Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Star Trek Online Review

Space: The final Massively Multiplayer Online (MMO) frontier. This is the review of Cryptic's Star Trek Online. My 4-page mission, to discuss the ups and downs of the latest offering from a company that knows a thing or two about MMOs. Their mission: to carefully create a game that is fun and engaging enough to convince players to part with $14.99 every month, while still remaining true enough the original material so as not to anger the legion of rabid fans worldwide. These are my adventures of a female (Of course. - Ed.) Vulcan Science officer named Major, the U.S.S. Pork Chop Express and the strange, sometimes fun, sometimes frustrating world of Star Trek Online (STO).

When I first heard of STO I was a bit skeptical as to how Star Trek would translate to an MMO environment. Without a doubt, it's a fictional universe that's ripe with conflict, drama, technology and mythos familiar to almost everyone, so in that respect, a large chunk of the developer's job is done for them right out of the gate. However, developing a MMO based on a beloved series is also a double-edged sword, because the Star Trek episodes and movies are not about 100% non-stop action. This is the first oddity I encountered wit h the game. Think back to The Next Generation with Captain Jean Luc 'Let's Talk About It 'Picard where diplomacy and non-violent solutions were his preferred course of action to most of the problems encountered in the show. Translating those sorts of diplomatic solutions into the primary source of player missions in a genre that is generally combat centered, would make for some boring gameplay. So, instead, Cryptic has opted to go in the other direction, in a big way. I think it's funny that the main point of the game seems to be combat, combat, combat. My point is, that it's ironic. Don't get me wrong, I personally prefer the two-fisted approach to solving problems of James T. Kirk, but there HAS to be some die-hard Trekies out there (like Vader) (Hence my knick, Vader - Ed.) who are probably LIVID that the whole game violates the Prime Directive like Oprah violates an all you can eat buffet. (And yes I know the Prime Directive is about not impacting Pre-Warp civilizations in any way, but the joke works better that way so spare me your emails.)

But I am getting ahead of myself. Let's go back to the start of the game. Players start by creating a character who is a member of Star Fleet. Various races are available from the usual list of Federation suspects: Human, Vulcan, Trill, (among others) or you can opt to create your own custom alien. The choice is not mere window dressing as differing races come with their own racial perks that will affect (negatively or positively) different aspects of the gameplay. You can customize the look of your character using Cryptic's now famous character look generator. Just like its other games (Champions Online, City of Heroes) you have a nearly limitless list of ways that you can customize your look. This customization also carries over to your uniform and the Bridge officers of your crew.

Since the game is set in the same alternate universe that last year's Star Trek movie reboot (Red Antimatter, the destruction of the Romulan homeworld etc.) I guess I can cut Cryptic some slack for having a military organization allowing its members to wear a non-standardized uniform. However, it is a little off-putting at first to see so many different styles from all the series and movies in the same room at the same time. But frankly, after a few minutes, you won't even notice that some character from the first series is standing next to your toon who is wearing an outfit that would not be introduced some 80 years later in the mythos timeline (You insane, geek - Ed.). You complete your character creation process by choosing which (for lack of a better word) class you will play: Science, Engineering or Tactical officer. Each class has its own strengths and abilities similar to other games healer, damage dealer and tank classes and limits the kind of ships you have access to.

Once you have created your toon (Will you stop calling it toon! - Ed.), you are taken through a tutorial that guides you through the basics of space and ground combat, inventory management and mission acquisition and completion. By the time the tutorial story arc is complete, your character finds herself on the Stardock orbiting Earth in the Sol system and promoted to Captain of a starter starship (Miranda Class to be exact for us fans), which you get to name and design what it looks like and thus your adventure begins. The choose your own starship name is cool, but there are enough immature dorks out there that choose a stupid name for their ship (like The Pork Chop Express) that again reminds you that you are playing a game with immature dorks and geeks. From here you fall into the familiar pattern of visiting NPC's on the station accepting quests, visiting merchants to purchase or sell equipment from drops, browsing the exchange (basically the spacey sci-fi version of an auction house) and when ready, heading out into space to tackle your missions. From here you fall into the familiar pattern of visiting NPC's on the station accepting quests, visiting merchants to purchase or sell equipment from drops, browsing the exchange (basically the spacey sci-fi version of an auction house) and when ready, heading out into space to tackle your missions.

