Few games have had a more contentious release in recent memory than Cryptic Studios' Star Trek Online. It wasn't an extraordinary number of game breaking bugs that plagued the launch of the game and but rather the impossible hype machine built up in part by its own developers.
The reaching ambitions of former executive producer Craig Zinkievich seemed to ignore some players' feelings of broken promises and missed opportunities in a game that sought to combine outer space and ground gameplay in under two years worth of development time and just shy of a year's worth of content development.
Cryptic executive Bill Roper, a lightning rod for controversy after the collapse of the doomed Flagship Studios' Hellgate: London, also made some players wary and the game's business model of combining a monthly subscription fee with a virtual item shop in the form of the “C-Store” continues to be a source of controversy.
Now, seven months later, Roper and Zinkievich are both gone.
Daniel Stahl is the new executive producer in charge of the game. Cryptic has shuffled its team and notably added former Decipher's tabletop Star Trek game lead developer (and one of the architects behind the original Fallout) Jesse Heinig as a designer.
The game recently deployed its third major content patch and began a new initiative of adding weekly missions to advance the storyline.
Let's see how the game stacks up in Season Two: Ancient Enemies.
The graphics are lush and the art direction is a pleasant blend of stylization and realism. The heavy use of bloom effects may take some getting used to but this is clearly a stylized take on the future of Star Trek, being set some thirty years after the events of Star Trek: Nemesis. The bloom effects and trailing lights that spew forth from your ship's engines may seem excessive if you were expecting a spot on depiction of life in the world of Star Trek: The Next Generation but are no more pronounced, as deviations go, than J.J. Abrams' use of lens flare in his cinematic revamp of the Star Trek franchise and arguably more successful here, as the “engine trails” are designed to help ultra-casual players orient themselves in three dimensional space.
The game has made significant strides toward both accuracy and quality in its depiction of ships, with the art team taking detailed critiques from the playerbase on its ship models. Many of the iconic ships sported stylized and less accurate takes at launch (particularly the accommodate the ship's modular visual customization approach) and the bulk of these have been corrected, within the limits of constraints like poly-count budgets, into solid recreations of their onscreen counterparts. Beyond the enhanced accuracy and beauty of the ship models, fleets now have access to a fairly robust design tool to create their own unique logos which can be displayed both on the hull of members' starships as well as on shoulder patches of players' human avatars.
The new artist in charge of these improvements, CapnLogan, is now hard at work further expanding Klingon ship options to include Orion, Nausicaan, and Gorn vessels as well as improving the existing Klingon ship options. (The Klingon faction also saw racial uniform options added already in Season Two.)
The ground environments themselves were somewhat repetitive at launch, tending to either toss you out into full fledged outdoor terrain or confine you to high tech, box-shaped corridors. There has been a definite shift away from this trend in the weekly content, with a taste of a mostly outdoor urban environment and improved art for the new indoor mine set piece.
In terms of space, there was a tendency to overdo gridlines and markings on the map screens and to overuse astronomical phenomena such as asteroid belts and nebulae for mission locations. The new areas represent a stylistic shift away from that with subtle, pulsing grids, atmospheric lighting and a decreased reliance on crutches such as the asteroids for reference and orientation as the game's designers have grown more savvy about creating reference points that are less distracting.
The art direction of this game generally received fairly high marks at launch, even from critics of the game's other features, and the quality of the art assets has noticeably improved.
The detailed character customization and built-in machinima tools make this game a solid value in the MMO market for people enthusiastic about eye candy and visual aesthetics.
Star Trek Online has authentic sound effects which are solid recreations of the sounds found in the television series and films.
The music itself is original to the game and, while it lacks the swell and majesty of Jerry Goldsmith or James Horner's cinematic scores, is suitably reminiscent of the quasi-operatic music of the original Star Trek. Purists may miss the theme music from TNG, DS9, and Voyager but it's probably worth noting that the average episode rarely contained more than hints of these themes and the game itself uses the Alexander Courage score liberally as a coda to missions.
Leonard Nimoy does an admirable (if somewhat tired sounding) performance in his final turn as Spock and while his narration is best described as adequate, he takes a more active role in a memorable mission which players have been praising since launch. Moreover, the fact that he personally congratulates you whenever you level up is a welcome twist.
The remainder of the cast is quite good. The late Majel Barrett-Roddenberry (or an admirable soundalike) and her male Klingon counterpart act as efficient and helpful guides to the game's combat, informing you of status changes. Chase Masterson stands reprising her role as the Deep Space Nine character Leeta, who turns in a zestful voiceover performance in the tutorial for the new Dabo mini-game.
The biggest downside to the audio work is Zachary Quinto's performance in the tutorial, which is drab and perfunctory. However, Daniel Stahl has indicated plans to scrap Quinto's tutorial from the game, which may lend some relief to players who find this sequence a bit underwhelming.
What's notably missing is ambient voiceover from your pet crew and other NPCs. Cryptic recorded a high volume of ambient voiceover prior to launch but realized that much of it was poorly linked to in-game events and has yet to re-enable this feature. This kind of audio immersion is sorely missed by immersion-seeking players used to playing MMOs with the standard sounds enabled.
The settings are lovingly recreated for the most part, with a wide variety of options out of the box for new players. You'll find a wide variety of bridges available for your ship, both from established Trek lore and original designs. As soon as you complete the tutorial, you have access to player housing aboard your ship with the ability to display trophies unlocked from the game's Accolade system, custom bridges, and three sizes of hallway layout to choose from. Interiors for all ships include a bridge (of your choice), captain's ready room, mess hall, captain's quarters, main engineering, transporter room, science lab, sickbay and more, to provide you with a wealth of private roleplay locations.
Additionally, there are several planets and stations for each faction to use as roleplay hubs, including many iconic locations Federation-side such as: Risa, Deep Space Nine, Vulcan, and Andoria.
The interiors, it should be noted, are at an unfortunately noticeable heightened scale to accommodate a third person camera designed around commanding not one but five members of your crew in ground combat.
Where the game truly excels, as expected, is in its avatar customization. You have the ability to create custom aliens that are beyond the wildest dream of even most sci-fi movie budgets and to have a strong guiding hand in every aspect of how your crew looks, from the length of their nose down to the color scheme and design of their uniforms.