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Scott Jennings: STO - The Good, The Bad, The Ugly

Column By Scott Jennings on February 10, 2010

The Bad

Content is present – but not enough of it. You’ll quickly find that half of any given level is taken up with story missions (or quests), and the other half of the level will have to be earned through other means. There are quite a few other means , ranging from PvP, to all-combat randomly generated PvE “deep space patrols” to sometimes non-combat randomly generated “patrol missions”, but after a while they tend to become repetitive. I’m told that once you reach the level 25-ish range this becomes less of an issue, although this may be less due to more content being available and more that those levels simply progress quicker – there are already quite a few max-level players, one week after release.

If you play as a Klingon, you don’t even get the one-story mission per level content – there is *no* non-random PvE content for Klingons at all. The developers are promising more content, especially for Klingons, but it remains to be seen how if at all this will address the issue.

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Crafting is present as something of an afterthought, and not a well explained one. You find “anomalies” throughout your travels, which you can loot after a brief scan period (any similarity between this and “gathering” skills in other MMOs is strictly coincidental). You are instructed to take them to Memory Alpha, a starbase where you can cash them in to upgrade other minor loot. The kicker is that to get to each level band of crafting, you have to cash in enough of the previous level band’s worth to unlock the appropriate NPC – and there is no in-game guidance for how much is required. Given that you most likely won’t even make it to Memory Alpha until after level 10, you’ll have already outlevelled that first level band by the time you begin experimenting with the process. At this point, it’s difficult to see much use for it other than a money and time sink.

Your first ten levels aren’t as fun as the rest of the game. You’re given a single ship, the Miranda class light cruiser, which just isn’t very good – it doesn’t have the survivability of cruisers, nor the maneuverability of escorts, nor the special abilities of science vessels. By level 8, you’ll most likely have exhausted the available story line missions and will find yourself grinding deep space encounters just to get a decent ship. This is not the best first impression; experience point requirements for the 5-10 levels should probably be greatly lowered.

Combat is, when all is said and done, fairly shallow. All weapons have the same range, and most weapons in the same level have the same DPS, so equipping one’s ship is mainly a matter of choosing which overall type of weapon to include, without many (or any) choices within that type. Ground combat at first glance doesn’t measure up to space combat for polish and fun; eventually the fun part comes through (especially in fleet ground actions when you’re running around shooting up the place as part of a 10 or 15 man force) but it takes some doing to get there and is essentially just a matter of spamming weapon fire buttons.

The Ugly

Server stability has been an issue this first week, with unstable queues to log in, frequent server crashes occasionally leaving your character stranded logging into an instance, and other such teething pains. As the game’s only been released for a week, it remains to be seen if this is, as is most likely, temporary.

Lack of documentation hampers the game at times. Players get a dizzying array of skills and abilities for themselves and their bridge officers, and at times it’s hard to tell what each actually does. For example, a popular tactic for cruiser players is to try to invest in maneuverability skills and items so that their battleship doesn’t turn like a, well, battleship. Yet research is beginning to suggest that thanks to how skills are used and due to (completely undocumented) diminishing returns, trying to modify a cruiser’s turn rate is a waste of time. Generally, if a buff isn’t perceivable by a player, it’s a useless buff; and Star Trek Online, by that definition, is suffused with useless buffs and debuffs.

Is Star Trek Online an MMO? At first blush this is a patently silly question – thousands of players playing at once? Well, of course it’s an MMO. Yet, like Guild Wars, Star Trek Online is heavily, heavily instanced – while this allows all players, like in Guild Wars, to effectively play on a single “server”, this also means that at any given time you’re only with at the most 20 or so other players, and usually no more than 4 others. Unless you’re in a well-organized “fleet” or guild, those 4 people will be total strangers, and because of that there’s almost always no communication at all between them. Ironically, the one part of the game that is most massively multiplayer is the one you will turn off almost immediately – the global chat channel.

Guild Wars doesn’t call itself an MMO. It may be that Star Trek Online shouldn’t, either. That doesn’t mean it’s a bad game – as my “the good” list should imply, it’s one I’m enjoying playing, at least for now. But a little more “MMO” in the mix would make the game go much further. Say, just as a wild example, marking out PvP-friendly sectors of space owned by fleets, with stations that they invest in and manage, which act as economic hubs and have to be defended by enemies which shift from day to day based on politics.

It would be a fairly compelling game!

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Scott Jennings
Scott Jennings is a veteran MMO designer and the Internet personality once known as Lum The Mad. He has previously worked for Mythic Entertainment, NCsoft and others. His popular blog can be found at BrokenToys.org.

Aside from this column, Scott is also currently contracting with NCsoft.

Every Wednesday he provides us an insider's look at the MMO industry.
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