The early press-access only hour on the PAX 2009 show floor was the perfect time to get behind the wheel of a Federation starship with Cryptic's Star Trek Online.
What Is It? It's the the future of the Star Trek universe as a massively multiplayer online game. Romulus is destroyed, the Klingons hate the Federation again, but they are still boldly going all over the place.
What We Saw I got to take a spin in the generically named U.S.S. Light Cruiser, journeying to the Penn'Arc VI system where I did battle with several Klingon Bird of Prey squadrons before taking the battle to the planet's surface with my away team, fighting my way to a certain iconic talking time gateway.
How Far Along Is It? It's hard to tell how far along it is at the moment, as this was obviously a special demo created just for the show. They've just announced registrations for the closed beta test, so obviously Cryptic is far enough along that they are getting ready to begin allowing people into the universe to try things out.
What Needs Improvement? Ground-Based Combat: While the starship combat portion of the game felt pretty satisfying, something about the ground-based combat didn't feel nearly as polished. Perhaps the fact that an NPC away team accompanies you on ground missions threw me, as I'm more used to being one avatar in a world of other avatars. It just seems like there's a great deal going on that I had no direct control over. It could take some getting used to.
What Should Stay The Same? Ship-Based Battles: Cryptic has chosen an interesting route to maintaining the Star Trek look and feel in space combat. Rather than go with full 3D ship movement, vessels move on a plane, able to climb and descend without ever actually going inverted. One would think it would be limiting, but it it helps the combat feel tactical and less chaotic...and definitely more Star Trek. How many times have you seen an upside-down shot of the Enterprise?
Crew Support: Having members of your ship's crew act as powers during space combat is a brilliant idea. Through combat you level your various officers, who appear with buttons next to their faces in the use interface during ship combat. The officers have different skills that are represented as skills during battle. One might be particularly good with energy systems, allowing you to regenerate shields faster than normal, while another allows you to empty all of your torpedo tubes in one large burst. It marries the standard MMO skill hot keys with the Star Trek universe in a rather ingenious way.
Ships of the Line: I spent several minutes at the beginning of my hands-on simply panning around the U.S.S. Light Cruiser, admiring the 3D construction of the vessel. Close attention has been paid to making sure that the ships in the game, both established and new, maintain the classic Star Trek look and feel. customisation options are there for those wishing to make the experience a little more personal, but strict limits keep players from going overboard. Don't worry - there won't be any pink Federation starships. Yes, I asked.
Final Thoughts AS a Star Trek fan for far longer than I'd like to admit, I was pleased with what I saw of Star Trek Online, to a point. Cryptic has displayed a great deal of respect for the property, which shows in the graphical design, interface elements, and some of the odd design choices they've made in order to keep the feel of the franchise intact. I just hope the away team mechanic doesn't end up being an example of how their reverence for the series backfired.