Thursday, April 15, 2010

Star Trek Online - The Wrath of Gaff

Star Trek Online has been out for a couple of months now so I figured I'd take a look at how this highly-anticipated MMO was received (SPOILER ALERT - not great!)

I'll preface this by saying that I am a Trek fan. Not to the extremes that you see in certain documentaries, but I've seen every episode of every show (except Enterprise - 'natch) and I consider myself a Trek enthusiast.

In saying that, Star Trek Online is not an amazing game. It's certainly not a terrible game either, but I don't think it's what Trek fans have been waiting quite literally years for. First off, you can see how Cryptic knocked this out in about 18 months. The engine powering the game is almost identical to the one running under the hood in Champions Online, to the point where the option screens for both games are nigh identical. Having played both games this gave me the uneasy impression that if you scratched the surface of STO even just a little you would find Champions running underneath, as if the entire game is just a reskinned mod. I'm sure that's not accurate but it was the impression I got the first few times I played STO.

Getting past that, the universe does seem nicely fleshed out, once you deal with the fact that you are commanding a starship even though you are only a Junior Grade Lieutenant. Characters are familiar from the TV shows and reference major Trek lore points, and who doesn't want to go and visit Quark's bar on Deep Space 9? It sounds a lot cooler than it was, but still, it gave me a small thrill being able to visit a place I was so familiar with from the show.

Some of the missions are very well written, to the point where they almost feel like an episode of a show, with a distinct beginning, middle and end. The best of the these multi-part missions are by far the highlight of the game, having you chase down Ferengi smugglers, go back in time to face a Klingon desperate to stay one step ahead of you, or even participate in large scale "fleet actions" involving up to 20 players in the same mission. These "epic" missions are STO's greatest success and its greatest weakness - great because many of them do truly deserve the description "epic" - and weak because there are simply not enough of them. Instead, the vast majority of the missions you undertake will be humdrum "kill X enemy ships", beam down to a planet and click on several "flashy" objects with no combat involved, or, and this is my personal favourite, when faced with a colony that needs supplies then to finish that mission you actually have to go and buy the supplies. A mission where I need to go and spend money to finish it? No thanks.

STO is separated into two main parts of the game, space combat and ground combat. The space combat part is actually quite challenging and involves at least a modicum of strategy. You need to divert power to the appropriate subsystem (weapons, engines, shields, etc.) and try to keep your weaker shields facing away from enemy ships, while at the same time weakening enemy shields with your phasers and, once they are defenceless, kill them off with photon torpedoes. Various additions to your crew will grant you different abilities, both in space and on the ground, and employing these abilities to their best potential is a big part of the game. For example, my tactical officer had an ability whereby my next photon torpedo would do much more damage, and employing this skill could turn the tide of a battle (although most of the time it didn't and I would just blitz through enemies).

Ground combat is less satisfying. You fight in a third-person view and have only rudimentary control of your away team. Unfortunately, many of your team will almost unerringly wander off during your mission, or get stuck behind various walls or doors, to the point where if you start with 5 people you might end up with 3. Getting the other two back involves either a) waiting patiently, or b) setting manual waypoints for those team members to return to your location. It's buggy, clunky and annoying to have to wait there for 30 seconds in front of a bunch of enemies because a couple of people are doing their best impression of a potted plant two rooms back. There also seems to be a slight lag in ground combat between trying to do something and it actually happening.

If this game was solely space-based then I would be a lot more optimistic about its future. As it is, ground combat needs a lot of work and I'm not sure Cryptic are going to be willing to fix it to the extent that it needs fixing. STO is probably an acceptable game to someone who eats and breathes Star Trek, and I must admit the character creation system (as with any Cryptic game) is outstanding, but for a more casual player who might only have a passing interest in Trek then I'm not sure there is enough here to satisfy many waverers. Cryptic may have beaten BioWare to the punch getting their game out of the door, but in a year's time (when we expect to see The Old Republic) I'm not sure that it will have given Cryptic that much of an advantage.

That being said, STO is probably worth checking out to see if it is something that might work for you, but I fear that for most people it is not going to be something that holds their attention. In my case I lasted for one month and I think I was being quite generous. The game lacks polish and could probably have used an extra 6-12 months of development time to sharpen up certain aspects, especially ground combat which is one of its weakest elements. No doubt Cryptic will continue to update the game with bugfixes, new missions and new areas, but will there be anyone still playing by then? Time will tell.