Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Star Trek Online Review (PC Online)

The Star Trek universe recently expanded with a new film that reset the original story and gives a whole new generation a chance to appreciate it. Now it’s going another place where people have gone before and exploring strange somewhat familiar places, seeking out...well, fun we hope.

But is it really? There are a lot of things I think are missing from the game. For example when you start, you can only be a member of Starfleet. Plus, you don’t even go through any type of training. I guess they thought that actually going to Starfleet Academy would have been boring and so you are, instead, thrust straight into the game’s story all willy nilly.

Borg are attacking, you’re just a cadet but somehow all the officers on the ship are targeted by the Borg and suddenly you’re in charge (how’s that for an extremely forced storyline?). On top of that, the Klingons are actively invading Federation space, oh and the Romulans, they’ve got all sorts of problems after their planets were destroyed. But still, they want to fight the Federation as well. It’s amazing that the Federation lasts as long as it does isn’t it? I hear the Dominion might be coming as can hope.

Now on to the game. It’s Sunday and I was going to hop in and do some missions to get some material for the review and, the servers are down. Reading through the forums one finds that they have problems with load balancing at times, logins and now it seems server stability. Not exactly the type of launch we’ve come to expect from Cryptic. This was two weeks prior to publishing and things seem more stable.

Problems abound in the game as enemy ships can shoot through asteroids and even through other enemy ships (Borg spheres shooting through Borg Cubes). Unfortunately, you cannot also do that. It doesn’t happen all the time, maybe just with smaller asteroids. But it does happen a lot. Then again, I took on six enemies with my basic Bird of Prey and blasted them all to oblivion. So obviously I either have a perfectly set up ship, or there are some game balancing issues. They are also facing ’tens of thousands’ of bug reports at present and are simply swamped. So, many issues will be a long time in the fixing. But with a massive game and massive amounts of players, bugs are certainly to be expected. Of course, downtime on a weekend, that’s just inexcusable.

The graphics are nice, but they don’t compare to that other massive online space game and seem almost shoddy in comparison. You have a fantastic range of customization for your character and ship. I made my own alien for Starfleet and then a Borg-liberated Klingon. You can give certain body features more prominence than others. I made my Melfica (that’s the alien race I made) have longer than average arms and longer than average fingers. I based the idea on the standard ’gray’ aliens and then mixed in some Peter Lorre. So he’s sort of creepy looking to say the least. The Klingon I based on two ideas power and fear. So she’s about 2.2 meters tall (7.2 Feet) and big in a very physically fit way. Since she survived assimilation and liberation she’s got the infected looking skin and still sports a Borg implant.

The sounds are, well, Star Trek. All of the sounds are authentic from the phasers and photon torpedoes down to the transporter and computer voice. It’s all there exactly as it should be. I just wish they had Robert Picardo as an emergency medical hologram. That would have been perfect.

The missions in the game are limited. It’s either go attack and destroy enemies or go find out something, then attack and destroy enemies. They do a good job of mixing things up so you sometimes have away missions to play through (yep, attack and destroy enemies) in between a lot of space battles. It’s still grinding, but it doesn’t feel like it because there’s such a wide range of ways to do it. They even had a mission that was purely a fact-finding expedition where you go and settle a dispute with some miners. But they could have made that far more interesting because the feeling was, as one player said, "I went all the way to that system just to answer six questions?" My reply was "It’s called diplomacy," however, there could have been something more. There are also other missions where you just have to go activate some devices and they feel like they’re just there as filler.

There are even specific areas set aside just for PvP in the Neutral Zone where Klingons and Federation can mix it up in a variety of online PvP modes including resource grabbing, deathmatch, etc. As a Klingon you are encouraged to engage the Federation at any chance and even to engage in combat with other houses just as a matter of polite society, for Klingons anyway. Sometimes though, you’ll run into what you think is a PvP level which will end up just being a forced multiplayer co-op environment. There are many would-be PvP levels that are really just this sort of team up against a fleet of NPCs. Of course, as with many MMOs that means you’ll be on a team of players that don’t know what teamwork is. Though I have been surprised by how much teamwork actually does show up here.

Crafting in the game just plain sucks. The only way to do it is to run around the galaxy gathering up anomalous data readings. Then you take those and a specific item and trade them in for an upgraded one. It’s all very cut and dry and I was extremely disappointed to find out that there’s no experimentation, no creation of unique items and frankly, nothing interesting at all in it. You have to run a science mission which then gives you access to someone who upgrades Mark II items. After a certain amount of exchange with that player you can then move up to Mark III items with someone else, etc, etc. Yawn! It’s not a crafting system at all in fact. If this is their answer to a non-violent scientific side to the game, it’s an almost complete failure on their part.

The space battles can be epic, in a very proper use of that word. Fleet actions take you and up to twenty other ships and throw you into a massive space battle that could last up to an hour depending on how quickly the fleet dispatches the enemies and achieves the goals that are set forth. These are the times when the game really shines because it’s non-stop action and while you’re technically ’grinding,’ it’s not at all like standard grinding. However, as with many MMOs, no matter what you do in these missions, the game’s story does not change at all. If you beat back the Gorn or take out a massive Klingon force trying to slip in and steal a sector from the Federation, they’ll still be there doing it later. The story doesn’t really progress and there’s no actual change in who has control of what sector. The maps and borders are stationary and don’t look like they will ever change.

As far as I’m concerned, the major flaw in the game comes in your lack of gameplay options and the horrible crafting system. You are either a Starfleet Officer or a Klingon Defense Fleet Officer (for now). There is no being a Ferengi and living a life dedicated to the acquisition of wealth. There is no being a bar owner on a Starship or Starbase. There’s no being a bounty hunter, a crazy DS9 and Wormholehitchhiking alien or anything else. It’s just this, or that and that’s all you get. But it’s an MMO and if we know one thing about MMOs it’s that they evolve over time and Cryptic is actively working to do that. MMOs expand and new features are added and hopefully, these are high on the list, after they squash tens of thousands of bugs. So for now, there is no Q or Continuum, there is no visiting the home of the Prophets in the Bajoran Wormole. Just for now, we hope.