Missions are typically made up of ground and/or space combat, but some are the standard MMO fair of the Fed Ex style (of running and talking to an NPC in another location) or gathering a certain number of items to be turned in for a reward. Some missions advance the story arc and they play out like one of the TV episodes. These are multipart missions that flow naturally from one point to another. You may be asked to investigate a far flung star system where after combating some raiders, you find a clue that leads to a hidden asteroid base that you have to beam down to investigate. These are well done and offer a real sense of accomplishment when completed. Fans of the series will find lots of little gems hidden in plain sight through these missions but of course, knowledge of the Star Trek mythos is not required to play.

Space combat consists of warping into a system and if you are lucky, seeing several targets highlighted in red in the distance. You have to maneuver within weapon range before you can launch your attack. Since this is space, combat is a 360 degree affair. You have forward and rear facing beam weapons and torpedo launchers which must be brought to bear on your target before you can fire. Couple these firing arcs with fore, aft, starboard and port shields and you have an exciting combat experience. As your shields stop incoming attacks, they reduce and eventually fail leaving your bare hull exposed. As one shield weakens, you try to rotate your ship to allow your ship time to recharge the weakened section of shield (or pump more energy into it), while still keeping the enemy in your firing arc. Your ship officers have special abilities that can aid in combat by debuffing the enemy, healing yourself or allies or boosting your attack. This part of the game is fun and challenging especially when fighting a large number of enemies and when playing with teammates.

Ground combat is a bit underwhelming. For these missions you beam down to a planet or space station with you team mates or with NPCs in the form of your bridge officers. You then move around the map encountering groups of enemies whom you engage with phasers, disrupters, deployable items such as turrets and when the enemy gets too close, melee attacks. While directional attacks something you have to worry about in space due to shield strength, you have to pay attention to getting flanked while on ground missions due to increased damage and the chance to be stunned for a period of time. Also similar to space battles, you can make use of items or special attacks to help take out the bad guys. Fallen enemies drop items that can range from weapons, armor, and consumables like food and hypos that will heal your character. The combat, in my opinion, does not do much to distinguish itself from other MMO games. While the different environments do provide for a suitable sci-fi setting and you will face all sort of aliens from the Star Trek universe, in the end the enemies don't provide much difference as they all fight pretty much the same, one to another. Some enemies use ranged attacks, some fight close up but overall, it does not matter if its Klingons or Gorn, ultimately they all die the same.

Completing these quests grants bridge officer points that you use to upgrade your character's skills and other rewards like items to improve your starship, your bridge officers or gives you tokens that can be traded in at star bases for special items. Running missions with teammates speeds up the process of gaining officer points and moving you to your next promotion (aka level). While you start with a Federation character, once you hit level 5 you can create a Klingon officer which has a much stronger emphasis on player versus player (PvP) combat, not to mention ships that can cloak in combat. You can also engage in Fleet Actions which are essentially public quests that everyone in the area can participate in and in some cases involve PvP combat. These are fun and offer a break from the other missions but suffer balancing issues if you don't have enough people from your side. You can quickly find yourself on the wrong side of a warp core breach but in the end that's not as bad as it sounds. More on that in a minute.

Graphically the game looks great. Space backdrops are colorful and are usually populated with interesting little bits of window dressing. Planet side missions are likewise (usually) attractive. The developers talked early on during the games' development about the game's ability to randomize the various features of a planet to makes things alien, exotic and most of the time, interesting. This is good because some of the non-combat ground missions are deathly boring. Running around looking for five kinds of rocks to scan gets real old, real quick. Space combat is also visually pleasing as ship's shields fail from repeated attacks and the hulls change from perfection to a charred, pitted exterior venting atmosphere and flames from different points before exploding in violent fireballs. Straying too close to these eruptions will damage your own ship, but getting a closer look at the fireworks is sometimes worth it.

