Today marks the final part in my three part preview of Star Trek Online. Today, I'll cover the user Interface, items, grouping and PvP. You can read part one of the preview, here while part two can be found here.
User Interface design has to be the most thankless job in gaming. If ever a game company sees someone like me writing about them, that means they've got some work to do. When done right, no one notices. When they're not, everyone has an opinion.
That's not to say that the UI in STO is horrible, it's not, but it's not exactly stellar either and I am certain that Cryptic is aware of it and has put a lot of effort into it. With each build I've seen changes, good and bad, go in and I am absolutely certain that will continue up to and throughout launch. So I preface all of this with: it will all change.
The UI though, as it exists in Beta, is the weakest element of Star Trek Online.
Artistically, it shines. It looks like what I think a Starfleet interface should look like. The big rounded buttons are there and the sounds are pretty good. It definitely succeeds on a visual level, but that's about the only good thing I have to say about it.
The biggest problem is responsiveness. Everyone's played a game like this. One where you hit a button once and feel like it needs to be mashed three more times to do anything. STO is one of those. In some earlier versions you quite literally did. Sluggish is the only word. To their credit, though, in the most recent version this improved markedly. It was still a bit sluggish, but it was no longer rip your hair out annoying.
While artistically it's solid, the way Cryptic has chosen to roll out new elements is the biggest issue. Star Trek Online is not exactly a simple game, but there is no slow reveal in this one. Skills are tossed at you left and right with only moderate explanation of what they are. There is no sorting, lots of confusion and a lack of feedback on whether what you just spent your 100 points on actually did anything. Sometimes I'd think I spent my skills only to realize 20 minutes later that it didn't take or that I'd tossed them into a skill that did something totally different than I thought.
A lot of this can be solved through some careful reading, which might make it my own fault, but the average player is not going to sort through three paragraphs to figure out that yes, that skill does make your phasers pack more punch.
The team did a good job of the balance between immersive quest text and walls of chat spew. You can get the feel and not read a book, but the same goals totally failed in skills. The skill names are often non-descript and unclear of whether they're even for space or ground, your crew or you.
I am sure hardcore Trek fans will pick up the difference between a Disruptor and a Phaser quickly, but to anyone who "only" watched all the TV shows and went no further, a lot of this is techno-babble and needs to be more concisely explained.
Looting, in ground or space, is another issue. When you blow up a starship or take out a Borg cube, sometimes they drop stuff. This is represented through a golden orb that glows above the corpse, or a satellite looking box in the wreckage. That's fine, they're even color coded in group situations. Gold means they're all yours, while white means someone else earned that loot.
The problem is picking it up. This is a cursed sci-fi game, so auto loot is more than just convenient, it's explainable. It's possible, mind you, that it's in there, but I looked and never found it. So, much like my auto-attack rant, if they have the feature and someone who wanted them cannot find them in the UI, that is a big problem unto itself. To loot, you need to go near something (very near it on land) and a little window appears in the bottom right corner that says "Take Items." If you see that, you hit the button or press "F." That brings it to the center of the screen where you must hit another button or "F" again. That brings up the loot window where you can click Take All or individual items.
It sounds straight forward in text, but it's the video game equivalent to Windows Vista asking you if you're sure you trust Microsoft products installed on your computer. Just give me the damn widgets already!
The same applies when selling them. A nice feature is the replicator which lets you sell items for slightly less than you'd get at a starbase while out and about. It saves annoying traveling when the inventory gets full. I tend to use it to sell cheaper items to make space for high end loot. Great feature.
The problem is that in their quest to make you come to terms with your science officer you need to look at the guy every time you use the replicator. Instead of just getting a buy/sell window, you get a guy in a blue Starfleet uniform pop up and ask you if you want to visit the store. Of course I want to visit the store!
Cryptic needs to really examine the number of clicks it takes to do each action. It's a huge issue for me in Beta and single-handedly made me log off a few times when I would otherwise have been having a grand old time.
Another issue is navigation in space. The game has 3D space, but not upside down. That sounds good on paper, but can get really silly at times. I understand that the IP always had everyone "facing up," and have no issues at all with that.
The problems start when there is a target you need to get to a long way above or under you. There is a maximum pitch up or down a ship can travel at to keep them on the correct axis. Normally, you see targets coming so you slowly angle down or up to get to them as you close the gap, but when you find yourself directly above an enemy, for example, you quite literally need to "circle the toilet bowl" to corkscrew your way down to them. It's quite silly.
The final complaint is that Cryptic seems to have gotten a bad case of "move that button from where I expect it to be for no apparent reason" syndrome. Again, to their credit, they've been ironing this out in Beta, but it still needs work. Let's face it, there is a standard means of control and I see no good reason to move hot keys. Yes, I can remap my controls fully, but I'd rather it be set up logically the first time. For example, if you hit "I" for inventory it does bring up your inventory, but it doesn't bring up your paper doll. Why? Who knows. That's bound to the "U" key, of course. It's nothing major, but there is no reason to change that convention.
Finally, there is also just a round of basic things that need to be added. One of the best little UI innovations in MMOs was the side-by-side comparison of equipped items and items in the inventory when you hover over something. It tells you quickly whether your new sword is better than your current sword. STO doesn't have that (yet).
The team has a month and if all the patches lately are any indication, they're more than aware of the problem, but the UI has a long way to go and it's going to be a sprint to get all the annoying things fixed and implemented before launch. Some, like item comparison and responsiveness I am sure will get ironed out, but others, like corkscrew travel up and down in space, will no doubt make it to launch.