Review: Star Trek Online (PC)

Star Trek Online
Developer: Cryptic Studios
Publisher: Atari
Genre: MMORPG
Release Date: 02/02/2010

One of those games that seems to have met a successful resurrection from development hell, Star Trek Online has had its up and downs before it was unleashed on the public from the somewhat controversial Open Beta. With a ton of different buy in options depending on which store you bought it from, your initial experience with the game could be very different from someone else’s, but after the initial ooo and ahhh’s that come with a shiny new Star Trek game, will this continue to impress like my favorite Starfleet Command II, or will it sink like a stone like the promising looking but terribly executed Shattered Universe?

Story/Modes
Set a few decades after Star Trek Nemesis, and incorporating events that happened in the last Star Trek film, specifically the Romulan homeworld being wiped out in a supernova, this is in the Prime Star Trek continuity and not the Alternate created by Nero going back in time. Still following me with all these realities being tossed around? Well it doesn’t matter. I can sum it up for anyone to follow. Species 8472, also known as the Udine, have infiltrated the Alpha Quadrant, the Klingons are after them but to do that they had to invade Gorn and Naussican territory which upset the Federation. So now the Klingons and the Federation are on the brink of war as well as having problems with the Udine, the leftovers from the Romulan Empire, Gorn and Nausican mercenaries and the ever present Orion pirates. Oh and did I mention the Borg are paying a visit again?

The Federation Campaign (which everyone starts with as you have to play to level 6 to unlock the Klingon Campaign) starts with you as an ensign on a ship involved in a Borg incursion. Things aren’t going well in the battle, and your captain sends you over to a ship that’s being overrun to help them out. This breezes the way for the tutorial to teach you how to play the game as far as ground combat goes. You help out the ship in distress and beam back to your ship, only to find you’ve suddenly become the ranking officer. Reporting back to Starfleet, it seems you impressed an Admiral with your actions in the field and are getting an acting captain role on a light cruiser.

From there, it’s like most MMOs, and the story is encapsulated within most of the missions or quests, called episodes here, where you explore different areas, help out ships in trouble and rid sectors and systems of unwanted Klingons, Romulans, Borg, Gorn, etc. Some of the missions do have an over-arcing storyline that tie into each other, but they are spread out a bit, like the few times you have to work with or help out a certain half-blooded Klingon with the last name of Paris, who the Klingons think could help lead them to victory. She doesn’t want any part of that, being in Starfleet. Some old faces make an appearance, from the Doomsday Machine and the Guardian of Forever in the original series to the Borg and technology in the last few movies. The developers at Cryptic have done their Star Trek homework.

But does it have that Star Trek story-telling feel? Yes and no. Most MMOs are all about a combat-driven story, and up until recently with the re-imagined Star Trek film, most Trek stories led up into the combat or conflict; it didn’t dominate the whole story. Your bridge crew does give updates, you interact a bit with NPCs, and there are exploration missions that try to maintain what Trek was all about, but at the end of the day this is an MMO. While it has some of the look and feel, people looking for that Star Trek story-telling experience aren’t going to get it here. At least not with the Federation’s side anyway. It’s darker and harsher than Trek’s been in a while. The Klingon end of things, well, that’s a different story. Playing as a Klingon, an MMO setting is perfect because Klingons are all about war and honor and blowing things to hell. So you have to remember that going into it.

It isn’t all PvE either, although that’s more the Federation Campaign’s focus as they have a ton of episodes and ships to unlock. The Klingon end of things is fairly sparse, and while I haven’t gotten a chance to really get into it, it’s the side to go for PvP. I’ve also seen Klingon players slink into Federation areas and hop into complicated Federation missions and start wreaking havoc by attacking Federation players involved with the Borg. Kind of annoying if you’re on the Federation end of things, but that’s what Klingons do.

Story/Modes Rating: Very Good

Graphics
There’s kind of a dichotomy with this game. On one end, the space battles look amazing, and the space stations and ship interiors look pretty good, but lack a certain feel – more on that in a moment. Where the problem kicks in is the sparse landscape of the planets you go to. Most of them are quite lacking in, well anything. Even the planets that are established in Trek lore like Vulcan and Risa, most players leave them feeling like it was a wasted trip. Then there’s the shadow glitches everywhere that make you feel like you’re in some kind of horror movie where the ground just goes blank.

