In part one of my three part hands-on preview I covered missions, combat and a host of core features in Star Trek Online. However, I also made one mistake, and I'd like to get that corrected up front. It turns out that contrary to my complaints there is in fact auto-attack in Star Trek Online, which should definitely reduce the strain on people's digits and make the game much easier to control. To activate auto-fire of key skills, such as the primary weapon attack on away missions or phasers in space, one simply holds control and clicks the button. So, I offer mea culpa to Cryptic and all those who read part one.
With that out of the way, let's dive into part two of this preview. Today, I'll cover the skill system, character progression, ship customization and bridge officers, grouping/social systems, PvP and items.
Star Trek Online uses a hybrid skill/experience system. This is not Ultima Online where using an action improves it, but it is not the World of Warcraft model either. When you kill opponents or complete missions, you gain three pools of points:
Unlike an experience based game, you get these points throughout the level. Thus, if you accumulate enough character or bridge officer skill points, you can upgrade your skill of choice immediately. There are no trainers, nowhere you need to go, and no need to wait "to level up," although when you do finally "ding" you get some bonuses.
This system, while very liberating, is at its weakest when it comes to effectively communicating what you should be doing. I'll admit flat out to being entirely lost at times. There is just a list of skills with descriptions and sometimes it's very hard to tell what specifically they do. This is largely a UI issue, which I'll address later, but while I like the system once I got my head around it, they need to do a better job of communicating these things to the player. Frankly, it can be very overwhelming.
The problem is that all of your Lieutenant skills are available from day one and some of them can, at a glance, seem quite similar. With my tactical character for example, one skill is "Tactical Team Lead" and another is "Assault Training." The former improves the performance of your Tactical Bridge Officers, while the latter improves my own performance. It sounds obvious, but it took me a small bank of nearly wasted skill points before I finally figured out the difference.
The early skills also felt a bit hollow since there was no "new toy" phenomenon that normally applies to MMOs. Sure, it's great to have a statistical modifier to phasers that make them stronger, but the game is quite stingy on active abilities. There are some, for example my tactical officer has evasive maneuvers in space (temp buff to speed, turning and defence) and an accuracy self-buff on away missions. However, you do not have a lot of them. On away missions, abilities are tied to the kit you use and in space they tend to come from bridge officers. I'd love to see them be a bit more liberal with the Captain abilities in both areas.
At each rank (10 levels basically) you unlock a new fleet of abilities. Each ability is maxed by investing enough points into it and once maximized there are more abilities that build off of it. This is a tree system. The beauty of this system is, as their website tells us, the ability to continue progressing long after you've "maxed out" your rank. You can continue to go back and work on abilities you skipped the first time over.
The Bridge Officers are much simpler. They have two abilities per rank, one for space and one for avatar form. Your basic Lieutenant can have four officers, which means everyone comes on away missions. This allows you to get one for each space slot and one extra of your choice. I'd like a bit more diversity at the early levels, since I get the distinct impression people will generally stick to their core few and use others to "train" them (you can "consume" a Bridge Officer if you're at the cap by swapping one of their skills out for one skill from an active officer). I was looking forward to having an "away team," and at first took some officers that were great in space, but not what I wanted on the ground. I ended up either discharging them or replacing most of their skills with other officers, which likely wasn't the most efficient means of doing that.
Generally, it's a very solid skill system that should create a lot of diversity, but the presentation of it really needs a lot of work. I don't like the sheer quantity of abilities from day one, nor the lack of feedback. It is also sometimes tough to tell when they're talking about space abilities and when they're talking about avatar abilities. This is nicely delineated with Bridge Officers, but not so much for players.
The experience curve for players is one of the hardest things for a company to tune and likely one of the major focuses of Star Trek Online's Beta, so I hesitate to go into too much detail on it as I am sure plenty will change between today and February 2nd, 2010.
The first thing I noticed is that the very structure of the system makes "levels" feel less important and as such you don't really seem to notice. Most experience-driven MMOs have a kind of emotional peak and valley to them. You grind, grind, grind and then get a reward. As STO doles out bridge and character skill points with each and every kill and mission, you're constantly gaining nuggets. It makes the actual ding a far less important experience. Half the time I had no idea what "level" I was and I don't mean that in a bad way.