So has the come time also for us mere mortals to comment on the first MMO venture into the Star Trek universe. Cryptic’s Star Trek Online (STO) is an interesting one for a few reasons – one is obviously the Star Trek universe itself and how it will be received by Trek fans. Another interesting part is that the game have been in development a relatively short time; Cryptic acquired the Star Trek game license in January 2008. With 2 years of effort compared to 5+ years that some other big MMO titles have taken, it will be interesting to see how it works out.
First of all, let me just say that I am not a big Star Trek fan. I do enjoy SciFi in general and I have seen a number of the Star Trek TV episodes and some of the movies, but it has never been among my favourites. How accurate STO may be in terms of lore etc is for others to comment on – I would not really know when it comes to details.
Second, whenever someone writes comments when an NDA is lifted on a game, it may be difficult to judge how much they have played the game, how often etc. In my case I have essentially played the game a few hours per week, the Saturday session Cryptic had, which was the only with sensible play times for Europeans. A bit more play time occurred when there also was a whole weekend available for play. All in all I guess I have spent 35-40 hours in the game since November, created 4 characters in total (3 Federation, 1 Klingon side) and the highest one reaching Lieutenant Commander grade 1. (Level 11 in traditional MMO terms). Most of the time was spent on that Lt Commander.
Starting with my overall impression of this game I think it is a nice game, but still in its infancy so to speak. Given the relatively short development time that is not that surprising, but I think it is an ok approach overall. I rather see a game release with a set of features the developers are relatively comfortable with and then evolve other game play aspects with feedback from the player community. However, I do think that this approach also requires some re-thinking of business models.
As with most MMOs to date, combat is an important aspect of the game and STO is no different. It is one of the dominating features of the game – which is really no surprise given the trailers that has been presented and Cryptic’s earlier MMOs – combat has always been an important part.
The second important part here is the customisation of various parts of the game – your character, your ships, your crew and your skills and your crew’s skills. This is not surprising either, again this is an area where Cryptic is on familiar ground.
The third important part are missions – things for players to do. There are a number of different types of missions in the game, both space-oriented, or on the ground or a mix of both. Most of them end up with some kind of combat at some point, but a few are more peaceful.
I do not know what stardate we are playing in, but it seems to be a few generations after some of the TV series. There are NPCs which are daughters and great-great grandsons etc of other characters which I guess are from some the TV series, but this is a topic for others to explore. Regardless of that, we play in a time where the Federation is at war with a number of other races/empires, including Klingons. Which of course was set up this way so there would be a motivation for the combat focus of the game. Enemies are everywhere!
Everyone starts off with the character creation as usual. This a quite neat part and there are plenty of options to play arround with. The options are perhaps not as excessive as in Champions Online or City of Heroes/Villains, but still quite versatile and probably in line with what Trek people may find acceptable lore-wise. (So no shark-headed Starfleet officers with wings in shock pink jumpsuit, wielding two katanas – go to Champions for that) You have the option to pick from a number of races present in the Star Trek universe and make some adjustments to these, or you can make your custom race and appearance. If you pick a predefined race you will also get two traits associated with that race, and you can then also pick 2 additional traits. If you go for a custom race you can pick all 4 traits.
A character have a choice of three different officer careers from start – tactical officer, science offer and engineering officer. The career choice does not affect gameplay greatly in the beginning and where it affects in the early parts it is primarly in ground combat. Each of these officer careers can then be specialised in three different paths, so in total there are 9 different variations.
The progression in the game is a mix of “levels” and skill advancement. While there are no explicit levels, there are ranks and grades, which for all practical purposes corresponds to levels in other games. There are 5 ranks in the game – Lieutenant, Lieutenant Commander, Commander, Captain and Admiral, if memory serves me right. In each rank there are 10 grades. A player starts as Lieutenant 1 and advances to Lieutenant 10, after that they get promoted to Lieutenant Commander 1 etc. There are some base capability increases with the different “levels” (at least as far as I got), but there is also a dependency on skill development.
For many activities like completing missions, combat etc there are various points earned – skill points, bridge officer skill points, starfleet merits and energy credits. Skill points go into advancing skills for yourself as well as bridge officers. The other merits and credits go into getting equipment, recruiting bridge officers, customise ships and crew etc. The rank and grade progression is tied to the skill points, so in a sense this could be called the “experience points” you get. As far as I understand it though, one will not stop getting skill points once reaching the highest rank and grade, so skills can continue to develop after that.
