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."
In this example, Sasa Mira has the Photon Torpedo Salvo power, a photon spread that fires off multiple torpedoes - Andy can only fire one at a time. As Sasa levels up, as you train her up, that power becomes much more useful, to the point where she can fire off three or four torpedoes at a time.
Andy's starship fires phasers and photons - the iconic sound effects bursting our ear drums. Battle is a slow, considered process, but then something happens that gets everyone excited: one Klingon ship explodes in a puff of sparks. Then the other. Then the other. In STO, when the warp core of a ship explodes, it actually does damage to nearby ships. It's a chain reaction of galactic proportions. Andy lets out a little cheer.
"It's only the second time - nicely done - you ended up getting all three to die at one point in time," congratulates Craig. "So good job cutting the demo short! We can't show all the cool combo stuff now."
Craig is left to explain the cool combo stuff instead. Have your science officer use the Tachyon Beam power, for example, to drop an enemy's shield, then go in with your tactical officer's Photon Torpedo Salvo. Or use the Tractor Beam to pull your enemy up close before weakening their hull with an engineering power. The possibilities are many and varied.
Which is good, because space combat, at least at face value, looks a tad boring. More will be gleamed from a hands-on of course, but the key question to answer now is: will space combat be compelling and intense enough not to feel like an irritating hoop that must be jumped through in order to get to the meat of the game? What we suspect will be the case is that space combat will be better played than watched, and, actually, will be thoroughly intense. Craig, to his credit, is willing to defend Cryptic's design decision.
"These aren't small ships, they aren't fighters zipping around dogfighting," he insists. "These are massive starships with great firepower and hundreds of people on most of the crews. We wanted to make space combat feel like that in STO. It's all about balancing and moving power from shields that have power to your weaker shields. It's about your power levels - whether or not you have power routed to your engines, your shields, your auxiliary systems or your weapons. It's about facing and positioning. It's about whittling down your enemy's weakest shields, getting to that side, and then attacking them with a photon torpedo barrage to take them out." Good point.
With the Klingon ships dispatched, it's on to the next part of the episode: Andy needs to beam down to the planet to save Vulcan monks from the sharp end of a Klingon Batleth. STO is clearly divided into two gameplay types: in space and on ground, but allows seamless transition between the two. The exact time split between the two isn't known right now, but it's clear that players will spend much of their time yo-yoing between planets and starships.
Away missions always require a group of five. If you're playing with four other players, you'll all be captains. If you're going solo you get to choose which bridge officers should fill the gaps - an important decision, as it determines the kind of gameplay experience you'll enjoy. Here, in the wonderfully named "Away Team Picker" screen, Andy has the aforementioned Hope, Jinn, Sasa Mira and the mysterious Red Shirt for company (don't tell him, but we reckon poor old Red Shirt doesn't stand much chance of surviving).
There are various types of officers available, each one with a different on ground role. Tactical officers, for example, take and deal loads of damage. Medical officers heal, predictably. Engineers lay down emitters and turrets. As a captain, your class, or career as it's called in the game, is decided upon when you create your character: tactical, engineering or science. While careers grant you a small number of powers, the developer's goal is that your choice should be a broad one. In any case, eventually you'll even be able to cross train within the careers.
On the ground, Andy is running around a jungle/mountainous area with his away team by his side shooting Klingons with phasers and rifles, with the odd melee attack thrown in for good measure. The graphics are lovely, really - not cartoon-ey, or photo-realistic, but somewhere in the middle - convincing and eye catching, and well detailed, as Craig explains.
"We did want to advance the look. We weren't that interested in picking a certain time frame and saying okay, it's going to be Next Gen [Star Trek: The Next Generation], everybody's going to be wearing polyester, it's going to be TOS [Star Trek: The Original Series], everyone's got t-shirts on. So we did want to advance the art style. We did want to bring it into the future.
"CBS themselves in one of the meetings said that in DS9 [Star Trek: Deep Space 9] everybody is just wearing curtains and furniture fabric. So we did want to update it and make it look cooler and advance it. It is a time of war so maybe things are a little bit more militaristic as well."
It's a time of war indeed. All hell is breaking loose as Andy's fully autonomous MMO pets, aka his away team, go to work on the Klingons. You're able to micromanage their actions if you wish - you can tell them to stay and follow, be more aggressive or support, and even tag enemies before you enter combat - but the feel is much more run and gun, more reactive and fast-paced, a reassuring counter point to the considered carnage of the last 10 minutes.
Powers come from three sources: your weapons, your kits and your career. As a captain you're able to equip two weapons when you beam down on an away mission: Andy's got a rifle that has a Sniper Attack power, and a phaser, which can, of course, be set to stun.
It's your career restricted kit, however, that defines your role on the battlefield more than anything else. Andy's low level science kit has the Stasis Field power, which can freeze enemies in place - crowd control, basically. As you level up you'll gain access to more complex and interesting kits, some of which have as many as four slots. Players can have a maximum of 12 items in their tray at once: three per weapon, up to four career powers, up to four kit powers, and CPR, the universal resurrection power. With 12 slots for powers, grossly individual play styles should be achievable. That you're able to swap kits and weapons when on the ground, too, ensures the possibility of even more varied loadouts.
As our first look at STO comes to an end, we can't help but feel the game is coming along swimmingly. But there's one feature some Star Trek fans might not be too happy about, and that's the Alien Creator. While you're able to play as many of the species you know and love from the Star Trek universe, you're also able to use the Alien Creator to create your own race, add racial powers, like super intelligence or super jumping, then add them to the Star Trek universe. In theory it sounds great - here we have Cryptic doing what many consider to be what it does best - insanely fun, varied and deep character customisation. Indeed the number of playable races in STO is infinite. But is this a good thing? How will Star Trek fans react when they see scores of unfamiliar aliens sunning their weird and wacky skin on the beaches of pleasure planet Risa? What about canon? In Star Trek Online, will it be a case of too much individuality and not enough order?
This is just about the only reservation we have with the game. Bar that, it's warp 9.9, or whatever the maximum warp is in 2409. The game's in the hands of a developer experienced in the art of delivering good quality MMOs, and, this being Cryptic, guarantees that character, starship and bridge officer customisation will be bloody brilliant. But, when all is said and done, it is the intertwined on ground and outer space action that has us most excited.
"The goal is to make it feel like you're living in one of the episodes, one of the movies," concludes Craig. "Nobody in the episodes or movies stayed in one place for any period of time. They were in space. They got a hail. They beamed down to the planet, rescued some scientists, beamed back up to a space station that was under attack, got data off a computer, went back to their starship for the climactic space battle."
With a closed beta "just around the corner", it won't be long before we'll get the chance to put Cryptic's ambitious project to the test.
Star Trek Online is due out for the PC next year.