Where no cow has gone before
Meet Lieutenant (Grade Eight) Jonathan Harmon, erstwhile commander of the Federation light cruiser USS Altair, NCC-93165. Jon comes from a family of totally undistinguished Starfleet officers; he’s the sixth generation of Harmons to serve in Starfleet, and not one of them ever made it past Lieutenant or commanded a starship, so he’s already ahead of the game. Fresh from graduating in the bottom half of his class at Starfleet Academy, armed with nothing more than youthful idiocy and a bad haircut, he was all set to continue the family mediocrity when he reported to the Altair for a training cruise, and then things kinda went wrong at Vega Colony…
Yes, your humble Panzercow has taken a couple of days off from WoW and is giving Star Trek Online a whirl.
Now I’m not a huge Trekkie or Trekker or whatever they want to be called these days. Yes, as a kid in the mid-’70s, I grew up on reruns of the original 1966-1969 series broadcast every afternoon at 4:30 on local TV in Lynchburg, Virginia. But by the time Star Trek: The Next Generation came out, I was over it. In fact, I learned to dislike the show by sheer reflex–most of my friends at the time were absolutely addicted to it, and if I was over visiting them when it came on, everything frigging stopped–talking and noise were verboten for that hour. It was annoying. I don’t know that I’ve ever seen an entire episode of Deep Space Nine or Voyager, and never saw any of the ST movies in the theater. The only one I ever suffered through on TV was Star Trek V: The Final Frontier and I still haven’t quite figured out why, because it was a total piece of crap.
But, there’s something about the richness and depth of the Star Trek universe that’s appealing. Plus, I’m a sucker for games in space–I still have an account in EVE Online and play irregularly, and was very heavily into the Lucasarts X-Wing/TIE Fighter series and the whole Wing Commander line as well. (In fact, true geek story–I met my wife, the lovely and gracious Aggro Kitty, fourteen years ago on a Compuserve board devoted to tips and fiction around the Lucasarts X-Wing/TIE Fighter games.) So on a whim on Monday, while still snowed in at home, I picked up STO via Steam. I ended up playing most of the day Monday and Tuesday evening, which means I’ve taken my first two-day hiatus from WoW in months, maybe years.
Star Trek Online is set about thirty years after the events of Star Trek: Nemesis, the tenth and (thank God) final of the original series of ST movies. It’s 2409, and as you’d expect in an MMO, things in the Federation have gone to hell in a replicator. A supernova has destroyed the Romulan homeworlds (as referenced in the J.J. Abrams reboot movie Star Trek), despite the heroic efforts of Spock, and the remnants of the Romulans are pissed off. The Klingons have broken with the Federation for reasons I can’t quite figure out and are one of the primary Bad Guy races. (You can roll a Klingon character after you get 6 levels as Federation.) The Orions, Gorn, Nausicaans, and a shapechanging race called the Undine are causing trouble all over the place. And, oh yeah, as you find out early on, the Borg are back and there’s gonna be trouble (hey yaa, hey yaaaaa, the Borg are back). No, you’ll never run out of things to do in your Starfleet career, or at least, never run out of stuff to blow up.
Installation was quick and easy, and really, for an initial release, the game feels surprisingly solid. Yes, there are a few bugs here and there, but I have yet to find anything truly crippling. Probably the worst so far was a bug with forcing anti-aliasing in the game on my Geforce 8800GTS; as soon as I turned it on via the Options menu, shadows appeared several feet in the air. So that’s turned off for now. There’s been a couple of weird things happen with missions, and some intermittent server lag (and one crash on Monday), but so far, it looks like the beta period did a good job cleaning the game up.
And it is a very pretty game. The backdrops for space missions are gorgeous. The ships are vintage Trek, beautifully rendered. Phasers, disruptors, and torpedoes look great, and come complete with vintage Trek sound effects. Ground environments aren’t quite as spectacular, but they’re still nice. Animations are a bit jerky for my liking, but that’s a relatively minor nit to pick.
The character creator is what I wish the WoW character creator was. You have tremendous flexibility over your toon’s appearance and size, and can be one of any number of Trekiverse races–you can even create your own alien. In the end, though, they’re all bipedal and roughly human-sized, so sorry, no gnomes. (I wonder if I can make a create-your-own-alien look Tauren-ish. Hmm. Lieutenant Linedan. I’ll make a note to work on that.)
Once you create your character, you play through a few hours of introductory tutorials structured around a Borg invasion of the Vega Colony. You come out the other side as a fuzzy-cheeked Lieutenant, Grade 1, with your very own starship to play with and a couple of simple starter quests–uh, missions–to get you going. There are 50 levels, split into five ranks–Lieutenant, Lieutenant Commander, Commander, Captain, and Admiral–with 10 “grades” within each rank. You gain ranks by spending “skill points,” which are like experience points in other games, on various skills within a skillset limited by your chosen specialty at creation (tactical, engineering, or science) and by your rank. Earn and spend enough points, and eventually you’ll get promoted from Lieutenant 10 to Lieutenant Commander 1–at which point, a whole new set of skills open up, and you get to drive bigger and fancier starships. Your starter ship, a “light cruiser,” comes with two phasers front and back, and a photon torpedo launcher up front. You can upgrade the various bits on your ship–weapons, shields, engines, etc.–through loot that you get off destroyed enemy ships, or by buying it, or by mission rewards.