A certain skill is associated with a rank, so the character must have that rank in order to have and improve that skill. This is true both for player characters and bridge officers. There is a dimishing returns to the skill advancement within each rank, so spreading out skill points to a number of different (but useful) skills can be beneficial at start.
Every player starts with one ship which they command – the looks can be customised, but the general capabilities are the same for everyone. What it then can differe in is the different equipment put in the availabel slots and the bridge officers working on the ship. The starter ship has room for three bridge officers – one of each kind available (tactical, science and engineering) – one will fairly quickly get 3 officers through the early missions. I do not think there is a limit to how many bridge officers one can have (or it is sufficently high), so it is possible to train multiple officers, more than any ship can use. Their skill sets can differ though, so one can pick the crew that is suitable for the time being.
Also, one can also have many different ships. The first one in each tier/rank is almost free, but it is also possible to requisite additional ships for a higher fee – you can however only command one at a time. Once a player reaches Lieutenant Commander the ship options increase and there will be different ship types depending on which focus one selects fo the ship (tactical, science or engineering). This choice is separate from the character career choice.
Overall, there is a lot of customisation and options to fiddle around with when it comes to setting up ships, building the crew and your character. If you like that kind of thing then STO is right up your alley. Note though that most skill options are focused on combat – so you should probably enjoy the combat also.
Going into the combat part, there are two types of combat – ship/space combat and character/ground combat. These are two different combat systems and are also affected by different skills. In space combat you are controlling your space ship, its weapons and its shields. You also have some bridge officers assigned to the ship which can provide extra help in combat in the form of special abilities. Which abilities and how well they are performed depends on the type of officer and their training.
Different weapons, ships, special abilities and movement of the ship will all be relevant parts of the combat and which you need to keep track of. Are the front shields almost down? Redirect power from the other shields, turn on emergency power and/or turn your ship around so that other shields face the enemy – if they are just shooting from one direction, that is. The different weapons can have different capabilities and weapon types and also firing arcs. Often it is a compromise – high DPS and small firing arc, or lower DPS and wider firing arc.
It is a quite neat system and I think it is a lot of fun to play. It does provide a bit of that same type of action you see in TV episodes, redirecting power to shields, firing front torpedos etc. I think they have done well in capturing what seems to be the essence of Star Trek ship combat.
The character/ground combat is a quite different beast. You will pretty much always play as part of a team – either you and crew from your ship in an away team, or a mix of players and various crew members. So there will always be at least 5 characters – yourself and 4 crew members as a minimum. Similar to other systems with somewhat controllable NPCs, like Guild Wars henchmen/heroes, you set up which crew members to use, which equipment they should use etc.
Your character as well as the away team member NPCs can have different weapons and devices which control what they can do in combat. Combat thus does not depend on having a lot of sifferent skills, but rather use a few skills each and have a good synergy with the away team members. Positioning and movement also plays a significant role in combat – thinking about movement and position can be important. The combat pace is slower than other Cryptic games and intentionally so to give more time for tactical considerations. If you play solo you even have a pause button to stop the game for a short bit to think things though a bit before continuing. This can be useful before deciding how and where to put your away team members.
I do think the pause button is a brilliant feature, but not just for the tactical choices. It is simply great to have there if real life interferes – which it tends to do from time to time. The time is a bit limited though, but certainly much better to have something in place at least.
I think the ground combat is ok but seems to have some rough edges, although I cannot say I have explored it that much yet. Most of the combat I have done has been space combat. I am not sure if the somewhat jerky animations are intentional or not. I could imagine that they are, since it fits with how ground combat looked like in early TV episodes. But perhaps I am reading too much into it – Cryptic certainly can do better than what I have seen.
Looking at the next part are the missions. There are a number of different mission types. There are the story-oriented missions, which is perhaps a little bit like a TV episode – a rather self-contained story which go through a number of different stages in different areas – often a mix of ground and space activities. These play out rather well I think.
There are also something called patrol missions. This is essentially to visit a number of charted systems in a sector of space and complete a mission in each system. If one does not already have a mission for a certain system then a more generic mission is triggered. This is the types of missions that get closest to the old “kill ten rats” type of missions. Often it is a matter to defeat a number of enemy ship patrols, scan a certain number of objects or something similar. The intention for each of these generic missions are to be somewhat quick to do – perhaps 15-20 minutes.
Another type of mission are the “secure system space” missions. This is triggered by enemy points of contact spread out though the different space sectors, which transfers to an instanced area with many player ships. The task is then typically to defeat an enemy in the area. This works a bit like simple public quests/open missions – no need for explicit teams and everyone in the area gets credit when the common goal is reached. Time is typically a few minutes.
