Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Star Trek Online Review

Developer:Cryptic Studios
Official Site:
Release Date:February 5th, 2010 (UK)
Reviewer:Greg Alexander (Modo_Komodo)

Times are changing. As I write this, news has been announced that the all-conquering World of Warcraft has not added to its 11.5 million subscriber base since 2008 - leading to speculation that it has finally hit its impossibly high ceiling. With the king seemingly on the wane, this could be as good a time as any to release a new contender into the lucrative but incredibly risky MMO market.

Veteran MMO producers, Cryptic, are using the increasingly popular formula of combining well known cultural franchises with MMO mechanics. To date, the results have been mixed. Age of Conan ultimately failed to deliver on any of its potential following a disastrous launch. Warhammer Online started very strongly but has since suffered from population decline. Star Trek Online will be the latest attempt to find the secret ingredient for the, so far elusive, money elixir.

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Star Trek itself needs no introduction. It's the TV series that popularized science fiction in the 1960's by beaming down weekly tales of bold spacemen navigating a hazy unknown; exploring exotic planets and teaching aliens how to love. It commands a vast and powerful fan base - perfect fodder for the MMO treatment then, as franchise lobbyists are more likely to hang around than less fanatical players.

The tutorial begins simply enough. You enter the game during a massive attack by the Borg - horrific, hive-minded robot zombies, one of the franchises's better known enemies, and who you find yourself facing during end game encounters. Once you have picked up the basics, you are unleashed into the universe to accomplish things more or less as you please.

The quests are standard MMO canon. Collect X number of this thing, kill Y number of that thing, rinse, repeat, level up and start again. What's different is that, as a player, you don't just tool up one character; you have to constantly improve yourself, your ship and also its crew. This is the most interesting feature of the game, as it adds further dimensions to a potentially flat and pedestrian MMO experience, and its only when a player measures their progress across all three of these elements are they able to judge how successful they are.

Having said this, the division of activity between space and ground can sometimes leave things feeling rather fragmented. As a player, you will find yourself jumping between the two often.

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Playing through a quest chain, I began fighting pirates in space and then beamed down to a planet to continue my mission on foot. The idea works very well when executed like this. It actually feels like an episode of Star Trek and adds real depth to the experience. The system runs into trouble when you get teleported from your ship to a planet without warning. This, however, happens rarely and can be forgiven at this stage in the game's life.

The quality gap between the space and ground segments are of galactic proportions. On the ground, you and your squad move through seemingly the same environments constantly. Missions that take place on space stations all contain the same sterile metallic tile set. Almost every encounter that has taken place on another ship has included this operating theatre-esque environment with some of the furniture re-arranged - another common casualty amongst MMOs, where the scope of production is always so epic.

Open world planet encounters fare better with locations ranging from exotic tropical landscapes to inhospitable wastelands, the variety certainly helps the often repetitive MMO quests to feel a little different.

The ground combat itself is somewhat uninspired at present. There is no cover system to speak of yet and despite being in a squad, your team mates tend to stand about and shoot at enemies who also stand about and shoot. There is certainly potential for the ground combat system to be improved in future updates but as things stand this is the weak link in the chain.

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Space encounters are where the game really shines. Each player is given command of their own ship to steer through the infinite nebula of space. Whether as part of a quest or PVP, arming your ship with the best weapons and equipment you can find, and then discharging said equipment at your enemies will take the most time out of your ship captaining days. Almost everything about this is excellent. Careful selection of ship parts is required in order to get the most from your ship, and this is not the only tactical facet to space encounters. A ship's shields must be carefully managed in order to prevent any fatal explosions. This can be done by maneuvering during fights to ensure the same part of your ship is not getting hammered. You can also use crew's special abilities such as 'emergency power to shields'.

Encounters become more interesting still during fleet actions - large battles involving a multitude of players all working in conjunction towards a shared goal. They can look like large, chaotic free-for-alls to the spectator but they actually require a lot of timing and strategy to get right. If your team's lightly armored escorts rush headlong into battle, they will very quickly get annihilated. An escort captain has to wait until the enemy's focus rests on the heavy cruisers before they pinpoint a perceived weak point and strike together.

For those interested in immersion, shouting relevant commands as you issue these orders helps. So does having a special captains hat to be worn whilst playing.

PVP in STO is handled with thought. Once players reach level 5 or so, they gain access to the Klingon race. For those unfamiliar with Star Trek, think of the hordes of Genghis Kahn but in space with lumpy heads. As a Klingon, you get the opportunity to do more or less exactly the same as if you were a player in Star Fleet. The difference is that gameplay is more focused on player versus player combat, as opposed to single player experiences.

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This PVP combat is divided again between fighting members of Star Fleet and other Klingon houses. As all ships involved in PVP are player controlled, there is more scope for unpredictability. To be placed in a team alongside the U.S.S Leeroy Jenkins is hilarious and frightening.

Fighting on the ground is surprisingly rewarding following on from the slightly flat single player experience. Other players use and hide behind cover more intelligently than the game's bots allowing for a more exciting and tactical experience.

As Star Trek is not just about conflict, you are also given the job of exploring portions of uncharted space as part of Star Fleet's on-going commitment to scientific endeavors. This normally takes the form of travelling to specific 'uncharted' systems and scanning them for new planets and information. It changes the pace of frenetic space battles and rewards players with special tokens that can be traded for upgraded ship parts.

It's obvious that Cryptic Studios tried to keep the structure of the game simple but with enough depth to keep players coming back. Unfortunately, this has not been entirely successful as the multiple sets of skill points, ground and space combat all come together to create a somewhat fragmented game at times. However, when it works, the game is enjoyable, deep and should be more than enough for fans of the longstanding franchise.

All MMOs have a steeper learning curve than the average game. With time, players will acclimate to their surroundings. When things start to make more sense and the proverbial mist clears, they become much more enjoyable.


As an MMO launch, STO cannot really be faulted. On the whole, the game is tight and noticeably well polished. There has been very little to no issues of downtime and crashing - a problem that has plagued new MMOs in the past. If the game has started as it means to go on then we should get used to seeing this title around for some time.

Good stuff

  • Essential purchase for Star Trek fans
  • Very smooth launch for an MMO title
  • Players given a lot of freedom to progress as they please
  • Space battles tight and tactical

Not so good stuff

  • Jumping between space and ground combat can feel unfocussed
  • Ground combat is a little flat
  • Game UI is confusing for new players