Let’s start with what I thought could use some work and end on a happy note with what I thought looked amazing. Most planets you beam down to are going to be sparse. There will be scattered buildings, maybe some dust or snow effects, but there’s not much there. The ground is fairly well textured, but there’s not much else there. It just looks half done. Dungeons and Dragons Online had this in some of their quests as well, but for the most part everything looked pretty good. Same with Guild Wars. There’s no reason that the area couldn’t have more detail in it, even in an MMO, and most of the ground areas really needed that extra bump up.

Ship and Starbase interiors, while having the look you find in most of the films and series, are HUGE. Everything feels so over-sized that it’s lost that feel of being in a Star Trek environment and instead feels like something out of Star Wars. From a Trek fans perspective, it just feels off. The bridges do look pretty decent, but again are ginormous when they typically haven’t been in any previous incarnation. I can see it in the star bases, but this huge ceiling concept just doesn’t work on a starship level. Yeah, I’m geek nitpicking, but if something is supposed to be set in a certain universe that look and feel should carry over and it doesn’t, not the way it should anyway.

By now you’re probably wondering just what I did think looked good. Character models look fantastic. The amount of customization, from colors, to different uniform set-ups, to creating a new alien look, hell even creating an established species. You have so many options that I spent almost an hour just creating the perfect character to play. The texturing and detailing on the characters is superb, especially from an MMO standpoint. I can’t fault them here. Same goes with starship design. When you take your ship to a spacedock, or even the first time you get a new ship or class of ship, you can go in and change out hulls, nacelles, the paint job, etc and end up with a mishmash of ship parts that still look like something out of Star Trek, but are uniquely your own.

Outside of your craft, where you’ll be spending most of your play time, things look amazing. You’ve got a decently laid out travel area that looks interesting and has that inside the ship’s navigation room feel only you’re seeing your ship and that’s how you move about. When you’re in combat, ground or space, the weapon effects look great and feel like they’re right out of the shows. And when you drop out of warp into a new space system, some of them can just take your breath away with how good they look, until you start getting shot at anyway. Space combat and travel looks great and I really enjoyed this end of things visually. The ships look fantastic and when everything is going on in a space battle is where you see the graphics engine shine in this game. I know I spent a lot of time commenting on the ground areas, and they could have used some work, especially when much older MMOs can outshine this game there, but space is the place.

Graphics Rating: Very Good

Sound
You’re not going to find much voice-acting in this MMO. There is some, provided from both actors to play Spock, Leonard Nimoy and Zachary Quinto and a few others. Zachary Quinto provides the voice of the new Emergency Medical Hologram, a revamped version of the one from Voyager, as well as a few other voices that were not disclosed. He does a passable job, but I would have preferred the return of Robert Picardo as the EMH. He had that deadpan and sassy feel that is just lacking from the new EMH. Leonard Nimoy is narrating and tells you about different events that are going on as you move into new areas. You can even get a hail or two from him in one mission involving the Guardian of Forever. Speaking of the Guardian, he still talks like he did in the original Trek run, so be prepared to cringe. It was a nice inclusion but only older Trek fans that liked the original series will get a kick out of it. The ones that jumped in with Next Gen and the others will probably be scratching their heads.

Sound effects wise, all the beeps and whistles are there. The hum of the warp drive, the pounding of the torpedoes as they launch and connect with their target, the hiss of the phasers, yeah it’s all there and sounds lifted straight from the show. One voice over I thought worth mentioning is the ship’s computer. I don’t know if it’s the late Mrs. Roddenberry or not, but if it isn’t they got someone that sounds remarkably like her for the computer’s voice which you hear during combat announcing you’re under attack, or if your shields are down or if the enemies shield is down. You get the idea.

