“Space: the final frontier. These are the voyages of the starship St. Reatham. Its two-week mission: to explore the Star Trek Online closed beta, to seek out new skills and new bridge officer powers; to boldly go where no MMO player has gone before.”
No one proclaimed that iconic phrase in the recent - and superb - JJ Abrams-directed Star Trek reboot; the film unceremoniously broke from the past; it was sexy, action-packed and girlfriend friendly. And you won't hear it in Star Trek Online, the Cryptic Studios-developed massively multiplayer online game due out in February, either. The success of the movie has spawned a new breed of Trek fan, and they're hungry for more Kirk and Spock and Scotty and Bones goodness. They're not necessarily MMO players, either. Getting that lot to sign up for a STO subscription is Cryptic's most difficult, but potentially most rewarding, challenge.
You'd think, then, that STO would be an accessible, warp speed romp through sub space. It is not. What it is, in fact, is pretty complex, and slooooow. Some of its complexity and slowness is welcome. Some is ill-advised. But the game always feels like it's dragging itself through treacle with both arms tied behind its back. Well, at least that's how the closed beta feels.
STO begins as all Cryptic games do: with an excellent character creation editor. The first step is to pick your class, or careers as they're called. There are only three to choose from: tactical, engineering and science. Put simply, tactical is your damage dealing class, engineering is your support class, and science is your healing class. During my famous World of Warcraft “period”, I played a priest, or, as my guild mates called it, a flower picking priest. I like healing others, see. Peace and goodwill to all men and all that rubbish. So, after a cursory glance at STO's career descriptions, I decide on the sciences; a bit like Spock, except without the pointy ears and devastating hand grip of ultimate doom.
The second step is to pick your race. At first, only goodie-two-shoes Federation types are available. Humans, Vulcans, Bajorans... or, like a virtual god, you can sculpt an entirely new alien race in your image. So, my green (not in skin colour – she's more of a barbecue brown) science ensign, Doosie, has a towering 60's beehive hairdo and hangs her hip in a supermodel fashion. No sooner has she materialised on a starship than the Borg start sticking their adapting noses in Vega colony and all hell breaks loose. This first “episode”, a wonderfully executed and exciting tutorial voiced by Spock himself (not Leonard Nimoy, but the new reboot one), sets the tone perfectly.
STO is divided up into two, clearly defined parts: on ground combat and in space combat. On the ground it plays in a familiar, third-person “WASD to move” fashion. Your character takes missions from NPCs, and, once completed, cashes them in for skill points. Tab-based auto-targeting makes the on ground combat a simple process of pressing hotkeys to fire your equipped weapon and your “Kit” power - essentially your career specific special ability - is triggered with a click of the mouse button. C makes you crouch, which improves your aim and damage. Holding Shift makes you sprint for a bit. Double tapping a direction makes you do a horribly animated roll.
STO's ground combat is functional and not particularly interesting. Flank your enemy and you'll get a damage bonus. “Expose” abilities, like the phaser stun, soften up your foe for more damage based attacks. It can get a bit chaotic when you're on an away mission with four of your bridge officers running about, each one sort of under your control, but really, if you keep an eye on your shield and health meters, use a hypo spray when needed and keep shooting, you'll get by.
After beating back the Borg, I score a promotion and snag my very own starship. I name it the SS St. Reatham – what Streatham would be called if it was in Oxfordshire instead of South London. My first bridge officer is called Shar – a tactical officer with a useful leg sweep ability and a high yield torpedo power for use in space. This is what STO's all about – getting as close to that Captain Kirk, or Captain Jean-Luc Picard, or Captain Janeway (not her, actually – no one liked her) fantasy as is virtually possible. Taking your very own starship out and exploring the galaxy – engage! - that's the dream, that's what we'll sign on the dotted line for.
STO's Unique Selling Point (git speak for cool feature) is space combat. Out in space, you're in control of your starship, steering it, firing phasers, torpedoes, twisting and turning, using the odd “Bridge Officer Power” and generally blowing Bird of Preys and Borg cubes to bits. It's all very Star Trek – the phaser beam sounds are bang on, the red alert siren pitch perfect, and the “pew” of photon torpedoes makes your belly do that warm fuzzy thing. But - and this is a big but – once you get over the novelty of piloting your starship through space and firing EVERYTHING!, it feels, well, a bit like hard work.