The Star Trek Online intellectual property is so huge that it is impossible for Cryptic Studios to please everyone. In fact, it's near on impossible for them to fully satisfy anyone. To meet the expectations of many hardcore fans, a Star Trek MMO would take hundreds of millions of dollars, at least a decade and no doubt a time machine more improbable than the red goo from the latest movie. Even Cryptic COO Jack Emmert lamented things they had not been able to include in a recent interview.
So, when it came time to preview the soon to launch MMORPG, I have not been looking at it to see if it captured everything that I dreamed a Star Trek MMO would be. Instead, I've asked myself if it did enough.
Honestly, it's too soon to tell. So far, the game is a mixed bag. Some of it is a lot of fun, while other parts need a lot of polish in very little time, and still other aspects leave me scratching my head.
The following hands-on preview is based on hands-on time with the game through their ongoing Closed Beta testing. I've logged, as a rough guess, about 20 hours in the game over that time. This preview won't cover every single detail of the game, but honestly, I think it's a fair amount of time and as much as any prospective customer is likely to give it before they make up their mind.
Star Trek Online has a pretty standard formula when it comes to PvE content. Episodes, as they've been dubbed, are just themed missions. I'm one of those terrible players that ignores the story entirely by default, and if that's you, you can easily navigate a mission without paying attention. For those who do read, there is a bit more depth there and lots of references to the lore.
The average Episode is a pretty standard thing. It always begins with an NPC who sends you out in space to explore something or other. Refreshingly, they took advantage of future communications and don't actually make you return to the quest giver every time. You simply hail him from your UI to redeem completed missions and pick up new ones.
It gives the game a kind of forward progress. Players work their way through zones naturally in a geographic order. This is aided by "patrol missions" that keep you moving and bread crumbs where eventually your superior in that sector is done with you and tells you to go report to someone at a base in the next sector.
The main piece of this game though is the episodes. Once you arrive at the target sector, the formula remains. You first face some kind of space-based obstacle to overcome. Sometimes this is as simple as killing five bad guys, but Cryptic did a very good job at this stage of keeping the simple fresh. There are usually twists in the Episode missions. In one case, I had to fight along side another (NPC) Federation vessel. In another, I took out my "seven squadrons" of bad guys naturally as I chased a run-away freighter. The missions, at this stage, largely consist of two options: kill it or scan it. It's not a bad thing though, because they did a very good job of mixing it up just enough to keep things interesting.
Once that first step is complete, you usually have to beam down somewhere. Sometimes this means to a planet, other times it's a ship or space station. These are inevitably dungeons. Again, like space, they did a good job of not just making it about "kill five guys." There is usually some goal, such as shutting down consoles, and the combat is more something you have to do to reach the end.
The structure here is very "dungeon" based, usually. You fight your way through a series of corridors and reach some kind of "end boss" or goal. Usually there is a twist at the end, such as the need to defend a console that's downloading data for a set period of time from an onslaught of Klingons, or to incapacitate an enemy and tag him to be beamed back to your brig.
The away missions are the least polished content, but the basic concept was good. The best thing about Star Trek Online for me was the constant switch between the two modes. Neither one requires hours of gameplay, so it constantly gives you a new challenge. The away missions specifically are usually relatively short. Never did I find myself bored with a planet or area and ready to move on early. If anything, perhaps the game could use a bit more away mission content.
Once completed, you tend to beam back to your ship where you usually face an additional space encounter. Again, they bring twists in to keep it interesting. When dealing with a particularly nasty shape shifter who had escaped me on a planet, I was left face to face with his vastly superior ship. My instructions from Starfleet were not kill the bad guy. They were to survive. I had to engage the enemy long enough for help to arrive.
In each area there is usually a small pile of missions, although rarely is it more than a few at a time. There is no need to pile up and take 50 at a time so you don't have to run back to town. The communication system cuts that need out.
The patrol missions are more about moving the player through the game world. These are far more basic. They usually say "go to sector X and visit every solar system." In each solar system is one of a few kinds of missions: escort missions, kill missions, scan missions (that require killing), collection missions (the only ones that sometimes send you down to an away mission), or some combination of the above. They're simple, and the OCD completionist in me kept me going. My only complaint is when you go to grind one of these out ,the magic they achieve in the Episodes by constantly moving you between Away Missions and Space is lost. I end up spending more time than I'd like in my ship and they can sometimes begin to drag on.
That constant switch back and forth between Avatar and Space Ship is where the bread and butter of Star Trek Online will be in the end. It keeps things interesting and allows them to cut out a lot of the boring bits. You fight a fun space battle, you beam somewhere and do a mini-dungeon, then you beam back and fight another space battle. Hail the Admiral, collect the reward instantly and start on another mission. Nowhere in there did anyone have to run a long distance (sector space rarely takes very long and is the closest thing to a time sink they have) or do anything else boring.