After years of television series, books, cartoons, movies, and video games for both consoles and PCs, Star Trek faces the final frontier: the massively-multiplayer role-playing game.
When Star Trek Online was first officially announced back in June of 2008, fans of the series were excited, cautious, and slightly nauseous, all at the same time. The prospect of a massively-multiplayer Star Trek universe had so much potential, but just as much potential to get things horribly, horribly wrong.
There were so many questions. When would it take place? Would we be captains? Crew members? Could we play aliens? How would transporters work? One by one, developer Cryptic Studios answered the questions, and today we have our first, (somewhat) fully functioning Star Trek MMO.
Did Cryptic's boldly going pay off, or have they gone where no man has gone before, and for good reason?
(As part of our new MMO format, I created a series of four weekly MMO Logs for Star Trek Online, to give readers an idea of how much of the game I've played coming into this review. If you've yet to read them, you know what to do. If you have, then continue on.)
Character Creation: Cryptic proved its mastery over the character creation process with both City of Heroes and Champions Online, and while you won't find much in the way of coloured spandex here, you will find enough character creation options to keep you occupied for quite some time. Would you like a short, squat Klingon? A tall, lanky Ferengi? Done and done. Choose from a nice selection of pre-established races, or go in-depth, creating your own custom alien race, injecting some of your own fiction into the Star Trek universe.
Space Combat: Star Trek Online shines when you're dancing ship-to-ship. Cryptic has found a nice balance between the strategic combat of Starfleet Command and more arcade-style space shooters like Wing Commander, with an innovative way of granting players the sort of special powers you'd find in your average fantasy MMO. The space combat system manages to represent the power management and shield balancing of starship combat in such a way that players new to the series can easily understand it, and using your bridge officers' special skills to enhance your combat performance was a brilliant move on Cryptic's part. They've managed to make me feel like a Starfleet bad-ass, charging into battle with photon cannons blazing, while making sure I still fight in a strategic manner, as befitting a starship captain.
Star Trek Flavor: This isn't a generic space MMO with Star Trek graphics laid over top. The developers of Star Trek Online have gone out of their way to make sure that every mission, from the shortest escort trip to long, convoluted episodic missions, is completely steeped in Star Trek lore. Not only will you find familiar friends and foes at every turn, the game carries over many of the themes of the franchise as well, subtle (and not-so-subtle) current-day political commentary included. From the moment you log in until your forehead bangs onto your desk from exhaustion, you're living Star Trek.
Intricate Systems: While many of today's MMO games are going the way of World of Warcraft, simplifying the game for the sake of more casual players, I come from the Anarchy Online school of MMO mechanics, where you have to use advanced math in order to dress yourself. While Star Trek Online doesn't quite reach that level of intricacy, there's still a whole lot of micro-management for the player to handle. You maintain your character's inventory and skills, the inventory and skills of each crew member, and the weapons, devices, and consoles attached to your ship. As you get deeper into the game you may find yourself cultivating separate sets of bridge officers for different situations, or even keeping a stable of different ships, depending on what sort of content you'll be participating in and what role you'll be playing. I've had moments where I've logged on, spent an hour swapping around equipment, and then logged off, and I'm completely satisfied with that.
The Ships: You could put any avatar in a Star Trek uniform and suddenly they're a Starfleet officer. The real characters in Star Trek Online are the ships. Star Trek Online's starships are gorgeous creatures, lovingly rendered with painstaking attention to detail, and given to the players, who can then mix and match parts from several different styles to create their own personal star-spanning ride. Every new rank (10 levels, more or less) you are given your choice of new ships, and every time it happens you hate to see the old one go almost as much as you love the look and feel of the new, more powerful model. I love my ship more than I love some of my pets.
Auto-Party: As talkative as I can be once you get to know me, I'm actually a rather shy person around strangers. Having spent the majority of my MMO-playing days surrounded by friends eager to join up for adventure, it's hard for me to form my own party with people I don't know. That's why I love Cryptic's auto-join feature. When questing in popular areas, this option automatically groups you with others on the same mission, which greatly enhances the risks and rewards. Sometimes you'll find new friends, and sometimes you'll go through multiple mission branches, never saying word one to your newfound teammates. The system has its ups and downs, but I like never having to shout 'Looking for group!'
Repetition: After you play the game for a while, you'll start to notice certain patterns. You might find yourself in a generic starbase that looks exactly like three other starbases you've visited recently. Warping into a strange, unexplored system loses some of its weight when you immediately recognise the pattern of asteroid field in front of you, knowing that the station you are looking for is at the very end, because you've done the same thing several times over.
Ground Combat: While the ground combat in Star Trek Online didn't wind up quite as horrible as I thought it might, it still leaves something to be desired, especially when compared to the dazzling space combat. Missions on the ground are played out with you and a host of NPC bridge crew members, some of which wind up not being quite as helpful on the ground as they are on the bridge. I can't count how many times I've sprinted through a base to reach an objective, only having to wait for around a minute once I arrive while my crew tries to navigate the corridors to my position. Ground combat is also fairy repetitive. While equipment kits help ease the tedium, giving your character new powers and skills to fool around with, fighting on the ground generally involves kneeling, spamming your primary fire hotkey until the group of enemies is dead, and then moving on to the next. There are some strategic options for positioning your crew, but I haven't found occasion to use them yet.
It's Not Finished: Star Trek Online is a game that would have definitely benefitted from several more months of polishing before release. Bugs and broken missions are regular occurrences, and I often find myself swept into fleet actions - large, instanced battlefields with tons of enemies - without pressing the key normally required to join one, an issue that needs to be fixed before Cryptic decides to impose stricter death penalties.
On top of the bugs and the broken bits, the Klingon faction's focus on PVP at launch is a fancy way of saying that the faction's story content wasn't finished yet. Cryptic is addressing this with a major content patch in March, but why release the side at all if it wasn't all there?
While Star Trek Online might not be as finished a product as I'd like, it does have several things going for it. The developers obviously have a firm grasp on the Star Trek universe, crafting content that speaks not only of their knowledge of the franchise, but their reverence for it as well. The game manages to twist common MMO mechanics in such a way that you always feel like you're the captain of a starship, and not just some Elven rogue with a high-tech makeover. The music is lovely as well.
But by far the biggest thing Star Trek Online has going for it is the fans. Star Trek Online has given Trekkies far and wide a place to come together, sharing their thoughts and feelings about the beloved series while playing out the dream of piloting a giant model spaceship across a field of painted stars on a black backdrop. You'll still find the odd Captain Cannabis of the U.S.S. Blunt during your travels across the stars, but for the most part you'll be hanging out at one constant online Star Trek convention, minus the unusual smells.
Star Trek Online was developed by Cryptic Studios and published by Atari for the PC on February 2. Retails for $US39.99 USD, with a monthly subscription of $US14.99 required for play. A copy of the game was given to us by the publisher for reviewing purposes. Read our Star Trek MMO Logs for information on how and how long the game was played.
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