Audio in the game is top-notch. All the usual sound effects from the series are in place here. The original sounds for weapons, scanners, alarm claxons and even messages from computer are present and have not gotten old in all the time I have been playing. Music is also made up of many of the original orchestrations from the movies and TV series which really add to the whole Star trek experience in game. This is one area where the game really shines.

Gameplay is where things don't gel as well as they should. While the idea of going out to fulfill missions in a universe where everything seems to be against the Federation and its lofty goals sounds like a good thing, in practice, some things just don't add up. After all this is an MMO and you must to allow the player some level of freedom but some of this really hurts the suspension of disbelief. First, there are dozens of other players running around the galaxy going about their missions as you chase down your tasks which is what you'd expect in any MMO. However, with so many Federation ships crawling around the sector, it's a bit like rush hour in Los Angeles. With this many ships, the Federation should be roll over any threat that comes its way.

Next, I know you are a Star Fleet Captain, but it seems like you have a little too much autonomy. You can choose to take a mission to defend a star base from rampaging Klingons or decide to run out to another sector to talk to some science officer in a far flung corner of a galaxy. Regardless of how desperate the situation is, ultimately the choice on what to do and when to do it is up to you. Again, these are things to HAVE to allow the player to control in an MMO environment, but it does seem a little odd that you can take or leave any assignment that you choose considering you are part of a military organization and as such you are expected to follow orders.

Finally, there is currently no penalty for dying in combat, be it in space on or on the ground. This takes any risk out of the game experience and ultimately turns the whole thing into an arcade game. Sure it may be annoying to have to fly back out to the point where the enemy took you out, and yes, that can be a time consuming experience, but the mission does not reset, you don't lose any officer points nor do you receive a hit to your skills for a limited period of time. NOTHING happens. You have to feel like you have something on the line when you go into a combat situation or else every victory feels hollow and you lose the desire to continue on. Especially after you have maxed your character.

Other issues abound that you expect now with the launch of a new MMO game: lag during combat encounters, disconnections from the server during transitions from one zone to another, missions that don't work as intended and other hiccups are annoying. To their credit, Cryptic is releasing patches almost daily to address these issues so they are clearing doing their best to remedy the situation. One thing that they can't seem to fix fast enough also was an issue with Champions Online: Lack of documentation. This is my biggest gripe currently. Too often there is not enough information within the game as to what you are supposed to do with items that you find, where to go for some missions that were not completed when you were last logged in or just what boosting one skill over another will really do for you. Players should not be forced to purchase a strategy guide for information that should have been included in the box or through some sort of interface in game. Yes, I know part of the fun of an MMO is the exploration and discovery of these new virtual worlds, but when a large part of the game is reduce to guesswork, it's more frustrating than fun.

In the end, Star Trek Online is a mixed bag. If you are a Star Trek fan you will get a huge kick out of being able to pilot your own ship into combat and having brushes with people places and things you have seen in the series and movies. Gamers who are not fans will still find a beautiful game with wonderful audio and music, but the shortcomings in gameplay outside of space combat leave much to be desired. Hopefully Cryptic will find a way to add some variety into the missions not part of episodes to keep people interested and paying that all important monthly fee. But I question that they can find a way to do so in a manner that stays true to Star Trek while still keeping players engaged. If not, this may remain a game that only the hardcore Star Trek fan will keep playing and paying for beyond the first month. And for even such a popular franchise as Star Trek, I am not sure that will be enough to keep it up and running. As for my Vulcan and the U.S.S. Pork Chop Express, their mission will expire after 30 days as I will not be renewing my subscription (Ha! - Ed.).


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