Another public quest/open mission type are the fleet actions. These are a bit more like fullfledged open missions going through multiple stages and these may also include both space and ground combat stages. Quite nice and fun, I think.
There are also a few different PvP-type missions/games. Similar to what you can do in Champions Online you can queue up for a PvP game/match anywhere and instantly get transferred when it is started. When it is done you get back to where you were. I tried one of the PvP matches and it was quite fun – the winner will be the side who can organise themselves the best IMHO.
A nice thing about missions in general is that since this is a modern/future setting, you can of course call your mission givers directly – no need to travel to them to turn in a mission, or ask if they have something for you.
But there is a but also – at least in the early stages of the game here there is not much variation in what you do when you go to a system. There is that default mission, which seems to be the same all the time. So not really any options to beam down and explore, visit any cities etc. Again not surprising given the short time for development and I do not know for how much of the space this will be valid – after all I have only explored a small part of the galaxy map so far.
The same convenience function as for hailing Starfleet goes for handling “loot”. While there are vendors on space stations for ships, ship equipment, bridge officers etc there is also one handy tool available to everyone where they are – the replicator. Similar to other MMOs you can get “loot” in STO and after a while that can fill up your inventory. The things you do not want to use you feed into the replicator, getting energy credits back in the return. Or you can create stuff from the replicator, costing you some energy credits – in more medieval times people would think of this as buying and selling stuff.
Seeing the replicator, any friend of medieval MMO business would ask – what about crafting, is it gone?!? Yes, sort of. As part of the exploration of the universe one can scan and pick up resources from various anomalies. The resources from these anomalies can be turned in to scientists (working for Memory Alpha) who can use these to improve your equipment. This is as close to “crafting” stuff as one may get right now.
The pure exploration part is per today a bit lacking – there are uncharted areas where you can go in and explore and discover new things, but as it is right now it seems to be less developed than the more combat focused parts of the game. Just reecently they introduced what is called the Genesis system which supposedly should provide more of the exploration content. But given its late addition I do not expect that much from it right from the start though. This part may possibly be the more varied approach to exploring rather than the fixed systems that much of the early game consists of.
The next questions that would pop up may be “can I solo the game?” or “are team play encouraged?”. I would say both. Similar to Champions teams can both invitation only like in most other MMOs, but can also be more open so anyone can join if they want and also the open mission-type mission where everyone will shared the goals/missions automatically. I think the idea here is that it should be easy and hassle-free to do both and some missions also do scale depending on the number of team members. I do think that the game encourage team play in patticular space combat is quite fun with multiple players.
The game has a guild system, but in this case they are called Fleets. User interfaces for fleets seem to be a bit lacking at the moment, besides that chat channel.
A few other pieces that ends up in the neat category are email, chat and bug tracking systems. They are quite familiar if you have played Champions Online – in fact they are exactly the same systems. Bugs you submit can be seenfrom both games, in-game mail also. And custom chat channels work in both games. The latter caused some confusion in our guild/SuperGroup/Fleet initially before everyone realised what was going on.
So how well will the game do? That is difficult to say. Some will be put off by the combat focus, and hope for more non-combat options and more open-ended exploration. Personally I would really like to see more of non-combat play and pure exploration for the long term. But I rather see that they put that in later, some point after release, than pushing the release date forward. In my opinion an MMO does not have to be “feature complete” at release, if that means that a company spends 5+ years trying to get there. A shorter development cycle before release but with less features is better I think. Less risk (less money+time spent) for the company – at least as long as they have given some thought on future features so they do not have to rewrite the whole thing if they want to add something.
Looking at the combat itself and comments in the beta forums it is clear that Cryptic has no easy task in balancing – there is always a combination of comments saying that combat is too easy, too hard, just right – and never do everyone agree. Cryptic has been balancing things here back and forth and adjusting. I would expect some more tuning here during open beta. While the mechanics are ok, tuning can easily throw something between too easy/boring, fun/somewhat challenging and tedious/frustrating/difficult.
Despite some shortcomings I do like the game and will certainly play it when it releases. It will not be a game that one would spend their “life” in, but something that provides for a bit of fun every now and then in a Star Trek setting. There is a potential for a lot of other SciFi titles being released this year (and I do not really include that Star Wars game in that list), so how much playtime STO will receive remains to be seen. But as long as it is fun I will play.