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YAP - Yet Another Preview of STO

Posted by Lasastard Monday January 18 2010 at 8:16AM
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Reviewers' background:
I started playing MMOs a good 8 years ago - first Dark Age of Camelot, then the original SWG, and a number of other titles - including, but not limited to: EQ2, DnDO, Vanguard, CoH, Champions Online.
In recent years I have been severely dissapointed by the increasing trend to release unfinished games and the spreading lack of creative vision - so I am less willing to overlook poor design decisions or half-assed-ness.
I should also state that I would not consider myself a hardcore trekkie, but I watched TnG, the Original series, some of voyager and Enterprise as well as all movies. So I feel reasonably comfortable with the source material and tone of the franchise.
Finally, I am not a native speaker, so if my language is rough around the edges, do forgive me.

What this (p)review is:
No review (preview) is ever unbiased and if you check my record, I always had a critical attidue towards STO. This is based mostly on my experience with CO and some of the design decisions made by Cryptic. I will be coming back to this point later.
I will however make an effort to stay as objective as I can whilst highlighting the good and the bad of the current state of the game.
I won't give grades, because everyone and their dog has a different opinion on that anyway.

Reviewers' specs:
Dual Core 2.6Ghz, Radeon 4850, 4Gb Ram, Windows 7 - fresh install 1 week ago.

What I ask of you:
Either read all of the below, or don't bother posting.
Don't make excuses for Cryptic - they sell games for a living, normal standards apply.
Open Beta does not equal an excuse for flaws in game design. Bugs are expected and tolerated, however. So don't bring that argument up.

The actual Preview.

First off, this is of course a preview, not a review. The game is officially released in february and I am currently, along with many others, partaking in the Open Beta (got to level 13).
Now, the term 'Open Beta' implies that the game is not yet ready. However, I think it is reasonable to assume that by now the core mechanics are finalized as is most of the content.
OBs have been increasingly used to market a game and stress test the server architecture + get a feel for the potential customer base.

Setting the scene
Cryptic has re-used it's Engine and Toolkit that was originally developed for Champions Online. As far as I am aware they are working towards marketing their software as a all-inclusive MMO solution. So having two games under their belt is obviously good marketing.
However, coming from CO, I have to say that this is a double-edged blade. While the software seems reasonably competent - visual effects, mechanics, etc - it has some aspects that are noteworthy:

+ Server-cluster that scales with user size. This means that there is only one server, making server merges and low population-related problems a non-issue.
- This comes at the prize of immersiveness and Virtual-World-Feeling. Everything in CO, as well as in STO, is heavily instanced - sometimes to the point where you can't enter a room without zoning.

Let me just say that I think it seems to work well as a game development solution, but it is not really a good MMO engine. Also, you will guess that having such a very instanced and small-zoned world does not obviously lend itself to maiking a space game. I will return to that point in a minute.

Cryptic is going for a cartoonized - some will say stylized - reality approach. I suppose that is a reasonable strategy to capture as many customers as possibly, instead of locking out anyone with a lower-end machine.
The artwork is overall competent, but not outstanding. The obviously had a lot of source material to draw from and I think they captured the overall visual feel of the Star Trek universe.
Where this is not the case is space ships and space in general. Space ships have a freakishly low level of detail. Zooming in on you ship-avater soon reveals suprisingly low-rez textures and lack of detail. This to me is quite dissapointing.
Same goes for space - they do use a lot of nebulae to mask it, but the stars just look off. Like white dots on black ground, there is no real sense of, well, outer space there.

Character creation
Obviously, having created Champions Online, there is not much to complain about - it's very detailed and more than adequate for what a Star Trek game should be, including making up your own alien race.
Where it falls short, currently, is handling of the creator, because instead of having all modifiers on one screen, you have to click your way through a series of steps to adjust different parts of your toon. It feels a bit clunky and inconvenient, somehow.

I won't go into that. Suffice to say it does a good job introducing you to the game mechanics, but the way they sell you the story of how you, a lowly leutenant, gets a commission and crew... doesn't make any sense whatsover.
'There you go, take this billion-dollar spaceship, take these two poor souls, and off you go'... ^^
Moving on...

Space combat
This is a contoversial topic. STO does not aim to be a space-sim and space combat therefore is very much resembling your standard MMO combat. Your ship is your avatar (3rd person only) and you have a quickbar to fire off your weapons and specials.
What adds some depth is your choice of skills - as well as the ones you pick for you officiers. Investing skill points into the different skill trees will not only unlock new abilities, but also increase effectiveness or reduce timers on existing ones. So there quite a bit of depth there, but with any skill based system, I am sure it won't be long before someone has figured out the 'classes' hidden within this seemingly liberal system.

