Review: Star Trek Online
Space: the final frontier. These are the voyages of the starsh— you know what, never mind. I had this whole cute “captain’s log” idea set to go, but after playing this game I just don’t have it in me. Star Trek Online is a good MMORPG, but not great, and while it might be a World of Warcraft killer in some strange mirror universe, it’s not even a threat in this one. In six months, who knows? But for now it’s puttering along at warp 1.
There’s something missing from STO; the actual Star Trek experience. The various Star Trek series revolved around the characters and their growth and development. Battles were there merely to heighten suspense and push forward the plot. Huge chunks of The Next Generation took place inside the ship and a hell of a lot of Deep Space 9 took place in hallways and bars! STO however comes off as a bit of an EVE Online clone with the addition of the ability to leave your ship. On the plus side though, more exciting than EVE, but on the down side it’s nowhere near as entertaining as WoW (fun fact: I was WoW-sober for a year until I played STO. Now I’m back to grinding gold for that damned Mammoth!)
The game takes place about twenty years after Romulus blows up (following Abrams’ interpretation), so while Leonard Nimoy might be narrating this game, Spock’s ass was chucked into an alternate universe about two decades ago. There’s supposed to be a war going on between the Federation and the Klingon Empire, but aside from giving you an excuse to hunt down NPC Birds of Prey, you won’t see much of that going on. Klingon players are stuck in their part of the galaxy while Federation players are stuck in their own, with the two only mixing in PvP battlegrounds. I was actually surprised that one of your main quest givers as a Federation character is Sulu’s great grandson Akira. Go figure, I always figured Sulu was “in the holodeck” so to speak. At least it would have explained why he never got a romantic subplot in the original series.
Speaking of PvP, if you buy this game wanting to play as a Klingon captain, get ready for some disappointment. You’re allowed to create a Klingon character only after you unlock that part of the game. This is done by leveling your main Federation character up to level 6. And as if Klingon players don’t already feel a bit second class, they’re restricted primarily to PvP missions. This may change as the developers have promised a lot of Klingon PvE content in the next few months, until then however, Klingon players are restricted to a tiny sector of Klingon space and are stuck with nothing to do but play around in the PvP battlegrounds.
That’s not to say the PvP sucks; far from it actually. STO has some of the best PvP in an MMORPG I’ve seen in a long time. Battles are fast paced and also quite tactical (well, for slow moving space ships). The terrain can block enemy fire and the ability for Klingon players to cloak adds a new level of tactic. Voice chat is currently not implemented in the game, so you’re stuck typing out commands to your team.
At the moment though, PvP seems to follow two patterns. Federation players will clump up into a big ball of ships known as a “Fedball.” If anyone happens to get within firing range of the ball, well, have you ever seen a phaser paint job? On the other hand, Klingon players go fishing. One member of the team flies along uncloaked while the rest of his team follow behind cloaked. The moment anyone’s foolish enough to leave the Fedball to go after this lone ship, they’re ripped apart by the other Klingons. That’s about it. Unless the developers give the game a major PvP overhaul, maybe expanding the maps to curb the Fedball tactic thus requiring more “stratergerizin,” expect fun PvP to die out around the time most Fed players realize “leaving nice ball = boom boom death.”
There are a lot of positive things about STO though. The game is largely based on the use of instances, events, or regions that spawn specifically for a player or groups of players. This means that while you might feel a bit alone from time to time, you won’t have to deal with fifty people all camping out at the same spot to farm the same monster, in order to get the rare loot it might drop. This is especially important as STO only has 1 server. One massive server for everyone to share, which surprisingly actually works. When you visit a location like the main Federation hub, Earth Spacedock, it’ll say above the minimap that you’re visiting “Spacedock 23” or similar, meaning that there are at least 23 instances of the Spacedock up at the moment. And you’re able to jump to any other of the 23+ instances in order to meet up with friends. That way you’re not sharing a 40 ft by 40 ft auction house with over 200 other avatars.
Who touched my ass!?!
Initially, customization is the name of the game. For STO, Cryptic gave its players a rather impressive character creation tool, though if you’ve played their other MMORPG, Champions Online, it might look a bit familiar.
I'd vote for him.
You get to pick from a long list of classic Star Trek races (though you have to buy Klingons, Ferengi, and Tellarites via micro transactions on the website), and if you’re not happy with those, you can make your own. If they had the option of a no-lipped mouth, my Starfleet captain would have looked something like our diplomatic friend above. Cryptic has also announced that there are more race options coming over the next few months. The Caitians have been specifically mentioned in this regard.
Awwww! Who’s a Starfleet admiral? Yes you are, yes you are!