Musically, this game has its ups and downs. Most of the themes are variations on themes Trek fans will have heard before, especially some of the combat themes and when you warp into a new area or complete an episode that fanfare will be very familiar. There are new themes as well, and some are very fitting with the combat oriented nature of the game, sliding in just when they’re needed. There is one them however that makes me cringe. Just one. The rest are fantastic, but this one piece just gnaws at me and you hear it on and off as the game cycles through different themes. It has a gentleman singing along with the ups and downs of the music and I don’t know if it’s his voice or just the cheese inducing factor of that one part that gets me to want to turn off my speakers for a bit. It’s meant to be operatic and just fails miserably. This is my former band geek talking. The rest of the music really is well done as is the rest of the sound design.

Sound Rating: Great

Control and Gameplay
There are two control schemes for the game and they are very responsive and work quite well. Despite the ground mission’s shortcomings, the controls for this are sound and do work quite well. Think of the ground controls like a 3rd person action title or shooter, where you use the WASD combination to move. Like most MMOs you have a skill bar for your own weapons and abilities. Double-tapping a direction key lets you dodge in that direction to get out of the way of incoming attacks and hitting the shift key sets you into a sprint run. The mouse you use to look around and it also controls your basic attacks, like firing your phaser or disruptor and for short range the rifle butt or other melee weapon. Spacebar also helps you jump. In most terrains you won’t need it, but there are a few where it comes in handy.

If you beam down to a planet with a friend, you’ll be sharing bridge officers, well depending on how many you came down with. Up to five are allowed in a landing party generally, and they have a status bar on your left side of the HUD. You can set rally points for your own bridge officers, set them to attack on their own and have them use their special abilities in combat, like build a turret or to heal. Your team’s AI can be a bit wonky at times as their pathfinding skills are suspect and you may end up having to go back for them and lead them around a small dip in the land or around a crate. There’s a reason you’re in charge and not them. Ground missions are a lot easier with a real person along, although you can run them solo, like any mission. Just be prepared for bridge officer antics when you play solo. It is pretty easy to just beam down with someone, they just have to be in your party (called a team) when you enter a star system and they go down with you.

There are a few types of ground missions, and very few puzzles. Most puzzles consist of finding a certain console to unlock a door, or searching out that one mysterious plant or tech. Not really all that challenging. The only one even close to challenging on that end was the conversation one where you’re negotiating between the miners and the mine owners. Even then it wasn’t negotiating, it was just remembering what they wanted when the owner had a trivia session with you. So players looking to explore the universe might want to avoid these missions. They’re a bit more than dull and tedious and you won’t need a friend for these. The other type is combat. This one can be tedious as well as swarms of enemies descend on you and you have to defend yourself. If you don’t have someone to generate a shield or a turret these battles can take awhile as you duck for cover to heal up and go at it again. The combat missions have some variety, from securing a landing zone by taking out a number of enemies, to tactical strikes going in to take out communications. Most of the ground combat is just moving from one spot to the next and eliminating every enemy on your map. Not a lot of thought to it.

Everyone on your ground team gets a weapon and can hold special items, like hypos and shield rechargers. Everyone also has their own personal shield and can equip armor and other various upgrades. By everyone I mean your character and your crew. There are three classes, Tactical, Engineering and Science officers. Tactical is your basic fighter and the class abilities reflect this. Engineers on the ground can build you turrets or big shields to fight in, and the science class can buff your party or debuff the enemy as well as heal. There is a bit of variety here, and different builds work better than others, but the right gear can overcome any build mistakes you’ve made.

Maneuvering your spaceship is about the same as moving around on the ground, only now you have a throttle control for your ship, and the WASD affect turns but also pitch and yaw. You still look around using the mouse and selecting targets can be done the same way, but firing is more effectively done with the HUD, as all your ship’s abilities and crew abilities can be easily accessed there. Moving through space is three dimensional and you will have to look around you as enemies can be above or below. The controls for this are very responsive, even flying the less maneuverable Cruiser class. Just don’t expect to turn on a dime if you’re using one of those. Weapons have firing arcs and ranges as well as recharge times. You can upgrade and change these out at any time. Usually combat isn’t the best time to do this though. You also have power level settings you can manage on your own, or use the pre-set attack, defend or speed settings which are pretty self-explanatory and work quite well. I don’t recommend going into combat set up for speed however. Your weapons won’t do enough damage and you’ll get pounded into the ground. I’ve made that mistake more than once.

