"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.
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.