As I mentioned in an earlier column, I found my inner Trekker unable to resist Star Trek Online’s siren song. Yet it’s difficult to turn off the analytical game designer part of my brain, even when thinking up silly names for your starships, so an interesting topic for today’s column, I believe, is a look at how Star Trek Online shapes up as an MMO as opposed to an outlet for my nerd-Trekkery. I’ve been playing it for a little over a week now (achieving “Lt. Commander 6”, or level 16 out of 50 in other words), which while not enough to conclusively file a review is enough for a first look at some of what Cryptic is trying to accomplish with the game. So, unlike the earlier piece, which was more about me and what a sad, sad little Star Trek fan I am (and only slightly about raised expectations regarding beta programs), this is more a look at Star Trek Online as it stands on release.
Customization is a hallmark of Cryptic-designed games and Star Trek Online doesn’t disappoint – you’re given the tools to craft pretty much any alien being you can think of. As far as clothing, you’re given a subset of futuristic armor-plated Starfleet uniforms as well as the, in my fanboy eyes, far better looking earlier “classic uniforms” – everyone has access to the TNG/DS9 uniforms and various pre-order promotions unlock the Wrath of Khan, original series, and mirror universe uniforms as well.
You’re also able to customize your bridge officers (which fill out your “away team” in ground missions), although a bug currently blocks you from outfitting them with pre-order unlocked uniforms, so alas the away team of all TOS characters shooting phasers at Gorns throwing Styrofoam boulders will have to wait.
Ships can be customized as well – not to the degree of personal appearance, but more a mix-and-match set of building parts. You also have the ability to give your starship a name and registry number, which of course will never be abused, ever.
Flexibility is something I was not expecting with this title, and am quite pleasantly surprised with. Essentially, you have two separate ‘classes’ – your actual class (Engineering, Tactical or Science, which *very* roughly equate to tanking, DPS, and buff/debuff classes in fantasy MMOs) and the ship that you fly (which, in rough analogue to the classes, are Cruisers, Escort Cruisers, and Science Cruisers). What is fairly cool about this system is that you aren’t locked into a ship at all – in fact, once you unlock the ability to fly new classes of ships at level 11, you can easily afford to buy all 3. Gameplay with each ship type is *very* different – cruisers play as battleships which can take a pounding but maneuver very slowly and ponderously, while escort cruisers are the exact opposite; glass cannons which dart around the battlefield looking for (and making their own) openings, and then hopefully flying away before taking too much fire. And since you can own any of these, if you’re not feeling like being a battleship, you can equip your fighter craft and blast away.
There’s also quite a bit of gameplay (and some theorycrafting, though not too much) in equipping your ships and officers. Each ship has various numbers of hardpoints on which can be equipped weapons, shields, and the like, as well as duty stations for bridge officers (the same ones you take on away teams); as you’ll have more bridge officers than duty stations, you can specialize their skill builds based on situations (or have some that specialize in ground combat instead). New equipment for your starship also can drop as loot (which doesn’t make a whole lot of sense thematically when you loot a quantum torpedo launcher from a Romulan centurion on the ground, but then, neither does looting gold from a wolf).
The impact of all this is that your ship will shoot and fly different from others. Already there are different builds for each ship type, such as the “beam boat” cruiser loaded with nothing but wide angle phasers to slowly wander into battle and plink away at anything in reach, or the “torpedo boat” escort cruiser which relies on a first strike of heavy hitting weapons at the cost of, well, any other weapons. Of course theorycrafting may make all this moot eventually and produce the “one correct build” much as in other skill-based games, but for now the jury’s still out, which makes arguing your own unique build more fun.
Positional gameplay is present, and though it’s not too deep, it’s deep enough to add an immersive feel to combat that isn’t present in many other MMOs. Ship combat is all about attacking from four angles (the Z axis is abstracted to a degree, though present) and given the very wide disparity between ship maneuverability, lining up one’s shots can take a degree of… dare I say it? Skill. The ‘terrain’ of space can also sometimes come into play – battles frequently take place in asteroid belts, and as asteroids block fire, dodging behind a nearby rock to recharge one’s shields is a perfectly valid ploy. Ships blowing up also do a tremendous amount of damage when they explode to nearby vessels based on their size – blowing up the battleship surrounded by birds of prey can be more rewarding than you’d think, though you may not want to be that close yourself. Of course, there’s a delay to the explosion, so you can have the cinematic “flying through the exploding ship” moment that is a key part of any space opera.