Editor's Note: Lori's review was written before the Season 4 upgrade of the ground combat system. As such we will be revisiting the game for an Impressions article after Season 4 hits, and we will as always re-evaluate our review in 6-12 months.
Space: The final frontier. A place that, thanks to the highly successful Star Trek franchise, is less mysterious and far more familiar than it was fifty years ago. Before the iconic Star Trek (better known as Star Trek: The Original Series or TOS these days) took us there for each episode of this Sci-Fi television hit space was something left purely to our imagination. But has Cryptic’s Star Trek Online (STO) lived up to those famous roots, transporting us all into the world where no man has gone before in an enjoyable, authentic way that holds its own with other MMORPG titles currently on the market? Let’s take a closer look at STO, a pay-to-play (P2P) MMO which combines ship-based combat and ground activities to create a complex, elaborate MMO in a familiar way.
STO is a buffet for the senses, to be sure. This game is very impressive visually, and the graphics are realistic and definitely up to par with many of today’s MMO options. The voice acting features Leonard Nimoy (Spock from TOS) and Zachary Quinto, who portrayed young Spock in the alternate reality featured in the 2009 Star Trek film, among others. In fact, the opening cinema with Nimoy narrating the introduction to STO is a great example of the quality players can expect here as far as graphics, audio and style. And while many players seem to be disappointed with Quinto’s performance as narrator during the tutorial segment of STO, I found that his detached and slightly unenthusiastic tone fit well with the Spock character he portrayed in the films.
The user interface is decent, without the clunky elements present in many popular MMO titles, and it blends in well with the rest of the graphics which compose the STO world. All in all, the aesthetics of STO fit nicely with the Star Trek world fans of the series have come to love, doing justice to this elaborate setting. Players who aren’t fans of Star Trek should also be able to enjoy the impressive graphics and audio, even if they don’t appreciate the nostalgic—but modern—environment. Previous complaints from the player base about repetitious graphic effects seemed to reach the art team loud and clear, and recent updates to the STO world have added some much needed variety.
Gameplay in STO is essentially divided into two main parts: Ship combat, where you literally control your vessel as the captain, and ground-based combat. During the latter, your avatar is a humanoid instead of a hulking, metal spaceship. These two systems are vastly different, both in mechanics and quality, as one might expect. The ship combat is a lot of fun with a definite Real-Time Strategy (RTS) feel to it, and it is very similar to titles like Homeworld. As you level up, you can pump up a wide variety of traits, and many players seem to spend a lot more time and experience enhancing the ship-based skills.
This is likely due, at least in part, to the sub-par quality of the ground missions. They feel awkward and poorly designed, and the characters seem far slower to respond to frantic button mashing than is acceptable at this stage of the MMO industry. You can use tactics like flanking, which does give players some bonuses for maneuvering with finesse instead of random flailing, but it isn’t enough to make ground combat an enjoyable experience. You get to choose between three primary classes: Science, Engineering and Tactical. The science route is the closest to a standard “healer” option, with buff-like abilities. Tactical offers some hardcore damage, whether in advanced weapon options, martial arts or even stealth techniques. Engineering, much like Science, focuses more on support rather than damage output, but with more emphasis on prevention methods rather than cures. The amount of races available is pretty impressive, with ten on the Federation side—including a wholly custom “alien” option—and five over on the Klingon side.
One feature of STO which few players can criticize is the incredibly elaborate character generation process. You can spend hours making a detailed, complex and original appearance for your avatar—though you won’t see the toon much, considering the split between ship-based and ground-based combat—and that’s just the physical appearance of the character, including the uniform. While the specifics of the character, from the traits and abilities to the “class” options, aren’t terribly diverse or outstanding compared to other P2P MMO titles available, Cryptic Studios really does a phenomenal job at taking “character customization” to a whole new level of specific.
As much as I would like to claim that there are some really innovative, original features implemented with STO, I really didn’t find anything spectacular enough to make me say “Wow.” The item mall in combination with a reoccurring subscription isn’t unusual these days, and I discussed the extensive amount of detail available in character creation above. The crafting system is sub-par, and more of hunt-and-gather-for-parts to upgrade your equipment system than true player crafting. Credit is due to Cryptic Studios for taking advantage of the renewed interest in the Star Trek franchise following the release of the 2009 Star Trek film.
Cryptic Studios has a remarkable knack for paying attention to the “small things” as far as graphics and audio are concerned. STO is one MMO where some of the loudest complaints of the community seem to have been heard, and changes to the layout graphics, voice acting and general mechanics have been routinely visited and updated since the first few months after STO’s initial launch. The bugs and line-of-sight problems with ground combat are a few of the issues in the game which haven’t been repaired, which has made more than a few STO players gravitate entirely away from ground-based skills and benefits in lieu of enhanced ship-based features—myself, included. The game has seen a coat of wax applied and shined over its time since launch, but there’s still a lot to be desired in terms of polish.