Inside a demonstration room hidden deep within the sprawling Cologne convention centre compound, perched on top of a shelf and underneath a giant television, sits a small Spock figurine. Andy Velasquez, associate producer on Star Trek Online, is playing with him. As executive producer Craig Zinkievich introduces Andy and himself to the handful of video game hacks in attendance, Spock is put down, but our gaze remains on the little Vulcan. He's holding a nail in his hand. Really. It's hard to pay attention to the presentation Champions Online developer Cryptic is delivering on its ambitious licensed MMO when there's a toy Spock waving a screw in your face.
But it's not impossible, and that's because this is the first time our eyes have been granted the opportunity to cast their sceptical stare at Star Trek Online. From the game's announcement to this point, we've only been able to imagine in our minds how STO will look, as if we were the Starship Enterprise struggling to scan some mysterious outer space gaseous cloud. Now, finally, we're inside the anomaly, we're through the black hole, and STO is laid bare for all to see.
So, what are we looking at? A fairly uneventful bit of virtual space, that's what. Gorgeous, beautiful, but uneventful. A pristine light cruiser class starship is hovering in the middle of the screen. Asteroids, lots of asteroids, surround it, as well as a large, striking planet. The HUD is clean. Ship controls are displayed on the lower left - full impulse and reverse. Another icon displays shields around a small image of the ship hull. On the right are four options: attack, defence, speed and balance, as well as some power levels. And, finally, there are some number key abilities: fire torpedo, fire beams, fire all. Welcome to space.
It obviously gets more exciting than that, and so it should, because in STO every player is a captain, either as a member of Starfleet or the Klingon Defence Force, the game's two opposing militaries. You're in complete control of everything that happens on and to your ship. You start at the top, without having to climb the military ladder, licking arse, polishing boots or, if you're halfway handsome, wooing the Admiral's daughter.
"We weren't that interested in making the game where you go down to the transporter room and press the button for 20 hours then level up, and you get to go to engineering and use a wrench," says Craig. "We figured anybody who had seen one of the shows, anybody who had seen the movies, had dreamt about being a starship captain in charge of their ship. We wanted to focus in on that experience." Good decision.
So, what's Captain Andy doing in this neck of the galaxy? In this "episode", he's been asked by Starfleet to ferry a Vulcan ambassador from earth to a Vulcan monastery world. When he arrived a group of Klingons hailed him. "Look here you," they barked. "You've got an evil shapeshifter on board. Beam the ambassador over to our ship or we're going to send a photon torpedo up your rear engine." Andy, being the good Starfleet officer he is, told the Klingons where to go. Time for a ruck.
Wait a minute? What's Starfleet doing fighting Klingons? They're mates, aren't they? I mean, there are half human half Klingons in Starfleet and everything! Easy there Stargeek. Star Trek Online takes place in the year 2409, that's 30 years after Star Trek Nemesis - the last prime timeline movie - and 22 years after the super nova that destroyed Romulas, sent Spock and Nero back in time and kicked off the kick ass reboot. A lot of stuff has happened in those 22 years. Despite the fact their home world has been destroyed, Romulas is still an empire. The Borg has returned to the Alpha Quadrant even more powerful than before and still bent on assimilation. But more importantly the Khitomer Accord, the treaty between the United Federation of Planets and the Klingon Empire, has broken down, leading to all out war between the previous allies. Rrraaarr.
Back in space, Andy's suddenly faced with fighting off three Klingon war ships. He moves towards them slowly, his starship turning like a turtle in quick sand. Facing and positioning is very important in space combat - all your weapons have a firing arc. Andy's got a photon torpedo up front, which has a narrow arc, and a forward facing phaser array and a rear facing phaser array, both of which have wide firing arcs. But they overlap - if you end up broadsiding your enemy you can attack with both of your phasers and, knowing that phasers are good at knocking down shields, turn in and hit them with photon torpedoes, which are awesome for taking out hull.
All of the ships in the game have these basic mechanics: throttle, shields, hull, power levels and weapons with their firing arcs. But what makes you stand apart from everyone else, and defines the role you play in space combat, are your bridge officers.
Andy's lower class light cruiser has three bridge officer seats on board: tactical (Sasa Mira), engineering (Jinn) and science (Hope). You level your bridge officers. You decide what powers they have. You decide what gear they have equipped. You even decide their names and what they look like.
"The shows, the movies, if anything they're about the crew," Craig explains. "It's who's on the bridge. What do they know how to do? How they work together? It's your bridge officers in STO that help define the role you play and your experience."