But how’s the content and gameplay, you might ask? Well, content-wise, it’s not bad so far. There are WoW-quest-like “episode missions” where you’re led through a scripted series of linked actions–go here, blow this up, beam down here, blow the bad guys away, warp out, profit. There are “patrol missions” where you’re given a list of star systems in a particular area to visit, and you end up getting a different mission in each one. These patrol missions are what Cryptic calls “open instanced” content–you will be automatically teamed up with other players in the same system on the same mission in sort of a forced random PUG. In fact, I have yet to see a patrol mission involving ship combat that could be soloed in a default light cruiser. They do require minimal teamwork, and can get pretty nasty if you don’t have at least 3-4 people, or somebody in a bigger ship. There’s also “sector patrols” where you find enemy contacts out in deep space–in these, you’ll be in the same instanced area with other players, but you aren’t forced onto a team. It’ll still take all of you to kill the eight squadrons of Klingons you need to fulfill the mission, though. There are exploration missions, which (surprise!) tend to end up with you in star systems blowing the crap out of stuff. And finally, there are “fleet actions,” which are humongous recurring battles with massive NPC fleets that reward high scorers. You do not want to get caught in one of these, alone, with a light cruiser. Trust me on this. I lasted about two seconds.
The missions themselves have a fair balance between ship combat and ground combat, but the key word is “combat.” This is not your father’s idealistic Star Trek. You, Lieutenant, end up kicking ass and taking names more often than not.
Ship combat is, to me, the more interesting part of the game. EVE Online disappoints me in this regard; typically, combat against NPCs involves me making sure I’ve got aggro on all the nearby ships, then launching a bunch of drones from my battleship and running bravely away while my drones chew things up and my weapons autofire. Boooorrriiiing. 90% of PvE combat in EVE is in the pre-fight ship setup. STO is more active. You actually drive your ship around (with the mouse or good old WASD) and try to get a good firing position while watching your four shields (front, back, left, right) and keeping your strong shield toward the bad guy(s). The starter ship has two phasers with wide arcs of fire that overlap to the sides, so broadsides are good–but the torpedo launcher, your big nuke, has a narrow arc forward, and torpedoes are only truly devastating once you chew through shields. It’s sorta-kinda three-dimensional; you don’t truly have three degrees of freedom, and there’s no top and bottom shields, but you can maneuver up and down to a limited extent. You can juggle the power levels on your ship to bias things toward weapons, shields, or engines (and adjust shield power to boost a weakened side). Imagine a fight in WoW where you have to keep moving constantly, and yet still pound buttons to use your weapons, without auto-attack. That’s a ship fight in STO.
Ground combat is similar–in fact, it’s fairly generic, similar to WoW. You’ll have an “away team” of four NPCs–typically your bridge officers, filled out by generic disposable redshirts as needed–following you around like hunter pets, and you can give them limited orders. You can equip two weapons and switch between them on the fly; each weapon seems, so far, to have one primary attack mode bound to “1,” a secondary attack mode (with a cooldown) bound to “2,” and a melee attack bound to “3.” Yes, that’s right kids, you can take that phaser rifle and go upside somebody’s head with the stock. There’s no autofire, not that I’ve yet found. So for me so far, ground combat has been spamming “1″ like a rogue, hitting “2″ when it’s up, and hitting “3″ when something gets in my face, so I can knock it down and hit “1″ again. Not exactly as demanding as a prot warrior’s tanking priority system.
Speaking of bridge officers! You get three manning the stations onboard your ship–Tactical, Engineering, and Science. Each one ranks up just like you do, and you train skills on each one just like your toon…and like you, they have skills useful on the ship, and useful on the ground. Now personally, when it came time to beam down to a planet and shoot some Klingons? I’d rather send in the Marines. It’s not like Bull Halsey landed on Okinawa right alongside the Marines, y’know. But this is Star Trek, and apparently, all bridge officers want to be Marines. So they get to perform double duty. Bridge officers are a tradable commodity, just like items. You can have them train your existing crew, or you can trade them to other players (gotta catch ‘em all!), and you even get them as mission rewards. You can also customize the appearance of your ship by rearranging the types of nacelles, saucer, struts, etc. that you have. All ships of a type have the same basic stats, but you can tweak the appearance in myriad different ways to create a look that’s right for you. And yes, the name you give your ship is proudly displayed on the saucer, as any good Star Trek ship’s would be.
So, in the final analysis, is this going to be a WoW-killer? Nope, certainly not for me. It’s a nice diversion, certainly. I’m enjoying it. But at the same time, I’m concerned about the content getting repetitive, depending on how many variations of “ZOMG KILL ALL TEH EBIL GORNS!!” I get on patrol missions. Cryptic is going to have a challenge keeping the content fresh as the playerbase levels and heads toward whatever counts as the endgame. They’re also fighting with server lag and stability issues due to the number of players. Instancing virtually every piece of content helps (even when in open space, you’re in an “instanced” area and can only see and interact with a limited number of players) but they’re still trying to cram tens of thousands of players onto one single server cluster. EVE Online’s been putting 50,000+ on one server for years, but the EVE universe is much bigger than STO’s.
In STO’s favor, however…there are tribbles.