Friday, February 12, 2010

Star Trek Online Review

Each evening in the seven days since its UK launch, I've been exploring Cryptic Studios' latest MMO offering, Star Trek Online. Does it live up to the hype, and is STO the game Trekkies have been waiting for?

General ScreenshotI'm torn over Star Trek Online, I really am. On the one hand, the Trek fan in me is overjoyed with my very own Starfleet vessel, the ability to explore the galaxy with my hand-picked Bridge Officers or fly into battle with Borg cubes armed with my trusty phasers and photon torpedoes. And yes, I can finally wield a tricorder. On the other hand, I have to admit that I'd hoped for so much more than STO provides.

One area that I certainly wasn't disappointed in was the character creator. If there's one thing that Cryptic knows how to do well, it's giving players the tools to make the character they really want. There are several races to choose from when playing as either Federation or Klingon, each with their own benefits such as higher resistance against certain damage types, more health or increased melee damage. Then there's the plethora of customisation options including facial features, hair styles and body shapes. Finally, players can design a character's uniform from the ground up. They can either stick with one of the tradition pre-made options, or go for something radical and unique to stand out in the crowd.

Characters have three classes to pick from; Engineering officers are all about survivability and support for the rest of the team. They can create a number of helpful devices on the ground that do damage to the enemy or aid their team mates. Science officers can heal others, while also being able to drain enemies of their defences. A Tactical officer's primary focus is damage dealing, and is capable of drawing threat away from its allies.

Star Trek OnlineKlingon gameplay is unlocked at level 6 or through a Starfleet quest, so everyone starts off as Federation. The tutorial takes place aboard a ship that's under attack by the Borg. It serves to guide beginners through ground combat, giving basic training on the use of phasers and hand-to-hand combat, interaction with NPCs and objects. A brief guide to the use of Bridge Officers is also given at this stage, and players must choose either a Science, Engineering or Tactical officer as their first team member.

A short space mission follows the first section, which familiarises players with manoeuvring the ship and using the on-board weapons. Players are then beamed down to the surface of a nearby planet along with their new Bridge Officer to tackle the Borg on the ground once again. This gives a taste of what's to come later in the game when it's necessary to command full away teams.

Star Trek OnlineWhen all these easy missions are complete, the real game begins, and players find themselves on Earth's orbiting space station. This is the hub, the main city if you like, where the bank, exchange (auction house), vendors, outfitters and quest givers are located, although other space stations dotted around the galaxy will also provide many of these services. At this point, it's also possible to cosmetically redesign your ship, your character and your Bridge Officers(s).

There are several quests to get you on your way, some involve finding NPCs dotted around the space station, others will send you off on missions in other solar systems.

When you leave the station for the first time and warp into sector space, you'll appear on the galaxy map. In STO, areas of the galaxy are divided up into sectors which contain certain systems. You navigate between these systems by travelling (at a frustratingly slow pace) across a representation of the sector's map to the location you desire. The galaxy map also shows other players as they travel between systems, and NPC trade vessels where you can pick up supplies or sell any surplus loot you may have acquired in battle.

Star Trek OnlineAt first, it's a little confusing, trying to find your way around the galaxy. You'd think that all the available locations would be on one map, maybe two, but the galaxy is divided up into ten sectors, each with multiple systems. Ships can't travel directly from one sector to another unless they're adjacent to each other, either, so it's sometimes necessary to do nothing but sit and watch your ship crawl across a sector, then another. I know a certain amount of travelling is involved in most MMOs, but there really is nothing to do on these trips, which are needed for most missions in this early part of the game at least, but sit and wait.

The first few quests require you and your crew to perform a varied range of tasks. You're called upon to investigate mysterious breaks in communication, escort diplomats to safely and rescue stranded ships among other things.

Many of these tasks require your away team to beam down to a planet. Before you have a full compliment of Bridge Officers, you'll get generic security NPCs, or red shirts, in their place. During ground missions, your away team, powered by the game's AI, follow your character, attacking hostile targets and using any special abilities they may have. Enemy units you kill often drop items that can be used by you and your officers such as better weapons and armour, shield charges and hypo sprays.

