence that's seen when you leave a star system. I did encounter one irritating mission bug, where after patrolling two star systems I noticed the game wasn't registering that I'd completed said patrols. However, after dropping the mission I restarted it with no problems. Annoying? Yes, but hardly a deal breaker for me.

Server stability was a bit shaky for the first three days of early start and also into the first day of the official launch. After those initial hiccups, however, I've found the servers to be largely compliant when I log into them. There have been some undocumented patches hitting the Star Trek Online launcher, which is always slightly irritating for players wondering if a bug or technical glitch they've been experiencing has been fixed. However, that's less of a bug issue and more of a Cryptic-needs-to-get-on-top-of-that issue.


So far my interactions with other players have been limited to the occasional romp through a mission or two. I've probably spent about 30% of my time with groups and I'm happy to report that -- so far -- everyone has been friendly.

I'll admit that a part of me was worried about how Trek fans were going to react to Star Trek Online, but it seems like a good majority of the players in-game are pleased with the game. I'm not really sure if it's the glory of five Federation vessels simultaneously warping into a star system or what, but people in this game are just so happy to be playing it.

After getting deeper into PvP and potentially Fleet (IE Guild) drama, I'll have a better understanding of the general state of the in-game community.

Content Updates

There have only been slight tweaks so far, but Cryptic has already laid out a substantial chunk of free updates hitting the game in the next two months -- much of the new content aimed at beefing up the end-game and fleshing out the Klingon missions. In fact, Klingons are getting Exploration missions, which is most notably (the much requested) player versus environment content. It's also important to note that "Raid Episodes" is the new end-game content. These are super-challenging story missions available to both Federation and Klingon players. Assuming these updates make it in time and deliver the content promised, things will certainly be looking up for Star Trek Online as it moves beyond launch.

As for what I'd like to see beyond these updates, I'm really curious about how Cryptic plans to expand the ship selection within both sides of the game. I hope that whatever new ships they add actually serve a unique purpose in combat. If they're slightly tweaked visual variants of the current top ships, that'll be disappointing. Also, it would be good if the Romulan faction isn't too far off into the future, since they definitely provide their own flavor and, well, their ships look downright amazing.

The Schedule

Feel free to share your thoughts on this report. I'm very interested in maintaining an open dialog with readers, especially if you've got thoughts to share on the report or Star Trek Online itself. And if you're playing the game already, perhaps we can play together in the near future!

So now that I've obtained my first Cruiser, I've set my sights on the next rank: Commander. This will earn me another ship, and with that, more combat complexity. It's tough to say at this very moment, but I feel like coming back in two or three weeks will give me enough time to discuss updates and mid-to-late game content.

Right now I'm looking forward to experiencing mid-game PvP, some of the Fleet Actions, and finding out whether or not the missions begin to get repetitive as I move through the next section of Sector space. Come back in a couple weeks for all that and more in my ongoing review for Star Trek Online.