Posted by: Durkonkell | 05/01/2012

Let me tell you about Star Trek Online

 

"Captain, why are we standing waist deep in this coolant?" "Stop talking and look heroic."

STO has gone Free to Play for former subscribers, and the rest of the world soonish. What’s it like?

I’ve been playing STO on and off since about half way through the Beta. I was an early adopter, played in the early access bit and have subscribed and unsubscribed about four times now. I feel reasonably qualified to say that it’s really not a bad game, and that actually it does some things very well. With that said, it does some things quite badly, too. First, let’s talk about the three things it gets really, really right.

The first thing that strikes you is that the character customisation is really magnificent, especially if you’re comparing it to WoW or TOR. It doesn’t just put them to shame, it dishonours them in front of their families, challenges them to a duel and then systematically dismantles them leaving them bereft of the smallest accomplishment or worthiness. What’s more, you can completely re-customise your character at any major station and perform the same level of customisation for all of your officers. Unique looking character and bridge crew? Certainly. Distinctive uniform for you and your officers? That’s there, too.

You’ll see your characters quite a bit, while wandering around the stations and planets that form STO’s ‘cities’ and mission backdrops. The best part of the game though involves NOT seeing your character – Spaaace Combaat! The ship-to-ship battles have always been the most consistently playable parts on both factions. Combat is fluid, fun and – most importantly – feels appropriately Star Trek-y. If you’re a veteran of previous Star Trek titles on PC, I think the best way to describe it is as a cross between Bridge Commander and Starfleet Command. The many and varied bridge officer abilities add a tactical aspect – your choice of bridge officer abilities can dramatically alter both your role and effectiveness in combat.

Your choice of ship class also has a significant effect on how you play. The slow, ponderous cruisers sidle up alongside an enemy and pour broadside fire into them. The agile escorts mount absurdly powerful weapons along the front aspect, but have to manoeuvre hard to keep their bow towards the target as long as possible and spread damage out along its weaker shields. The Klingon bird of prey is even more manoeuvrable, but can’t mount as many heavy weapons and is even more fragile. A bird of prey would be at a disadvantage in any fair fight.

A canny BoP captain takes action to ensure he’s never in a fair fight. The BoP is the only ship class that can cloak whilst in combat, meaning you can drop cloak, sneak attack an enemy with a devastating burst of rapid fire cannons, turn hard to stay out of their primary weapon arcs, recloak and come around for another attack. A pair of Birds of Prey working together can take down even superior combatants if they’re competently captained. The space combat game is pretty deep (like space! Eh). I think the best thing I can say is that writing about it makes me want to patch up my STO client and take my Sovereign out for a spin.

The third thing is really important: The foundry. The foundry is Cryptic’s name for their built-in user generated content tools which allow players to author and publish their own missions within the game. You spend all of your levelling time in STO playing through the episodes (STO’s quests or missions). Once you reach the level cap, there aren’t any more missions. You have fleet actions, the 5-man heroic Special Task Force missions aaand… PvP. There are the occasional injections of feature episodes from the developers, but there’s just no way they can continue producing high-quality content at the rate that players consume it.

The foundry is brilliant. It gives players a huge library of user generated missions to play though. Some of them will be poorly written or riddled with errors. Some of them will just be poorly designed, too hard, too easy or openly absurd. But in my experience, there are enough really good missions to keep you entertained in between doing other things in game (and of course doing other things out of the game. When you feel like it, you just drop in and play a couple of foundry missions). Many of these missions are:

  1. Better written and designed than anything Cryptic have put together, and Cryptic have assembled some pretty good missions over the past couple of years.
  2. Much closer to the feel of Star Trek than many of the official missions. There’s a lot of shooting things in this game – it IS an MMO, after all – but many of the foundry missions involve diplomacy, exploration, investigation, time travel, anomalies… and shooting. Some of the foundry missions are the closest thing we’ll ever get to being in a Star Trek episode – one starring OUR captain and crew!

The foundry gives players a way to tell their own stories, and to explore familiar sci-fi situations. Finally, last time I was active on the forums (a couple of months ago), Cryptic were actually recruiting for I think the first time since the game’s release. They wanted to pick up more mission designers and work on releasing more, better content. Their primary source for new mission designers? The top-rated foundry authors. This is a company that really works hard at integrating and working with the community, and that’s something to support.

What else? Ground combat is… improved. It’s much closer to being fun than it was before. Maybe it’s improved even more since I’ve been away from the game, I don’t know. Regardless, you get to look at your wonderful customised captain and crew! Honestly, I’ve spent more time in the character customisation in STO than I have playing some entire games.

STO has a PvE queue, something which is conspicuously absent from TOR. There are potential reasons for this. It still irritates me to stand around doing nothing but spamming “LF Tank for Hammer Station. Just 1 tank! That’s all we need. There must be a tank out there! Please. We’ve been here for hours.” I understand it now has new and improved endgame PvE content, too, along with splendid new STF armor for both Federation and KDF characters.

The new Duty Officer system is pretty neat. I played with it during the F2P beta, and it’s pretty compelling. It’s main objective is for you to have something to do during downtime, like when you’re travelling across the galaxy. The galaxy’s pretty big, and it takes a while…

Alright, so I’ve reached the point where I’m just saying things that won’t make any sense if you haven’t played the game recently. Computer, activate conclusion Durkonkell sierra two seven.

Conclusion!

I think Cryptic are actually very talented MMO developers. I say this despite the disappointing shambles that was STO on day one (it wasn’t even vaguely ready for release). They have been persistently underfunded (The former executive producer Dan Stahl once remarked that his team was smaller than the team at their local Starbucks) and they’ve still managed to innovate in a couple of really interesting ways. TOR might be ten times more polished, fully voice acted and have more content than I can comprehend, but you still can’t re-customise your character after initial creation. Even WoW has this (although it took blizzard five years to actually implement it in game), and it was a day one feature for STO. The foundry is a significant unique proposition, and it’s likely to be expanded – there’s talk of customisable ship interiors and fleet (STO’s guilds) starbases. I would love to have seen what Cryptic could have done with a TOR, Warcraft or Guild Wars size budget.

It has its flaws still (it really does), but it’s not at all the same game as the one that launched a couple of years ago. If you have even the vaguest interest in Star Trek, you should absolutely check it out when it goes free to play for everyone (17th of this month). If you’re not interested in the Star Trek angle, that’ll probably reduce the game’s appeal and enjoyment for you (half the fun is putting yourself in Captain Kirk’s Picard’s chair), but you may still enjoy the excellent character customisation, ship combat or UGC tools.

Questions? Set course for the comment box below. Engage when ready.

Damn it. Now I want to play this again…


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