Space combat and exploration are really your two options for space encounters. Half the time your exploring will lead you into a combat situation. Exploring usually takes you to remote sectors on the map where you fly around scanning anomalies and going into unknown star systems. It can be a bit of fun, but can be a bit more dull than anything else. Maybe it’s more my play style. The combat missions are where the action is. You have several options for space episodes. You have the repeatable defend sectors missions where you go into three separate instances and destroy a number of enemies. You jump in with anyone who happens to be there and can work together but you don’t have to. There are also areas known as fleet actions. You don’t have to take your whole fleet in but up to 20 players can all jump in and complete the task, either space or ground or a combination of both. In these you get awarded rarer loot the more you contribute over the course of the action.

One of the nice mechanics I like about the regular episodes and not the space clearing or exploring episodes is the ability to jump in on an instance that already has someone there. You instantly party up with them, putting them on your team and giving you a hand if they come into your instance. Loot drops from ships and enemies that gets assigned to one player. The only thing you might have to fight for are collectibles you can scan marked areas for, but really it’s not that big a deal to lose that. You both end up profiting from it and it can make a long boring episode of combat move that much faster which is a beautiful thing if you’re trying to level faster.

The other type of episodes are not necessarily repeatable (I’ve come across a few that are if someone shares it with you) but can be long and drawn out and are the most rewarding in both terms of story-telling, getting involved in the action, as well variety within the episodes themselves. The one that is still memorable is the Guardian of Forever episode but there is a string of events throughout Federation space that lead up to that moment. It’s a wonderfully crafted episode that had me on the edge wanting to know what was going to happen next. It’s probably the closest I’ve come across to the actual feel of Star Trek within the game itself, and although it uses a ton of combat as you’re fighting Klingons the whole while, it also touches on a bunch of subjects at the same time, like what makes us what we are and is our destiny pre-defined. It actually uses Star Trek for what it was created for – to explore issues and what makes us what we are within the comfort of science fiction.

It’s just a shame there aren’t more missions like that one. There are some that are shorter that kind of fit the bill, but I’m still in my one level tier and probably won’t hit another one of those until I make my next rank. Speaking of ranks, you get new ships when you reach a new rank. The way you level up is you get points awarded for each episode you complete. You spend a certain amount of points to blow through a level and each tier is comprised of several levels, usually 10. The points can be spent based on your class and abilities, and the higher your rank, the more it costs to upgrade abilities. Once you’ve hit that next tier you get to pick out a new ship.

Ships come in a few varieties. Some are basic cruisers, designed to house more engineers, the science vessels hold more science personnel, and the tactical cruisers, or escorts, hold more tactical personnel. Your bridge crew levels up as you do, or rather gets points as you do. Whether they’re ready to level or not depends on if you upgrade them or not. They can never be the same rank as the player. Depending on which class of ship you pick determines how many of which type of crew you can have active on the bridge. Their rank abilities on the ship are also determined by the class. For example, I have a Cruiser. It has two engineer slots, one of which lets me have a Lt. and the other an ensign. Even if I raise the rank of the ensign to Lt. he will not have access to his second tier abilities while I’m out in my ship. Planet-side is another story. You also don’t have to stick to the ship type of your class.

My main character is a Tactical Officer. I didn’t go with the Escort ship. I went with a cruiser. Having more engineer’s means my ship in space combat is more robust and can take a beating as well as dish out the pain when I need to. Sure I’m slower than an escort, but I have more survivability. You can mix and match these, and some combinations work better than others but it gives some nice variety in gameplay styles.

Control and Gameplay Rating: Enjoyable

Replayability
I mentioned earlier that there are missions you can’t repeat, unless a friend or another player shares them. Other ones you an do ad nauseum. This is one of the first MMOs I’ve seen do it this way. So if you’re soloing the game a lot, and as I said you can, you could miss out on a mission until you take another character through. While the outcomes of the missions aren’t different, the play styles and who you’re playing with can dramatically change your experience playing. Playing through as a Tactical officer, you’re basically the warrior class from a fantasy MMO. You can be the damage dealer or the tank. Engineers would be the support class like a ranger, laying traps and boosting your team’s shields. Science officers on the ground are generally the medics and buffers, granting your team the boosts it needs and stripping them from the enemy.