Contrary to some, I quite enjoy the ground battles. Granted, there aren't many attack options for low level characters, but on top of your three basic moves you get with each weapon, you can crouch and aim to increase weapon damage, roll to avoid being hit and gain access to different skills through body kits. Having said that, the reason many dislike ground combat is due to its simplicity and lack of imagination in encounters. The formula becomes familiar quite quickly; beam down, kill six or seven small groups of Kllingons/Orions/Gorn, get some data read-out, then beam back to the ship, job done. On top of this, the AI isn't always reliable. I often had to run back down a corridor or two because I belatedly noticed one of my away team had become stuck in a doorway or behind a console.

There are just as many, if not more, missions that are entirely space-based. You arrive at a system and are advised right away of the situation. Often, there are a several enemy ships dotted around a planet or asteroid strip, and your job is to find and eliminate them all. Again, this becomes tedious quite quickly. You pick up a huge amount of these 'patrol' quests early on and I soon dropped them. This was partly down to the ship's slow travelling speed both in and out of the sector map, partly down to the space combat itself.

I find myself at odds with many other players over this too, but I found the space combat mind-numbingly boring. The best strategy seems to be to circle an opponent, trying to keep you forward-facing weapons on them as much as possible and just spamming the 'fire all available weapons' button. So essentially, space combat for me was holding down a directional button and repeatedly clicking the left mouse button, while using each of my three special officer skills whenever they were off cooldown. And I rarely found myself in any danger of becoming overwhelmed on these missions, so there wasn't even an urgency to the combat.

Star Trek OnlineApparently ship battles becomes a lot more interesting and tactical later on when you get more Bridge Officers and special skills to use but, seriously, I almost lapsed into a coma by my 5th patrol mission.

There are still a few bugs in the game which affect both space and ground combat. Glitchy graphics and rubber-banding are common on the ground, and I was attacked by un-selectable targets during a couple of space missions.

When arriving at a system, you'll sometimes automatically join a group with other players who happen to be starting the quest the same time as you, but more often than not, you'll zone in to an instance containing just you and the NPC enemies you've been sent to kill. However, in some missions you're required to join a large team and defeat a certain number of enemy fleets together. These instances tend to be quite interesting, because the level range of enemy fleets is extremely wide. It's possible to go it alone and take out a fleet of three ships the same level as you, but other fleets may be 35 levels higher than you, resulting in an instant death. You can't tell what level these enemy ships are from too great a distance either, which means you have to approach very carefully. Annoyingly, if one of these fleets wander too close to the respawn/entry point, player's ships get vaporised the moment they zone in, which usually means it's game over for that particular instance; no one wants to wait around for the fleet to move on.

Star Trek OnlineAt level 10, shortly before earning my new ship, I decided to leave my Federation character for a while to check out the Klingon gameplay. The idea of a PvP-only faction didn't thrill me, but I was curious to see just how much of a difference there was in the starting areas. Obviously there's no tutorial here because the faction unlocks after a few hours of Federation gameplay, but Klingons do have to take part in a short arena battle before being given their first ship and crew. There are a handful of PvE missions, but among the first quests you pick up contain PvP orders.

On my first flight, I was pleasantly surprised to find that Klingon ships are much more manoeuvrable, and they also have their deadly cloaking ability. Against Federation ships, that can be a real benefit, but find yourself in a match with another Klingon team and it can be a frustratingly long time until the first team decide to show themselves. Ground PvP can be fun too although, as I mentioned before, there are still a few bugs to be worked out. The main issue I have with PvP is that the numbers on each side can be completely off. One player vs. five is common situation that players find themselves in; I actually arrived in a match with four others yesterday and we waited patiently for ten minutes, but our opponents never showed, not a single one.

Star Trek OnlineStar Trek Online really does have potential, it just feels so unfinished right now. Cryptic has said that there's more PvE content for Klingons coming, which is desperately needed, but the existing content in the early levels at least, isn't even that inspiring. How many abandoned sprawling warehouses can you clear of Klingons before it gets boring, how many systems can you patrol, looking for the twelve enemy ships?

I have faith that the game picks up once you get your first new ship, battles become more tactical and missions a bit more involved. But, based on the first 20 hours or so, I'm struggling with the prospect of going back to find out. Star Trek fans seem to be enjoying it though, with friendly banter constantly scrolling through the chat box in between all the goldseller and powerlevelling ads that already plague the game. I think, hope, the dedication of the fans may just keep the game going long enough to permit Cryptic to give STO the attention it deserves.