Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Star Trek Online, Preview


The open Beta for Cryptics new Star Trek Online (henceforth STO) MMO has finished with a massive Borg Invasion. As an action loving Andorian captain I was looking forward to the final battle. Sadly I was informed by Star Fleet that I would be in charge of the defense of Risa.


However, it gave me the time to collect my thoughts about the new game, and convey them to those of you who might be considering a stint as an officer in the fleet. So I figured I’d give you the run down on how we roll in Star Fleet, with advice that should help you decide if the game is for you.

The Story So Far

The story is set in the canonical Star Trek universe. That means that the events of the recent J.J. Abrams 2009 Star Trek movie are not in play. Actually the events of the movie have taken place, but in the STO universe Spock and Nero disappeared into the singularity created by the Red Matter and Spock is presumed dead by the Federation.

The setting is 30 years after the events of Star Trek: Nemesis. The STO website has a number of articles explaining the events which occurred after the death of Praetor Shinzon. In summary:

  • Romulus was destroyed by the Hobus Supernova, billions of Romulans were killed
  • As a result, the Romulans are in a state of disarray
  • The Remans have splintered and formed their own government. More or less as Shinzon had wanted
  • Most of the surviving Romulans have gone into diaspora and a massive fleet was reported heading coreward (towards the center of the galaxy.)
  • The Cardassian homeworld was devastated by the end of the war with the Dominion, and they have been rebuilding with the help of the Federation
  • The Klingon Empire has decided to take advantage of the resulting power shifts and begun absorbing nearby factions.
  • The Gorn, Naussicans and Orion Syndicate are now satellites of the Klingon Empire.
  • Not all Klingons want war with the Federation, but it is unclear how that will play out.

Yes, that is the short version. But hey, it is thirty years.

Picking Sides (But Not Really)

You might expect that the game of Star Trek Online is one of factions between the United Federation of Planets, and the Klingon Empire. In fact that is true, but don’t expect to start playing that way. In fact you cannot create a Klingon character until you have first gotten past fifth level as a Federation player. In other words, you must start a Federation player no matter where your allegiance may lie.

A big reason for this is that the Klingon faction is almost entirely about PvP. From what I hear the Klingon faction is entirely PvP as there is virtually no PvE content for them. There has been a great deal of debate on the wisdom of that decision, but it is how things are in STO.

Picking Your Species

Ok, so you must start as Federation. That means you will have nearly a dozen different alien species to choose from. Including Human, Andorian, Bolian, Trill, Vulcan and Bajoran to name a few. There are some racial bonus’s for each species, but the choice is almost entirely one of taste for the player.

There is also an option to create your own Race, which gives you an enormous number of physical characteristics to choose from. If you’ve played Cryptics City of Heroes/Villains or Champions Online you will be familiar with the almost overwhelming character customization options.

Once you’ve chosen your species and created your character you will get to run through the games tutorial mission which will familiarize you with the mechanics of movement and combat (both on the ground and in space). Unfortunately there is only one Tutorial mission, and the different species all share the same opening to the game. I won’t spoil the story for those who are interested in playing the game.

Your Orders, Captain?

You play a Star Fleet captain, but you start as an Ensign. Note that in the same tradition as most of the world’s navies, the commander of a ship is called “Captain” no matter what his/her rank. The leveling system works by grades and ranks. To start there are ten grades per rank, and five ranks. You start as an Ensign, but in the thick of battle you quickly get your own ship to command and are promoted to Lieutenant grade 1. At Lieutenant Grade 11 you will be promoted to Lieutenant Commander grade 1. And so it goes. Lt., Lt. Commander, Commander, Captain, Admiral for a total of 50 grades or levels.

But STO is a skill based game rather than level based. As such you get Skill points for completing missions, defeating opponents and performing some other tasks. As you gain skills, you can pick attributes to improve. Such as engineering skills to help your ship repairs, or tactical leader for ground combat skills. There are a host of skills to use, and each Rank has new skills that open up.

You cannot be promoted until you spend a certain number of skill points. So gaining Grades comes from getting skill points, but gaining a new Rank comes from actually spending the points. This means you can’t simply horde skill points to use at a later Rank.

Your Ship, Captain!

STO is made up of two distinctly different tactical games: Ground combat/missions and Space combat/missions.

Ground missions are easy to understand. Your character runs around, interacting with NPC’s and occasionally doing battle with ground based NPC’s. Phasers, disruptors, tricorders and various other familiar tools are at your disposal. In addition to yourself, you can form a landing party from members of your Bridge crew and/or other players. This is one of the interesting parts of STO. Over the course of your career you will get to bring on board NPC characters as Bridge Officers (BOs). These come in three varieties: Engineers, Science and Tactical Officers. Each has its own special skills which you can use.