So while the missions may play out the same, going into it as a different class can have a markedly different affect not only on your play style but your feel for the game and your role in an away team or a fleet engagement in space. Then there’s also playing through on the Klingon faction, which I found to be a bit sparse as far as PvE goes but would be right up the alley of a PvP player. The multiple options during character creation from your traits, to your appearance and abilities also bumps up the replayablility of the game. Hopefully as Cryptic puts in updates there will be even more missions and reasons to come back to the game, and if they add more playable factions, like the Romulans or the Cardassians it opens it up even more.

Replayability Rating: Incredible

Balance
One thing that comes along with any MMO, is a price. You have the initial cost of the game which usually comes with 30 days of free play and then after that a monthly fee. Star Trek Online has both of those but also has a lifetime subscription to the game available. But is it worth it? For a brand new MMO there does seem to be an appropriate amount of content, but is it quality content? Yes and no. The space engine and combat is very well executed and taking a ship into combat or even just flitting around a solar system is a lot of fun to do. Then there’s the beam downs to the planet. Most of these aren’t a lot of fun and are a bit of a bear, but there are the hidden gems in the ground missions that are a lot of fun. The game still feels like it needs some work in that area, and even at some points in space combat where enemies will get stuck on asteroids. Right now I’d recommend finding a friend with a copy and getting him to share a buddy code so you can try it out before you buy it. I’m being harsh on it, but I am having a lot of fun playing it. I’m just being honest that it needs some work.

The other issue is difficulty. In the MMO world when you die, it’s not game over. They have some kind of respawn system, or way to revive yourself or your party if you wipe. In DDO it was shrines, in Guild Wars there were respawn points. Here it’s a timer. 15 seconds after you blow up your ship you can pop back in the action at the nearest respawn point, fully healed with no penalties. Ground combat is similar, but if you’re down you can ask for help and someone can come by and revive you instead of popping back to a respawn point. This is all well and good, but it ends up making some missions really easy to complete. I have no fear about taking on missions that are a bit above my level, because really, it doesn’t cost me anything. I can just keep coming back after whatever killed me until it’s dead as well. So really, the difficulty level at the ensign rank is really what you’re looking at for the rest of the game. The episodes do get a bit more complex to get through, and playing against another person in PvP is another story altogether, but the challenge doesn’t really seem to increase all that much. It gets even easier playing with another person, but you could easily solo the game with just you and your bridge crew. It’d be boring but you can do it.

Balance Rating: Mediocre

Originality
While Star Trek isn’t an original property, the way Cryptic has handled it gives the some credibility with the originality rating. Instead of simply revisiting old characters in the universe, we get to play with new characters in the universe and in entirely new situation. Being set 30 years after Star Trek Nemesis gave them a lot of latitude as far as where they can go. Sure there are some familiar faces, like Spock, Paris, and Sulu (a descendent), as well as some appearances by original characters from the novels, like Mackenzie Calhoun, but for the most part they’ve done their homework and come up with new characters to interact with in some familiar (Deep Space Nine), and unfamiliar locales that have either been mentioned in the films or just seen as a blip on a map during a briefing.

There is a ton of fan service here, including the old Constitution refit as well as a new version that has a very similar silhouette but fits in with the Next Generation ships better. The designs on the uniforms are new, or you can use some of the old designs. There’s been some nice liberties taken with the designs that actually fit well into the Trek Mythos as it was headed before Paramount took it back to the original series with the latest film. On the other hand, most of the missions involve destroying everything on the screen and that’s that. No puzzles, no having to really figure something out, just blaze in and wipe everything off the screen. Looks like an enemy? Kill it! Kind of lacking considering other MMOs that are much older actually put some challenge and thought into it and didn’t just involve guns or swords blazing.

