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Star Trek Online Previews: Hands-On Preview

By Dana Massey on November 30, 2009

Cryptic Studios has a lot to juggle with Star Trek Online and so do the people playing it. During a recent studio visit to their Los Gatos, CA office, MMORPG.com got the chance to play the game and talk to Executive Producer Craig Zinkievich about the title.

The biggest challenge for the team is to juggle what amounts to two games. There’s the “ship” content, where the player plays a tactical battle in outer-space as the ship’s captain, and then there’s the “away missions” where the player controls a squad of avatars.

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“The vision is that as you play through the content you feel like you’re in the movies, the TV shows,” explained Zinkievich.

They broke the missions up into mini-arcs that obviously owe a lot to a TV episode. They always begin in space with the player sent off on some kind of mission. Upon arrival, there is some kind of space-based challenge – in my hands-on time that meant combat – and then the story draws the player down onto land or some other kind of away mission.

There are four core “modes” that players experience.

The first is “Sector Space,” which is how people get around at a very high level. They have a small avatar and can fly from sector to sector on a very broad map. Think of this like an interactive version of how people go from area to area in Dragon Age, or perhaps Sid Meier’s Pirates! The avatar is controlled, it’s even 3D (you can go up and down), and there are enemies out there who can draw you into other missions or combat. Largely, though, this is how the avatars get from place to place. They’re in warp.

The second is closer in. This is when the ship has arrived at a location and is out of warp. This is where tactical space combat takes place and a lot of the formative part of missions are presented. The player is a captain in charge of a single vessel. It’s 3D, without the ability to go upside down. People can go up and down, side to side, but never do get inverted. This was perhaps a controversial decision, but for the average player it’s much easier, and rarely did Star Trek ever show upside down ships in the shows.

The third is away missions. Usually as part of a story, the team is called to beam down to another ship, a planet or a moon. Here the player controls up to five avatars. The composition of the team depends entirely on the amount of real people with them. If you’re solo, you control your avatar and four NPCs from your crew. If you’re with a friend, both have their avatars, and split who brings what crew. The number, though, is always five. Theoretically, although I never saw this, a five man group would be all five captains.

Finally, there are ship interiors. In other words it’s the interior of your own space ship. They’ve mentioned this briefly in an AP article a few weeks ago, but we went a lot more in depth. Details on this and the really nitty-gritty of how bridge crews work will follow in a preview later this week.

Space

The most complete and balanced of these systems is easily the ship combat stage. This is a slower, more tactical game that has more in common with Pirates of the Burning Sea ship combat than the average MMO. A lot of the gameplay centers around positioning and shield balance.

Player ships come in three classes: Science, Escort and Cruiser. Each has their own advantages and disadvantages. Escorts are faster, Cruisers more combat oriented and Science more systems oriented. Beyond that, players customize their ships in a few ways.

Devices are consumable items that give a boost to specific area, Consoles are devices plugged into the ships – they suggested thinking of them like the classic RPG “rings” that provide persistent buffs – and weapons can be subbed in and out to customize the role you want to play. Players can also play with their engines and shields.

In combat you have to balance where the energy goes. It can be assigned to weapons for increased damage, engines for speed, shields for defense or auxiliary for secondary things like tractor beams.

Beyond that, the shields must be balanced. Each ship has four fields around it. Fore, aft, port (left) and starboard (right). Combat is extremely position based. Ships do far more damage when they can fire two phaser banks at once, which usually means you want to shoot from the side, and while it is possible to move the energy to different shields to compensate for where incoming fire is hitting, turning about and making sure they never zero in on one section of your shields is also very effective.

The weapons you buy really make a difference too. Different weapons not only change how much damage they do, but also the angles from which they can be shot. My ship, for example, had fore and aft phaser banks that both extended to the side. This allowed me to do the double-shot broad-sides I mentioned before.

At this time, you fly your ship with WASD. W and S control the pitch of the ship. Is it diving down or flying up higher? The A and D buttons turn the ship. Velocity is determined in the UI. Players can run at full impulse or slow right down to really hammer on a target. It’s all in the tactics.

Weapons are fired with the space bar and while they are still tuning them, at the time of our hands-on, one click fired five phaser bursts. Photon Torpedoes and other abilities are fired separately from the default phaser shots.

Like the show, a typical battle is mostly phasers until the shields come down. Then, the players swoop in and fire off a round of photons through the holes in the shields to really take out the enemy.

Bridge Officers also play a big role in space combat. Each ship has a set number of seats assigned to it and you must assign your bridge officers to fill them up. These are tactical, engineering and science. Some ships will have more than one seat for each type. Once plugged in, you then have access to their special abilities. For example, a tactical officer might give you some kind of special attack. These are the closest thing to the traditional MMO hotbar. Again, more details on the Bridge Officers will come in Wednesday’s article.

The Captains have some tricks up their sleeves too. Each one gets up to four active “Captain Powers,” one per rank, plus one passive one. These are earned essentially each 10 levels.

The entire space-combat game seemed to be nailed down pretty well and was easily the strongest part of the game. It’s got a pace that is a bit slower than the average game, but there is so much to be aware of and manage that it felt right. Is it a dog-fight? Of course not, but Star Trek combat has never been about that.

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