When you form a landing party you may choose up to three other characters to accompany you for a total party of four. Those other three can be your NPC Bridge Officers and/or players from other ships. If you have insufficient officers for a Landing party, you may fill the spots with security personnel (aka, red shirts).

For the most part the NPC’s act independently and will help you appropriately. Science officers can heal party members, or debuff the opponents. Engineers can build phaser turrets, shield generators, etc. Tactical officers can improve your teams offensive capabilities as well as dealing out greater damage. You can also issue direct orders to one, some or all of the NPC’s to get the job done. Unlike pets in other MMOs, Bridge Officers can take and deal out damage just as well as the Player can. They are very effective party members and can make or break missions.

Red Alert! All Hands to Battle Stations!

Space combat is where STO differs from just about any other MMO you may have played. And it is a big part of the game. In space you have to think moderately 3D. While ships cannot perform full 360 degree loops or any kind of Roll maneuver, there is still a lot to think about while taking on opposing fleets. And you are the captain of one ship.

As opposed to ground missions where you can take a landing party you have only one ship to take on any number of opposing ships. Your bridge crew will be available as special powers or skills which can be called upon to reinforce shields, improve torpedo damage or run for cover when you need it. Selecting the right bridge crew members and skills can be an important part of Space combat.

Space combat can get frantic, and victory often goes to the captain who can keep a lot of balls in the air at once. You need to concentrate on applying fire to the enemy where he is weakest. At the same time you need to monitor your own shields to make sure you don’t come up short. And on top of that your weapons each have specific firing arcs, so you need to orient yourself to keep maximum firepower on the opponent. It sounds tougher than it is, as the interface provides plenty of feedback and several easy ways to do everything.

Still, if there is any one part of the game that will weed out the people who like the game from those who don’t, it is space combat. For many people the complexity of 3D combat will prove to be more than they want to take on for entertainment. The good news is that a typical battle can take several minutes, and it is rare that a single mistake will mean defeat.

But This Is The Fleet

On the other hand, you can and will have situations where other players can help you with space combat. Several ships can form a squadron, and some special encounters will require fleets of many ships. STO makes this easy by auto grouping people in some situations to make sure the missions are at least doable. It’s actually pretty seamless and I never felt like I was being forced to play with others even in those situations where that did happen. I spent most of my time soloing, but really appreciated entering a zone and finding others who I was auto-teamed with on the same mission. You can turn off the “auto-teaming” feature, but I recommend giving it a try if you play.

All players start off with a basic frigate for their ship. It is light, moderately fast and deals a fair amount of damage. It has limited crew stations and room for only one rear and two forward firing weapons. After gaining the Lt. Commander rank you can start picking specialized vessels. The first set breaks into three types: Cruisers are essentially tanks dealing less damage but able to take heavy punishment and keep flying. Escorts are smaller and faster ships which can deal lots of damage, but take less themselves. Think of the Escort as the DPS of the trio. Science Vessels are intended as support ships. They can extend their shields to help protect other ships in their party for instance.

Shore Leave

STO is not all combat and missions. There are a number of Spacedocks and some planets at which you can rest, refit and even acquire upgrades to your ship as you level. Many missions start out at Spacedocks, and you can find other players to group up with if you are into that. Some familiar places are available: Earth Spacedock, Deep Space 9, K7 on the Klingon border and the R&R hotspot of Risa.

Some locations are not open for players. Earth being the most notable. There is no way to beam down to the human homeworld. Other locations serve different purposes. The Federation research and development center on Memory Alpha is where players go to barter collectible items found around the galaxy for upgrades and new equipment. Only a portion of this system was available during Beta, and most agreed it is no substitute for crafting systems available in other MMOs.

Beam Me Up

This is a preview, and I wont’ give STO a final grade until I’ve had a chance to play the finished product for awhile. What I did like was the real look feel and sounds of the future universe as imagined by Gene Roddenberry and his faithful followers.

There aren’t any really big “aha” moments in the game, but there are lots of little moments that make you feel like you are in that universe. For instance, the first time you fire a photon torpedo and hear that very recognizable echoing FOOM, you will know where you are. Transporters, phasers, warp nacelles and even Tribbles will make the Trekkies and Trekkers very comfortable.

What is missing is hard to know until the complete game is available. There are some places where you stop and say “Ok, this was contrived to make the game more playable.” However, I am a fan of playability, and while some of those moments may lower the emersion it doesn’t break the fun factor for me. I didn’t participate in any PvP combat, and probably won’t when the game goes live either.

As an avid MMO player who watched the original Star Trek series before they were re-runs I’ve been anticipating this game for a long long time. So I will be playing it.

Oh, and if you decide to join me, no need to ask which server I am on. Like Champions Online, there is only one server. Although each “zone” has many instances (or shards) to ease the load, it is still very easy to get together with friends.

Don’t hesitate to contact me via sub-space communications if you have specific questions. Or just send me an email.

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