Character creation for the Klingons is almost identical to that used for Federation characters, except the list of playable races is much smaller.
However that’s really where the customization ends. You’re basically assigned a Miranda class starship at first and you can customize it to some extent. You’re given a choice of three different types of similarly shaped ships and you can pick and choose parts from all 3, providing you with a unique ship that still looks like a bastardized Miranda class starship. I’d go on about the Klingon ships and your customization options…but I start feeling this emptiness and pain in my chest when I do. I’ll just say, there’s not much variety among Birds of Prey. You are the captain of your own ship and everyone else on board is an NPC. Don’t like you’re crew? Not to worry, they’re just another piece of equipment to be swapped out or leveled. My Ferengi captain was tooling around the Alpha quadrant with an all female crew; love it!
You’re stuck with that ship for about ten levels, at which point you get a newer, bigger ship and the customization process begins again, and then you’re stuck with that for another ten levels, and so on. And this is where STO fails. In most MMORPGs, WoW for example, when you gain a new piece of armor and equip it, it not only alters your stats but your avatar’s image as well. That way you can show off your super rare elite bird head helmet. In STO, items only alter your ship’s stats. So while you may have just picked up the rarest photon torpedo in the game, no one will ever know unless you shoot them.
This actually kills some of the thrill you get playing a MMORPG. There’s no real positive reinforcement for you to keep playing. Your ship is your ship until you get a new one, and while you can customize it a bit, so can everyone else. Cryptic already broke the whole idea of sticking to Star Trek canon by allowing you to alter your ship’s appearance (how many Constitution class starships had racing stripes?), so why not make unique items available for tough quests? I know I would have ground my way through a thousand Borg cubes just to get an item that would make my Galaxy class ship look like it had been partially assimilated.
As I mentioned earlier, ship combat is where this game really shines. It’s actually fun and it feels just right. These are big ships and they’re going to move a bit slowly. Battles involve trying to position your ship in just the right spot while trying to keep your shields in line with incoming fire. You can divert power from engines to shields or to weapons or etc and you can control where the shield power goes. Is that Romulan Warbird off of port giving you trouble? Divert engine power to the port shields to block the incoming fire. My only issue with the ship combat system is that you often end up spinning around your target while they’re trying to turn out of your line of sight, with both ships practically touching. This can get pretty aggravating and the battle will stretch past being fun and on into the region of “damned boring”.
Ground combat (ie: away missions) is fairly generic. You lead a group of four NPCs and run around a planet or research base killing Klingons or whatever’s standing in for them that mission. There are non-combat away missions, but they tend to be either “run around the map activating these alien artifacts/computers/doodads” or “talk to these NPCs and get quizzed on what they said”. As far as game killers go, the away missions are STO’s Achilles heal. They’re dull, repetitive, and it feels like a different game that was stapled onto this one in a rush to meet deadline.
That’s my main concern with STO. It doesn’t feel finished. I’ve played a lot of MMORPGs from launch and I’ll admit that none of them are ready to go at launch. Some like Hellgate: London feel like a major part of the game needs to be redesigned. Others like Star Wars Galaxies just felt like they needed a little extra polishing. STO seems to fall in the middle there. The ground combat needs either a redesign or a lot of polishing, and they need to figure out how they’re going to keep the players coming back.
The game lacks that element of exploration and diplomacy that really defines Star Trek. There are a few nebulous regions where worlds randomly spawn and this is STO’s attempt at adding an element of exploration, but the quests these planets provide tend to be either “kill the (insert bad guys here) surrounding/on the planet” or “bring us ten generators/food crates/weapons/medical supplies (all of which can be bought back at Earth Starbase).” As for the diplomatic aspect to the franchise, Picard would shed a tear.
While this isn’t the worst Star Trek game to come out, it’s also not the best. Star Trek, like Batman, is one of those franchises that has been cursed with some pretty bad games. While Arkham Asylum changed that for Batman, we’ve yet to see the game that finally meets the task of recreating the Star Trek experience in an interactive form. Will this voyage last five years, or will it go the way of Enterprise? Who knows?
My advice is to wait six months. If Cryptic’s fixed the current problems with the game by then (a good possibility), then STO just might be worth playing. However it’s just as likely that in six months it’ll be gone. If you’re a Trekkie looking for a decent Star Trek game, and don’t mind sitting through the growing pains of a MMORPG right after launch, then give this game a try. Otherwise, go buy a copy of WoW and enjoy it until Star Wars: The Old Republic comes out next year. But if you do…email me first, cause there might be a zebra-unicorn in it for me.
I want that damned zebracorn!