Hooray for GiantBomb which handed out a bunch of Star Trek Online beta keys a couple of weeks back, allowing myself and Mr. MyCousin to play through this beta.
Let me first state upfront that I have never played World of Warcraft. I have played trials of EVE, Warhammer Online, Final Fantasy XI and even the first Everquest though, and I found these games to be little more than repetitive almost storyless RPGs with unnecessarily clunky interfaces and control systems. Even with Warhammer Online, whose world and background I have some nostalgic love for, nothing about these games seemed like they would be in any way worth the effort and investment in both time and money required to enjoy them.
I should also admit at this point that I am something of a Trekkie, having seen all seven seasons of The Next Generation (over a stretch in 2006), and owning the first six of Deep Space 9, plus all of the movies, and having seen most of Voyager and about half of The Original Series… Read into that what you may, the point is that the universe of Star Trek is something I am fairly well versed in.
So, Star Trek Online? I must say that I have been pleasantly surprised. It seemed like it could have been a massive mess of clashing styles and stories, but somehow they’ve managed to pull it all together in a cohesive direction. Everyone is given their own ship in the game, and they have their own away team for ground missions. There are three fairly wide open character classes based on Star Fleet divisions of Tactical (red shirt), Engineering (gold shirt) and Science (blue shirt) (the same breakdown exists on the Klingon Empire side too), but what’s particularly interesting is the level of customisation on offer, even if it is cosmetic. Characters can be chosen from a number of races, or the player can create unique alien of a race of their own design. Which is what I did obviously. Enter Lt. Cmdr. Uderik Zabop Ankyla Amundsen of the USS Surfingturd (and later, the USS Bustard Booby and the USS Baboon Funk Egg).
I’ll not go into the details of my personal experience of the game, but here’s an overview of the thing as a game.
Missions are instanced, and include ground combat as well as space combat which is where the game is better suited. Ground missions are often hampered by lack of direction and clunky combat as you would expect from a western arpeegee, particularly of the ememoh variety, but space combat is quite a unique experience. It is handled reasonably intuitively, for flying around in 3D space. Your ship is fully customisable as far as engines, weapons and shields are concerned. There are some balance issues regarding some missions that are too easy with two people, and others that are way too hard even with three or four, but the mechanics are fairly solid. It’s slightly more dynamic than most of the battles from the TV shows (which almost always seemed to be a Mexican stand-off in space) and takes more of a cue from the frenetic battles of last year’s movie (although in continuity terms, this game takes place after the destruction of Romulus in the original timeline).
Ships have shields in four directions, which must be penetrated before the ships themselves may be damaged. In a wonderful move, you can assign more energy to particular shields as and when they are under attack and require regeneration. You have two basic weapon classes, your phasers/disruptors, and your torpedoes. Your bridge crew also have unique abilities such as emergency power to shields and tachyon beam that can be deployed. Weapons have unique three-dimensional firing arcs, and thus you have to be careful to manoeuvre your ship to best unleash your maximum firepower. Broadside you can deploy front and aft phasers, but at the cost of your photon torpedoes. Space combat is an interesting blend of ship manoeuvrability and power and weapon management.
Ground combat is, well, less exciting. There are plenty of weapons, and having a customisable away team with their own abilities and weapons is both useful and a great nod to the classic Trek away teams. I just find it frustrating how clunky it is, selecting targets and firing weapons while moving. It seems like most western arpeegees have combat systems that have too many buttons to press, too many bars, too many keyboard shortcuts and team management, that all sense of action is sacrificed on the altar of tactics. And yet the most successful tactic is always hit-until-dead.
Story-wise, the game sets up a very convincing and comprehensive take on the Star Trek universe, and I’m sure some sense of an actual narrative crops up now and again, but let’s face it, in an ememoharpeegee you can’t have a persistent story when everyone has the same range of missions to perform at all times.
What kind of sucks though, are the bugs. Worryingly, given that launch is now imminent, right up to the end of the beta, sometimes when you beam down to somewhere, you will appear as your ship instead of as your character. Sometimes when you beam back up, the opposite occurs. Sometimes you fall through space until you hit the bottom boundary. Sometimes you can’t log in at all due to sever overloads. Plus there were pieces missing, missions that don’t work properly. Functionally, the game works perfectly well, but if this is how it is when it does properly goes live, it’ll be a rough ride for the first few months.
Now that the Beta is over, I must say it has potential, but it’ll likely take a little while to settle into its stride and hopefully let its substance catch up to its ambition.