Star Trek Online
It's been a long journey for Star Trek Online, with six years of development across two different developers under its belt. But finally fans will be able to get their hands on the much anticipated MMO in just a matter of weeks. Having had the opportunity to participate in the closed beta, I can safely say there is some potential here but it is mired in some strange design choices and eccentricities which still don't quite hit the spot.
I only had access to the Federation character race during beta, with eventual plans to allow players to choose from a number of different races including Vulcan and Klingon. As expected, considering Cryptic's previous track record, there is certainly a wealth of different customisation options allowing players to change almost everything about their character's appearance. The same can also be said of ship customisation further on in the game ensuring that players' ships are guaranteed to look unique, assuming they all resist imitating the Enterprise of course. Upon logging in, things felt surprisingly lonely for an MMO. The introductory section was reminiscent of Champions Online's introduction but without much sign of other players. It worked well as an introduction to the basic game mechanics but I did miss the buzz of excitement one feels when starting a new MMO and being faced by others just as excited. Hopefully when it comes to the full release there will be more signs of other players to interact with. Star Trek Online quickly felt rather different compared to other MMOs I've experienced.
One pivotal feature is that you start out as a Captain of your ship. Although there is a levelling up system, this doesn't affect your role within your ship, meaning immediately a wide range of options are at your disposal. I was a little disappointed to see that you can't work your way up to command but that probably would have been more akin to a single player RPG rather than the likes of an MMO. The levelling up system overall feels less important than in more typical MMOs with the 'grind' being removed for the most part. Gaining skill points through completing missions and defeating enemies is much more important. How to distribute these skill points is initially quite confusing with some vague descriptions so I did find myself wasting these points a bit at first. Much of the time it felt like I was improving base statistics rather than acquiring new skills which did feel a little unsatisfying compared to the feeling of glee when hearing the faithful 'ding' noise and gaining some fun new talents to try out.
Action is divided between two types of situations: space exploration and away team missions. This makes for some nice variation with both types never lasting too long. The away team missions are fairly standard MMO fodder albeit encased in an instance, again making Star Trek Online feel detached from the Massively Multiplayer part of MMO. You can however choose to take up to four player characters or four NPC characters along for the ride. The missions I experienced felt a little predictable with many of these diversions consisting of exploring a linear ship layout in order to rescue crew members or to defeat a set number of enemies. It was fun to see the Borg emerge very early on but also quite disappointing that they didn't really pose much of a threat. Hopefully further on in the game things will be different though.
Combat felt quite satisfying throughout the away missions with a variety of different weapons to choose from. My personal favourite was a phase rifle which worked much like a sniper rifle, making picking off enemies satisfying. The AI crew members work well together in taking out the enemies and covering each other. Tactics weren't overly necessary in the early stages, but it was clear that they'd play a vital role in higher levels. Flanking even in early battles was clearly the way to go forward in defeating enemies quickly and I can see it becoming all the more useful later on in the game. One quirk I never expected to see in an MMO was that of the pause feature, enabling players to pause the action for up to 45 seconds, presumably for those pesky bathroom runs which always get in the way of gaming.
The space combat element of Star Trek Online instantly felt much more tactical than the away team missions, with combat moving at a much slower, but more calculating pace. Movement is through the WASD keys with the addition of Q and E affecting propulsion. Ships appear to have quite a wide turning arc making even simple movement quite exaggerated and long winded. The actual combat element borrows from the tactics of away team missions with flanking being ever crucial once more. Reducing your enemy's shields is also vital to ensure a well aimed proton torpedo annihilates them quickly. There is also the ability to adjust various power settings on the fly, enabling you to have stronger shields but weaker weapons or vice versa. For the slightly intimidated, there are also various preset options making it quick to learn. Each Bridge Officer offers perks such as a Tachyon Beam to lower the enemy's shields which certainly aids progress. The strong focus on tactics is nice to see in Star Trek Online but the frequency of these sections did begin to make things a little dull, especially when up against foes that were quite obviously simple to beat when proceedings were still dragged out.
Players will see space combat and space exploration quite often as many missions seemed to solely consist of going to a new sector of space, scanning it for life forms while destroying enemy ships. This would then be followed by an away team section. As time went on, it did feel a little repetitive and - dare I say it - lacking in imagination. It would have been nice to see a bit more variety, such as trading for example. There were a few strange UI irritants also such as a slightly awkward auto attack mechanism which made me feel detached from the action. The UI itself, although looking very appropriate for Starfleet, felt cluttered and initially confusing upon first loading the game.
I still have an urge to see how the full product turns out, despite mixed feelings about the future. I just can't see Star Trek Online being a memorable MMO unfortunately as although some annoyances can be adjusted through patching, others feel too engrained in the game engine to be changed easily. But as a one time Trekkie I can see why others may be enraptured by it simply because of the franchise connected to it. Currently the storylines offered are nowhere near as detailed as the series but it'll be interesting to see if this changes in the future or not. For now though, I can't see Eve Online, the only real challenger to the space MMO throne, having much to worry about.