Star Trek Online

Star Trek Online

Written by Ben Berry on 3/31/2010 for PC  

Best known for developing City of Heroes, Cryptic Studios spent 3 years developing expansions for CoH, including the standalone City of Villians that was unique in how it linked to CoH. When NCSoft bought the CoH/CoV code in 2007, Cryptic was already focus on the development of what was going to be Marvel Universe Online. When Marvel cancelled the agreement, Cryptic acquired the license to the super hero based Champions role playing game. Thus what was Marvel Universe Online became Champions Online.

A veteran of the early MMO titles, I played Ultima Online from launch, and following that Star Wars Galaxies. I also spent a couple months playing and generally enjoying City of Heroes, so I was familiar with Cryptic prior to Star Trek Online.

For most games, the completeness of development and lack of bugs are generally assumed. It’s only when bugs pop up in quality games are they really noted and noticed; affecting the score given by the reviewer. But when reviewing an MMO at launch, bugs and a lack of completeness are expected if not understood. However, with the Star Trek name attached to it, shortcomings in the games discussed in reviews by critics like myself will certainly not be as scathing as those of the millions of “Trekkies” bound to give the game a try and lampoon even it’s smallest shortcoming.

Now that we have a majority of the perfunctory stuff out of the way, let’s get down to business.

As with most MMO’s, Star Trek Online begins in character creation. Most of the features here are what you’d expect. Full body and facial customization, along with race selection. As with Star Wars Galaxies, you can choose from many of the standard races you’re used to seeing in this property (Human,.Vulcan, Andoran, etc.). Some are available right out of the box, others such as a Worf-esque Federation Klingon and Federation Ferengi are available from the Crytic store for Cryptic points. Additionally, the ability to be a Liberated Borg was a bonus for one of the multitude of preorder options. Finally, beyond the various races the user can choose from, you can also customize your character to be an entirely new race. There are also multiple uniform choices, ranging from those seen in The Next Generation and related movies to designs. One of my pre-order bonuses was the Admirals uniform Kirk wore in the Wrath of Khan. Easily the best uniform in the game, in my opinion.

On top of race and appearance, the most important choice regarding your character is the characters class. For a universe with seemingly hundreds of career choices, you can only choose from 3 possible career paths: engineer, tactical, or science. While these tie directly to the primary options of Starfleet, it doesn’t feel very flexible as a player trying to create a character that is unique. As I’ll detail later, these career choices directly affect the players choice in ships.

Once you get into the game, the tutorial missions thrust you right into the middle of a Borg attack on the ship you’re assigned to straight out of the academy. You’re whisked through some missions that get you the basics of ground combat and background on the current state of the Federation. By the end of the tutorial, you’re given command of your own ship. This is probably the biggest parallel between the shows, the movies, and STO: your ship is the central character.

If fact, this is one of the biggest issues I have with the game; instead of seeing space travel or perhaps even combat from inside the bridge as characters in the shows would; travel and combat are all seen from a third person camera view outside the ship. While you can spend a good bit of time customizing your character and uniform, you spend a majority looking some view of whatever it is you’re currently flying.

You can increase the capabilities of your ship through adding and changing the weapons, shield, deflectors, consoles, etc. You acquire these upgrades as mission rewards, as random drops from destroyed enemies, by purchasing them through the exchange, or by trading with other players directly. These changes are mostly performance based, and only the weapons change the appearance of your ship.

You can also improve your ships performance by improving your own capabilities. You earn points to apply to your skills, essentially experience, through completing missions and meeting other objectives within the game.

Each class his it's skill tree that can affect your performance as ship captain or in ground combat. While there are many choices inside the skill trees, unfortunately the game doesn’t provide a lot of information as to how the skills actually affect your results. The improvements in skill are reflected as pluses (ie. +4, +8, etc.), but you’re not really sure what that means. If by increasing my torpedo weapon skills by +8 out of 100, that’s one thing, but if it’s 1000 that’s something else. A little additional info, even just in the form of a graphic representing the players overall capability at the given skill would be beneficial.

You can make cosmetic changes to your ship at various starbases, one of the few static places in the game where your character can leave your ship. You can change the configuration of your ship, the color of the Hull, the design of some segments of the ship, even the way windows look on the hull. These changes still feel pretty limited, because there are only a few ships in each tier of ship, limiting the total number of combinations for each tier.
 

