If they say that a picture paints a thousand words, then hands-on gameplay must be ten times that. I had interviewed Executive Producer Craig Zinkievich a number of times about Star Trek Online, and frankly, together with a number of my fellow journalists, were in a “wait and see” frame of mind about the game. Could Cryptic really take what seemed to be an old tired TV series and create a fresh gaming experience out of it? Would it appeal to fans and also to gamers who knew close to nothing about the original TV series? I had always enjoyed the Star Trek series. How would Cryptic port the essence of Star Trek into an MMO? We already knew the basics. They set it in the year 2409, 30 years after Star Trek: Nemesis to allow it to be familiar enough to fans, and yet be able to write their own story based on the Star Trek lore and canon.
At PAX this year, Cryptic was providing hands-on game-play demos. We flew a short mission in the iconic Enterprise against a few Klingon Birds of Prey, small nimble fighters that made us feel like a lumbering freighter. The experience brought out the Star Trek “fangirl” in me as phrases such as “Launch rear photon torpedoes!” and “Thrusters on full!” as well as “Divert power to rear shields” leapt to my lips but were hardily and barely suppressed (perhaps a few did escape) as we performed the functions in game. A young girl did, excitedly unabashed, as Craig turned the controls over and we got some hands-on time.
The ability to manage your ship in such a manner brought an additional layer of strategy to an otherwise straight forward 3-D space-combat game. “You can micro-manage the game if you wish,” explained Craig as he explained the controls and the UI. “There are pre-set power level bars for various distribution of the ship’s power.” We saw the Attack / Defense / Speed & Balanced presets that distributed power to shields, weapons or movement, and with clicks of the mouse on the UI representation of the ship and its shields, could divert power to shields that were taking a hammering. The UI even at this stage of design was intuitive and the controls easy to grasp and play, with WASD movement and hotbars.
We did not play alone either, as we had our full complement of bridge officers with us, each bringing his or her skills and abilities, which were accessed through their icons on a hotbar. So apart from the phasers and the front and rear photon torpedoes we had access to, we also had our officer’s skills which in combination could unleash a devastating salvo on the enemy. Especially with one that could drain the enemy shields together with another who could fire a barrage of photon torpedoes. This was especially cool if your enemies are packed close together. When a warp core goes, the resulting explosion can damage his allies. It can damage your shields too if you are too close enough.
Having dealt handily with the Klingon, we received communication that we could safely beam down planet side and we did. Seamlessly. From ship combat to ground play. We materialized on the planet and followed through on our objective. Craig described bridge officers as “MMO pets knocked to the next level.” On default, they will follow you and engage the enemy with their own weapons and specialties. They can also be micro-managed. If you want to leave a couple of them guarding an area, you can. If you want to put them on aggressive mode, you can do that as well.
We were also introduced to “kits,” which are equipped by your characters – both player and bridge officers alike. Restricted to class and rank, they provided more character creation depth. Our Captain was equipped with a Martial Arts kit that came in very handy in close combat. We moved fluidly from ranged combat with phasers and laser barrages to hand-to-hand combat with our bridge officers supporting with firepower and healing.
Gamers can play together in space combat missions by flying their own ships as well as on ground missions. In ground missions, you are restricted to a certain group size (five right now) so if you have another player in your team, you will only be able to bring a total of 3 bridge officers with you, and will have to choose which ones to bring. Players can if they wish, form a full team of other Captains.
Egged on by the same young fan, Craig showed every ship she could name except for a couple that were still under development, and showed us the customizable parts. Each class of ship had preset “costume pieces” that players could apply to change their outward appearance, yet not hide their silhouette. The number of pieces were vast as Craig flipped through many, many variations of ships, much to the delight of fans surrounding us.
Often at conventions such as these as demos are done on the show floor, I take notes as a developer plays, then get some hands-on time myself. The more I’m involved in playing a game, the scarcer the notes. For Star Trek Online, I had few notes, a couple sketches of the ship’s firing arcs and shields UI and the remembered excitement of the ship-to-ship engagement. Cryptic has shown pure love in the handling of the Star Trek franchise at this point, with a tiny slice of a game that managed to touch on the beloved aspects of the vast universe that is Star Trek. All I can say now is… “Warp speed Nine! Engage!”
You can also check out four exclusive STO screenshots, here.