Here's the first problem: your ship moves very, VERY slowly. Turning's like pulling teeth. They just don't want to do it. Is it like that in the shows? In the films? I'm not sure. My ship's not particularly big or pretty. Surely it should be able to nip about like a ferret, ducking and diving and dodging and der... and der.... well, you get the idea.
Here's the second problem: ship combat's repetitive. Your basic mission involves going to a sector and destroying loads of enemy ships. Doing so is either mind-numbingly easy, or impossibly hard. There's no in between. Destroy eight Gorn squadrons, or 12 Klingon waves – that sort of thing. So you fly in and hammer the hotkeys until everything is space dust.
There's some strategy. If you're up against a powerful ship, you might want to shift your power output from attack to defence, strengthening your shields, and try to keep your ship with one of its sides facing the enemy so you can overlap your forward and aft phaser arcs and broadside the be-Jesus out of the bogie, but that's it. I imagine endgame shenanigans will require more thoughtful war tactics, but for the first 20 hours or so it's pretty mind-numbing. When the next mission asks you to go to whatever system and destroy another 12 ships, you can't help but sigh. It's all the same.
Cryptic will, of course, point to the missions that fuse in space combat with on ground combat. It's true: in some of the more elaborate quests you hop from away mission to space combat and back again a few times. But the gameplay's so combat heavy that it still lacks variety. STO's combat might be faithful to the source material, but without all the story and character development the shows had in spades, it's exposed.
The bigger, more worrying problem, is the astonishingly slow sense of progression. I'm baffled by some of Cryptic's design decisions here. The great MMO game design manual lists a number of must-have features: level up quick at the beginning and get shiny new toys to play with when you do. Execute on that, and you'll soon infect your players with that “carrot on a stick”, “just one more quest” bug. In STO, you level up so slowly that you wonder if you'll ever level up at all.
I played for hours – HOURS – over the Christmas break, and I only managed to get Doosie up to a level seven lieutenant – still the first rank! There are five ranks in total: Lieutenant, Lieutenant Commander, Commander, Captain and Admiral, and each contain ten levels. When you complete missions and destroy stuff, you get skill points to improve existing abilities; you can't “buy” new abilities as you would in other MMOs. Because of this, new toys are as rare as a sober Irishman (it's okay, I'm half Irish, I'm allowed to say that). The whole “carrot on a stick” thing doesn't work so well when there's no carrot on the end of the stick.
Things get slightly more interesting at level six. Then, you can log out and create a level six Klingon/Gorn/Nausicaan/Orion/new species. But Klingon Empire players can only play player versus player (after a short player versus environment episode), either by selecting instanced scraps from a drop down menu or warping to the skirmish manually. Imagine that! Imagine if WoW's Horde races were restricted to running PvP battlegrounds? Imagine if they had no player versus environment content? Well, it just wouldn't be tolerated.
I understand things get more interesting at level ten, where you finally get a new and improved ship and some new abilities, but right now, where I'm at in the closed beta, the Lieutenant Commander rank feels like it's in a galaxy far, far away.
But – and this is another big but – when STO's good, it's pretty damn good. One episode automatically sorted me and a few other players into a “Fleet” for a cracking space battle packed with starships. It was chaos – heart-pounding, adrenaline pumping, epically epic etc. Loads of phaser beams and photon torpedoes and red alerts and exploding warp cores and lots and lots of enemy ships. It was great. Finally, I felt like I was part of Starfleet, part of something bigger than little old me and my lumbering bucket of bolts, part of something massively multiplayer.
STO's an odd game – at this point – and proper hardcore. It's burning slowly (very slowly) but, crucially, it's still burning. Despite the problems, I want, I need, to keep playing, to get to level ten, to get a new ship that turns quicker, to get some new abilities and to experience more huge space battles. If Cryptic can tinker and tweak in the right areas between now and the game's February release, it could have a decent MMO on its hands. If not, well... Scotty won't be beaming anyone up.
Star Trek Online is scheduled for release on February 2, 2010 in North America and February 5, 2010 across Europe and Australia.