Originality Rating: Mediocre

Addictiveness
I’m finding I really get sucked into it, but it has that feel that I liked from StarFleet Command II in the space battles that kept me hooked. I find myself wanting to do one more mission, explore one more area, get one more rank. There is quite a bit to do, even if it can be the same thing over again. The repetition can get to you, but I’m also a Star Trek nerd who hasn’t had a good PC game in a long while. I wasn’t fond of the DAC game at all and this is more up my alley. The fact I get to play it with other Star Trek fans really adds to it. This probably won’t have the long term addiction other games have when I reach the admiralty, but right now it’s what I want to be doing, more or less. I get a Star Trek itch and a few hours later it’s scratched and I can move on to other things.

Addictiveness Rating: Great

Appeal Factor
It’s a flashy new MMO, and with the new Star Trek film getting so much attention it has the potential to be great. It just needs some work and regular updates to keep people playing it and once they get some things tweaked a bit word of mouth will spread. The game has been selling pretty well from what I’ve seen, but not a lot of people have been satisfied with it. If Cryptic can keep up the momentum on the title and keep people interested then I think they’ll have a long term hit on their hands and something they can keep developing and expanding for a while. Right now though there are some glitches and the ease of play may be putting off a lot of players looking to get an MMO challenge.

Appeal Factor Rating: Good

Miscellaneous
The game has some bugs. I’ve been stuck in a load screen that wouldn’t quit and had to exit the game and come back in, which cost me time on an episode as I ended up having to restart it entirely. I beamed down to one planet to have my entire away team drop into the ground except for me. I knew they were there because I could see their heads pop up every once in a while like little ground hogs looking for danger. When you swap targets in combat, like if there’s a target-able torpedo coming your way, sometimes it doesn’t swap and keeps firing at the same target so you get blasted with a high powered weapon you could have put a stop to. Then there’s the buggy team AI that has issues following you up hills or around crates. Or the enemy starship that gets stuck on an asteroid. There’s a ton of this going on.

On top of that are the graphical glitches. Shadows flicker on and off in some levels for no reason at all. Whole sections vanish until you move your mouse around and then they pop in again. This is more on the ground or in ship parts of the game than when piloting a starship. Most of these aren’t game breaking and are merely annoying but when something happens every time you play you tend to notice it.

With all the glitches and repetition in the game itself, one thing that I need to touch on though is the fact that I love playing this game. It has been and continues to be a ton of fun. More for the Star Trek fan in me that loves piloting and commanding my own ship and crew and figuring out where to go and what to do next. I honestly think that most non-Trek fans might enjoy it, but won’t get a ton of the references they make in the game to Star Trek’s history. Do they need to be Trek fans to enjoy it? No, but it would help.

Miscellaneous Rating: Decent

The Scores
Story/Modes Rating: Very Good
Graphics Rating: Very Good
Sound Rating: Great
Control and Gameplay Rating: Enjoyable
Replayability Rating: Incredible
Balance Rating: Mediocre
Originality Rating: Mediocre
Addictiveness Rating: Great
Appeal Factor Rating: Good
Miscellaneous Rating: Decent
FINAL SCORE: VERY GOOD GAME

Short Attention Span Summary
asheresize While I’ve enjoyed playing Star Trek Online, the ground combat and episodes involving them could use some sprucing up. The game has a half done feeling with these in and using your bridge crew when your friends aren’t on to play with you can be cringe-inducing. The space combat however is handled beautifully and almost makes up for what lacks in the ground combat. This is a bold experiment and it is a brand new MMO, but unless you really like the Federation, you’re not going to find a ton of content for the Klingon end of things. There are plenty of things to interest a die-hard Trek fan, even the ones that prefer the classic series (classic Constitution much?) to the more recent next gen era where the game is set. I don’t think the state of the game is going to keep it afloat with non-Trek fans that have joined in. It’s far too basic for most MMO fans. Like I said I’ve enjoyed it, but there isn’t a lot of challenge to it unless you’re doing missions way over your level, which you get docked experience for doing. I’d recommend it to Trek fans, but until some more enhancements are made to the game and more content is brought on board I think most MMO players will find more excitement elsewhere. If you have any doubts, and a buddy has the game, have them pop you a buddy code to give it a shot before you plunk down that hard earned cash.

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