Aside from your own capabilities, you increase your total skills through the capabilities of your bridge officers. Each tier of ship can support a specific number of bridge officers, and though you can have say for example 6 officers in the Lt Commander level, the capabilities of your ship determine how many of your bridge officers you can utilize. Here is where the class of your character and the type of ship you choose really make a difference. Each class has a representative ship style; tactical captains generally choose escorts, engineers fly cruisers (All versions of the Enterprise throughout the series and movies are some tier of cruiser), and science engineers choose science vessels. Each vessel type has an extra console of for a bridge officer of it’s type; cruisers offer an extra engineering console, while science vessels offer an additional science console.

The biggest way of course to improve the capabilities of your ship is to advance in level in order to be eligible for the next tier of ship. You start as an ensign, and for each of the 6 ranks above ensign there are 10 grades. Once you reach the next rank (so Lieutenant 1, Lt. Commander 1, etc.) you’re eligible. Simply return to Starbase One and request your next ship. Each ship tier has an additional console, bringing another bridge officer into play, as well as whatever improvements the console you choose provides. Of course, the obvious benefit is that each level of ship is more powerful both offensively and defensively, and takes more damage to destroy once it’s defenses are breached.

As with any MMO, tasks assigned by NPC’s are the biggest part of the gameplay in Star Trek Online. As I mentioned earlier, missions are broken out into either space and ground based. Some combine elements of both in a string of specific elements in order to successfully complete the mission.

From the beginning of the game missions originate from Starbase One, the hub of Starfleet operations. The initial missions following the tutorial work to give the player a functional exploration of the sectors of space designed with the lower level of player in mind. As the player advances, the primary line of missions advance in difficulty, while following a story line that fits to the state of relations between the factions represented in the game. Whether ground or space, the missions have 3 major themes: combat, exploration, or some form of diplomacy/aid.


Space combat makes up a majority of the game between missions (as well as PVP), and in general it’s very well done. All of the combat is done with capital ships, which I have never previously seen a game do very well. The space combat feels very much like what we saw in The Wrath of Khan between Kirk’s Enterprise and Khan’s Reliant; space ships moving in much the way of ships on water. Ships turn slower at higher speeds, weapons are only available from certain angles, and shields have both sectional and overall reactions to damage. If there’s anything truly right with this game, space combat is it.

Ground combat missions are also fairly well done. I believe this is where the strength of having well trained bridge officers truly pays off. Increasing the ground combat skills of your officers and providing them with quality equipment allows you to focus on the most powerful opponents while your officers keep the foot soldiers occupied.

Aid missions are simple and relatively quick; you drop off X amount of a resource to a planet or station in need. Boring, but over quickly. Oddly enough, diplomacy missions usually involve very little diplomacy. Instead they involve shuttling some scientist or diplomat from one system to another, almost always encountering some armed resistance along the way.

Exploration missions are far and away the worst missions. These are essentially the resource farming missions, and result in you mostly flying your ship through a nebula waiting for random resources to appear. Once they do, you simply fly in close enough and sensor scan them. Not only is this boring, but it leads to perhaps the least well thought out part of the game, crafting.

Crafting in Star Trek Online is beyond terrible. With all the possible options Cryptic had when designing the game, they choose to take crafting out of the players hands and instead stuck it on a remote planet. It’s crafting at it’s most simplistic; you gather resources through repetitive mindless missions, and take them to someone else, who does your crafting for you. To “mystify” the experience a little bit, you have to craft a certain unknown amount with each crafter before you can advance to higher levels of crafting. There is no skill involved in the crafting whatsoever. What’s really mystifying to me is that with all that a Federation ship has to offer that the developers couldn’t have found a better way to integrate crafting.

In the shows, ships like the Enterprise and Voyager were exploration vessels with a full complement of scientific laboratories, any of which could have been leveraged to bring a far more fulfilling crafting experience. However in one of several major shortcomings of the game, you are unable to visit any part of your ship beyond the bridge. Further, visiting your bridge is purely visual experience, as you can’t actually do anything involving your ship from the bridge.

Obviously, in the shows, travel between distant systems, even at high warp took weeks or months. In the game this type of experience wouldn’t be enjoyable, so Cryptic looked for a way to shorten travel without taking it entirely out of the game. They decided on a method that reminds me very much of the maps shown in the Indiana Jones series or any buddy comedy from the 1950s. You travel in a 3D space above a 2D map, with the systems represented by a single entity as opposed to multiple planets.

How difficult would it have been to allow the captain to set a course on a star map from the bridge and then adjourn to the astrometrics lab for some experiments/crafting while the ship travels at maximum warp to it’s destination? Further, unlike most games, you can actually see random encounters coming. Instead you see enemies randomly flying around the sector, and you can choose to fly towards it or not. Not terribly random and adds little to the excitement of the game. A red alert interrupting your crafting and you have to make your way to the bridge to issue anything beyond the most basic commands would have been a far better way of traveling through the galaxy.

