Monday, February 15, 2010

Star Trek Online, A Review

Over the last week my life has been consumed by Star Trek Online.  There's been a lot of buzz good and bad.  I'd like to offer some of my impressions on how the game holds up for me.  I am a huge Trek fan.  I'm not one of these johnny come lately Trek fans who came out of the wood work after they realized how dreamy Chris Pine's eyes were.  No for pretty much all of my life I've consumed everything about Star Trek.  Comics, Novels, TV Shows, Movies, and the nearly impossible Collectible Card Game.  When a Star Trek Themed MMO was announced way back in 2004 I couldn't wait. Alas waiting is all I'd ever do.  Perpetual Entertainment, was originally granted the license to make the game in 2004.  I occasionally followed their site to see how things were going.  Of course it was the Game Developers mantra of either Soon, or "Next Fall."  Eventually it completely fell off of my radar, and so my hopes were dashed that anything would ever come of it.  Then in 2008 there began rumblings that Perpetual was going out of business, and that Cryptic Studios was taking over the game.  Cryptic is, for some reason, is a lighting rod in the MMO world.  People either love them or hate them.  For reasons I don't quite understand Champions Online is despised by many, and thus Cryptic is also despised for bringing it into this world.  I've never played Champions Online but from what I've gathered Cryptic didn't do a very good job of managing expectations, on top of the fact that it was originally slated to have a Marvel tie-in that never materialized.  Also apperently the game play was not what most MMOers were use to.  All of that combined turned Cryptic into the Uwe Boll of the MMO developers world.  So it seems reasonable that when STO was announced it was going to be panned from the outset by that certain sub-set of the internet world. 

I'll start with saying that overall I like this game.  The first thing that people will try to make paralells to is EVE Online.  STO is not EVE.  It's not a competitor, it's not even the same kind of game.  EVE is serious business.  There isn't a serious bone in STOs body.  This is part of the reason I like it.  It's just Fun.  I don't have to worry about being annihilated if I find myself in low-sec space.  To be able to play a space Sim that doesn't feel like every moment someone is going to destroy all that you'ved worked for is really nice.  People who play EVE love that kind of environment, where everything is more REAL.  Not me, and STO isn't the kind of game for people with that mindset. 

The game play is unique as compared to other games out there.  In Star Trek there in any given story there are elements which take place in Space and On the Ground.  The game incorporates both of these, you start the game as the "Captain" of your own vessel.  You're an Ensign who's entire bridge command watch has died leaving you, as the highest ranking officer, in charge.  Space combat is in full three dimensions, unlike EVE.  You can attack your opponets from above or below as well as from all directions.  For some reason they do put a "Stall" in the flight model that prevents you from doing vertical loops, which is strange, but either way its sill more maneuverable than you'd expect.  If I had to describe it, it's a lot like Decent, the 3D  shooter from the mid 90's.  Space combat is where the game does make it's mark.  Like in the TV shows you've got Weapons and Shields and various power control systems between them.  Combat requires you to keep your strongest shields in front of the attacker while also keeping your weapons locked on so you can attack.  You also have the ablitiy adjust the power on the fly from one system to the other. 

Some missions also require you to beam down to planets, space stations, or other ships.  Ground combat is a lot like any normal Third Person MMO that we've become accustomed to over the years.  According to thoughts who have played it it's a lot like Champions Online for whatever that's worth.  It's fun, if not familiar.  You beam down with your away team, which is made up of your other bridge officers.  Your away team is controlled by AI, and is actually pretty good.  They heal you and the other party when healing needs to be done, and they use their other special abilities when needed.  It reminds me a lot of the early BioWare games. 

Like Champions Online it's an Instanced game.  There are a scalable set of servers for each area of the game and depending on traffic new Instances are created.  So it isn't a true MMO all users are on a single persistent server, but all users are in the same world.  The world is broken up into three areas.  The smallest is the player mode where you are beamed down to a planet.  There is "System Space" which is the Solar System or Planet that your ship is in.  Last there is "Sector Space" which is the interstellar "Overworld" map. 

Character Creation is very detailed.  When you create your Avatar you can tweak just about every option on their face and body.  You have three classes available.  Science, Engineering, and Tacacle.  These classes determine what your primary role will be in groups and in the game they are similar to the roles you'd see in other MMOs, but I've found that they don't really pidgenhole you into a certain job, pretty much every role in the game is available for any class.  Science officers are "Healers" and do "De-Buff."  Engineers are for "Buffing" and  "DPS." Tactical are for "Tanking."  The skills tree is what really makes this game different, as copmpared to something like WoW.  Really it's a Hybrid of the system from EVE, a skills tree which trains you in real world time, and WoW and EQ which are completely XP based.  In the game you earn XP that you use to increase your skills in a skills tree.  The Skills tree is huge, and there are a lot of different directions you can go.  You start very general and as time goes on get more and more specialized.  Since  you only get so many points, every character is unique.  Earning XP and increasing your Character Skills is not the only way to diversify your character.   Like all MMOs as you earn rank you can buy better and better equipment for both your ships and your individual characters.  Where the game really diviates from the norm is the concept of Bridge Officers.  You can win and buy Bridge officers in the game.  Each Officer has a class, and speical ablities based on that class that can help you in both Space and Ground combat.  In space combat the skill is an active skill, which on top of keeping your shields up and firing your weapons, you also have to activate when needed.  On the ground their skills are passive, and the AI will activate their skill when needed. 

There is a Third big area of fine tuning in the game in Ship Classes.  Each Character Class had a Ship Class that goes with their assigned role.  Tactical has Assault ships, Engineering has Cruisers, and Science has Science.  Each Ship class align to the same role as the Character class.  Assault ships are Tanks which have an extra slot for a Tactical Bridge Officer, and lots of slots for weapons (Think USS Defiant from DS9).  Cruisers are big capital ships with lots of Power for Shields and an Extra Engineering slot (think Enterprise).  And Science ships have an extra slot for a Science Bridge officer and extra slots for consoles (think Intrepid).  The kicker is there isn't any rule that forces a character class into a ship type.  In fact in an emergent development in the first week of the game, a lot of Assault Officers are going with Cruisers because their superior  Shields, allow them to last a little big longer against a large mob. 

Missions are not a whole lot different than other MMOs instead of go and kill X number of Swamp Rats, your sent to kill number of Klingons.  There is though a fairly robust primary quest tree that will take you to an End Game.  I've been hearing some call this too Linear, but the reality is all MMOs except for EVE an UO have an End Game quest.  Every other game does, it's just people seem to not remember doing it.  There are other game modes including patrol and exploration.  All are required because each pays a different kind of currency that can be used to buy different kinds of items.  There is also a PvP element against the Klingons.  When you finish a certain mission on the Federation side you gain the ability to create a Klingon Character.  There is little or no PvE content on the Klingon side only PvP.    Right now PvP it isn't very robust, and very unsatisfactory.  I'm hoping that this is THE area they decide to concentrate on.  A huge PvP faction war a la Dark Age of Camelot, is where the game needs to head.  It does feel like an area that was sort of rushed.  I'll give them some leeway because we all know what kind of pressure these small developers are under to start making money.  Overall this is a Massively Multiplayer Single Player game.  If you don't want to you can go through the whole game Lone Wolf.  Not to say you don't have to partake in Fleet Actions, but there isn't anything that forces you into a group or a guild like WoW or EQ.

The game for me is a sold B+.  Fun and easily played.  Here's hoping that Cryptic is truly in this for the long haul and wants to grow this game into a success, and don't want to just cash in; a video game version of The Producers.