Ships have two sets of weapon arrays - front and back. Depending on your ship-class, you will have a number of weapons to slot, as well as consoles, engines etc - all of which effect your performance. Again, replace 'starship' with 'paladin', 'engine' with 'longsword' and you get the picture.

Your normal fight usually follows the same pattern:
Engage enemy, fire phasers and tachyon to bring down the shields, fire torpedos until enemy explodes. But since you have 4 shields (front back, sides) and they are independent of each other, you will try to focus on one shield. This gets tricky, because both of you are moving and you won't want to expose the same shield to your enemy all the time, either. So there, again, is some challenge and depth. But this brings us to the next point...

Since there is not real 360 degree movement, you cant move vertically per se, but have to cork-skrew your way up and down. BUt you know what, that's ok - it stopped bothering me after I got a feel for it and it makes combat a little more challenging. But I can see how this is a deal breaker for some, because depending on your ship and slotted items, maneuvering is very unresponsive and slow.
On the bright side, this is really the only moment where you get a sense of the dimensions of your ship - because otherwise it just feels tiny, not like something that is a kilometer long.

Ground combat
Atrocious, the only way I can describe that. Half-assed, maybe? Well, you get the picture. Your NPCs get stuck on *everything* and combat has two buttons - phaser-shot and a weapon-specific special. Now guess how fun that is after the 10th Klingon you blow up. Not very...
You have a bit if added complexity tho, because firing from behind or the side adds a damage bonus and you can try to actively dodge melee attacks (I think). but really, that whole system is just screwed up and boring.

Also, you can skill yourself and officiers in certain ground-combat related abilities, but so far it hasn't added much to my enjoyment.

Again, this is very controversial. Some missions are long arcs, taking place partly in space and partly on the ground, or a space station. The story of some of these missions is pretty good. I will even go so far and say that, in these instances (no pun intended), Cryptic has done a good job of capturing the feel of a TV episode.
But most of the missions are very much centered on combat and after a while some patterns emerge. Other missions are very straight-forward to the point of meaninglessness. Beam down, scan four crates, done. 'What, that's it?!', you will ask yourself.
So it's a bit of a mixed bag, but not too bad. However, this assumes that you take the time to read the dialogues etc. If you just rush through everything, no quest (mission) will be able to capture your attention.

Then there are fleet battles (read: zerg ^^) - think of it as a large raid, perhaps. You blast your way through waves of enemies until that giant badass supership spawns and tries to kill you dead.
Well, not dead, because there is no death penalty whatsoever, and respawn points are never far away.

There has been some debate as to whether STO is too solo friendly, but that's hard to say at this point. Sometimes, when doing missions, you may get auto-grouped with others who are doing it too. But other times, you will be on your own.
Despite some comments, I don't think the enemy strength scales very well. Sometimes, a group of four gets massacred by enemies, sometimes I would be able to complete a mission solo. No indication on the difficulty beforehand, tho.
This got very aggrevating when I did a fairly long mission (several locations, etc) with relative ease only to then face some kind of battleshiip from hell that blew me up without me being able to make so much as a dent in the shield. That's just poor design, imho.

I haven't tried PvP yet, but the Klingon race (which I have tried only briefly) is centered around that. I wouldn't expect more depth than what you have seen in CO, tho.

Closing remarks
Star Trek is a wonderful, rich IP. It is intuitive to think of it as a MMORPG, a virtual world with a lot of different pillars to build on (diplomacy, social interaction, crafting, combat, RvR, etc).
However, it feels that Cryptic has rushed the development of the game. Some aspects feel unfinished, others you would expect to see never actually made it into the game. For example, there is very little to create the sense of community or even "Massivley Multiplayer" in this game.
At the end of the day, it's a solo or multi-player game that is very much focused on killing stuff. My suspicion is that much of the things that irritiate me about the game and it's design stem from the limitations that Cryptic put on themselves by using their existing engine. It is quite obvious that it was developed for arcade-type games with a bit of multi-player feel.

It simply doesn't feel like you are in space, commanding a massive ship to explore new worlds and to boldly go where no man has gone before. There isn't even a meaningful, well-intigrated conflict between the klingon empire and the federation. Like for example a propper RvR-type approach to the neutral zone.
A bit of sandboxy'ness would go a very long way in making this game more than a shooter, in my opinion. Let guilds (fleets) build space stations, colonies on planets or whatever. Have a bridge that is not just a show room, or propper crafting and resourcemanagement.

With that being said, I suspect STO will do well in terms of box-sales (the IP alone will make sure of that), but it is currently not the kind of game that will entertain a lot of people past the first month or two.
Of course, all of this is based on what has been made available to the testers in the Open beta. It is possible, however unlikely, that the higher levels add more mechanics and depth to the game.
But I wouldn't hold my breath.

My last advice: Do not buy the lifetime sub. There is no way in heaven or hell that this game can hold anyones attentions for 16 months (the point where it breaks even).