Last but certainly not least, Player versus Player combat is another key component of the game. I haven’t talked much about the Klingon faction because I didn’t have time to play as Klingon. However, I’ve faced more that my fair share of them in PvP action. While a majority of the game is written from the standpoint of the Federation, PvP clearly benefit’s the Klingons. Between higher powered weapons and cloaking devices, I have only been in one space battle against human opponents where the Federation came out on top.

Each year when I review the NHL titles I play both games to make sure I can see where each one stands in comparison to the other. It’s not really fair to compare a newly released MMO to titles that have been on the market for several years. But to see where Star Trek Online fit in against the other space MMO’s, I played both Star Wars Galaxies and EVE Online. I had subscribed to both games years ago, but I wanted to see how they had progressed to see if some of the issues I had then had been solved. Star Wars Galaxies had suffered from an overly confusing skill tree, and EVE Online suffered from a complex interface and a lack of balance between combat and resource gathering.

In the seven years since it’s release, EVE Online has advanced a lot, but the focus on the economic system remained the prevalent method of advancing your character. In addition, the interface is still overly complicated, with menus so many levels deep that my 27” TV still doesn’t have enough real estate to fit all of the sub-menus. In opposition, Star Trek Online, money is almost completely useless. The only use for it is to buy advanced ship components off the exchange or other players, most of which are equally available between your Fleet or random drops. Plus the interface is both clean and easy to learn.

Finally, a major flaw that I’m not really sure how the developers will fix is the games lack of moral compass. The strongest thing Star Trek has going for it is striving for a utopian society, making first contact, and seeking the common good. This game is basically based entirely on war, and the little exploration is boring.

While I’ve spent a majority of this review launching proton torpedo sized holes in STO, one thing I can say about the game is that it can be a lot of fun. The PvP and PvE space combat is generally excellent, even if you’re on the losing side. Additionally, the primary mission tree up through about Lt. Commander 5 is very good in presenting the post Next Generation galaxy and your place in it. While I haven’t reached sufficient level to explore the recently added Borg missions for those who have reached Admiral (levels 43+), I understand those provide another short burst of quality play before returning to repetitive missions.

In just the last couple of days, Cryptic sent out a survey to users requesting the areas they’d most like to see development focus on. Personally, I selected several areas, but I hope they move crafting back to the players, and give us control of the inside of our own ships.

After playing the other premier sci-fi MMO titles and spending a good bit of time in Star Trek Online, I have to give this game a solid C-. It’s far from perfect, but based on it’s placement fills a niche for sci-fi gamers between EVE Online and Star Wars Galaxies. By releasing STO when it did, Cryptic may have been willing to put out a less polished product in order to give the game some time, breathing room, and most importantly appease the Trekkies who gripe about every deviation from Star Trek cannon to establish itself before Star Wars: The Old Republic releases sometime in 2011.

It might have even more overall potential fans from it’s movie and TV properties, but they tend to be a little less obsesseddevoted. While the game has improved since I played it at launch, they recently halved the number of available servers available due to decreasing number of players. The overly complex and confusing skill trees have been replaces by simplistic skill trees that provide most of the best powers as part of basic level promotion. Skill choices are limited to some supplementary skills, that even as a Jedi add only so much to the abilities of the character. While Star Trek Online offers a complex and somewhat poorly explained skill tree, at least if offers the feeling of making your character somewhat unique based on skill choices.

Star Trek Online is far from perfect, but based on it’s placement fills a niche for sci-fi gamers between EVE Online and Star Wars Galaxies. By releasing STO when it did, Cryptic may have been willing to put out a less polished product in order to give the game some time, breathing room, and most importantly appease the Trekkies who gripe about every deviation from Star Trek cannon to establish itself before Star Wars: The Old Republic releases sometime in 2011.

Rating: 7 Average

* The product in this article was sent to us by the developer/company for review.

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About Author

On my 12th birthday, I got a floppy drive, I stayed up all night playing Stock Market for Commodore 64. I owned everyone I knew at the various NHL titles for Genesis. I first learned how to code in LPC in the middle of the night from a heroine addict on the campus of Michigan State University back in 1992 when MUDding was the only ORPG there was. I was a journalism major my first time through college, and have been writing off and on since, and programmed up until 5 years ago, when I put down the tools of ignorance to become a business analyst. I'm a member of several gaming 12 step programs for MMO's, and I don't game nearly as much as I used to. I'm mostly on the lookout for items you haven't already seen reviewed 50 times, whether they are games, or just things a gamer might use. I'm now work out of GN's east coast office in Boston, and looking forward to spending the weekends my fiancee is away with Boston University Women's Hockey playing games while the snow falls. View Profile

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