Star Trek Online Preview: Set Phasers to Fun?
By Gabriele Giorgi (Darak), OnRPG Journalist
Note: This review was written before the Level Cap was introduced in STO.
After a long and troubled development, the awaited Star Trek Online is about to hit the shelves. The MMORPG is based on the most famous sci-fi TV series, which boasts several movies and various TV incarnations in more than 40 years. Cryptic acquired the rights for the IP and is about to launch the game at the beginning of February. The Open Beta, of course, is still up and running: we had a glimpse.
The Sky As A Limit
Cryptic is always being renowned for customisation, and this Star Trek Online confirms it: starting with the character creation, we will have the opportunity to choose up to the last detail of our avatar, including the option to create a brand new race. You can modify your physical features, uniform, innate abilities (some of them, as you may guess, are related only to a particular race, like for example the Vulcan nerve pinch). But it’s not limited to this: the customisation extends to the ship, even if we will have to wait to enter the proper game for that. Every detail of our vessel (deflector dish, warp nacelles, saucer section, etc.) may be modified at will, in order to make any starship class unique in its appearance.
Moreover, we will have different bridge officers for our departments, since we will impersonate the captain of our starship; they will be customisable as well, although to a lesser degree: they will be assigned to our command with a name, a role and a race, but it will be up to us to develop their abilities and even promote them. The officers will act as “additional skills” in space combat, but in away team missions they will be NPC with an AI that will reduce our intervention to a minimum. In space, though, they will really “make the difference” with all those manoeuvres (really helpful in game terms) that we’ve seen ordered by the different captains in the TV episodes.
Let’s start our officer’s career
Since it’s a tutorial and our character has just graduated from the Academy, we were expecting a fine Kobayashi Maru (for the non-trekkers out there, it’s the final simulation the cadets have to undergo as their final exam)… but we found ourselves thrown in the middle of a crisis instead: Borgs are everywhere, and they are both attacking and boarding our ships. As soon as the situation is taken care of, we are awarded a brand new ship for our efforts: an unprecedented occurence… or maybe not: it happened just once, some time ago, to one James T. Kirk. When the introduction is over, we can start to boldly go where no one has gone before.
Passing the Tests
There Are More Things Between Heaven And Earth…
STO is basically divided in two parts: outer space and away team missions. In the first case, we will be controlling our ship, while on the surface we will see our captain in flesh and bones, accompanied by one or more bridge officers or crew members.
The ship movement, like space combat, is really painstaking in its various aspects. First of all, we can move in a three-dimensional way (or almost like it): you can modify heading and bearing, even if it’s not possible to go upside down or to loop the loop. The weapons are carefully conceived about their range and effects. Space battles are surely exciting, even with some minor flaws: for example, when an enemy vessel explodes, you have to stay away in order to avoid damage… but when you bump into an asteroid or a space structure, you just bounce back… power of the deflector dish! Anyway, the underlying frame of space combat is quite solid, and it’s likely that these little flaws will be smoothed over in time.
On the other hand, ground combat is one of the real Achilles’ heels of this game (and it’s not really “trek,” but more about this later on). It’s good to have multiple characters and let the AI manage the NPC, but fights are extremely repetitive, with groups of enemy attacking you while you cycle through the primary attack of you weapon and the secondary one, more powerful but less frequent… and that’s it. True, you can also replenish your personal shield or recover your health, but doing it or not does not change much. The only innovation worthy to be mentioned is the opportunity to pause the instance for 45 seconds, a really helpful feature, for example when the phone rings.
Space Battles (pew pew pew)
Having described the combat, it’s natural to speak about the missions: yes, because space or ground fight are an essential part of them. Even with some small variations from time to time, a good deal of missions will involve going to a certain sector of space and thwart the umpteenth assault of the bad guys. Even those missions apparently labeled as exploration (like going to an unmapped sector and examine some of its systems) will result in the same pattern. And when you have to scan or use a terminal, just get close and press F, and the deal is done. Similar to many other MMORPGs, you might think: maybe… but from a game labeled Star Trek we would expect something deeper.
Let’s add also that, as described, ground combat is resolved using always the same skills and that the opponents have the habit too spawn much too frequently and we’ll have a game that is just a keypresser.
To Be or Not To Be (taH pagh, taHbe’)… Trek
That makes this Star Trek Online an ideal sequel for the TV series? Few things, in fact. It may be pleasing to the eye, true: looking at nebulas, asteroid belts, gas giants certainly makes an impression; sounds effects are good as well, and the main theme recalls the music of the episodes (even if, during battle scenes there are some annoying choirs that do not fit quite well with Star Trek).
But the biggest flaw is that Star Trek Online is, in fact, a “skin” of Champions Online, a recent superheroes MMORPG always by Cryptic. Everything in STO reminds of CO: maps, inventory, crafting, currency (even if this is quite appropriate for a moneyless setting like Star Trek), the “open instance” system. Even the chat is in common with CO, and it’s linked to your account, so you can chat with your fellow guild members while some are playing CO and others STO. Maybe someone might like it, but surely there was no need of it.
You might appreciate Champions Online or not, but Star Trek Online, for the mere importance of its IP, would have deserved a development of its own, without leaning on a preexisting architecture… or maybe Cryptic wants to launch a series of games all alike? We hope not.
The Genuine Star Trek Feel
We have to acknowledge that the lore in STO is excellent: all throughout the game, we encounter not only well-known races and planets, but even the characters of the series (or their descendants); the development of the timeline, the justification for a renewed conflict between the Federation and the Klingon, the way old and new races were handled… it all fits.
The “spirit”, though, is completely wrong. The heart of the TV series has always been exploration, discovery, interaction. Instead what we’ve got here is something like: enlist, get to know new life forms and civilizations… then kill them! Non that Star Trek is without conflicts, of course… and nobody is asking a MMORPG to be free of them. It’s a matter of dosage: less fights, but more intense, would have represented a good compromise between respect for the IP and playability. If this is what we are getting even in the future, Cryptic could have saved the money for the rights and call this game with another name.
This Beta is puzzling for many a reason, and this is true for both Star Trek fans and MMORPG lovers in general. There are positive sides, but they seriously risk to be obscured by the negative, mostly because Cryptic didn’t try to make something different from their own patterns. In these days they are launching offers for lifetime and yearly subscription, but before making such a big step it would be wise to grab a Beta key, if you can, and judge with your very eyes.
– Excellent lore
– Scenarios visually appealing
– Exciting space combat
– Not faithful to Star Trek’s spirit
– It’s a facsimile of Champions Online
– Disappointing ground combat.