Star Trek Online: The Good, The Bad & The Ugly

Last night I finally reached Lieutenant Commander, a.k.a – Level 10. I would guesstimate that it took roughly 16 hours of playtime, so I guess I’ve logged some hours in space the past couple days. I’ve read many opinions of late and I thought I’d weigh in on the matter further, laying out the things I like and the things I don’t…in true Beta fashion.

I think I’ve seen a fair amount of the starting content, but I have yet to play the other race: Klingon. In terms of the Federation side you start out in the Beta Quadrant in the sector space nearest Earth. Your first ship is a Light Cruiser and you quickly build up a team of 4-5 Bridge Officers or BOs. As you advance you gain more and more Skill Points for both your character, as well as your BOs. You can then spend these points on various “skill trees” across the board, covering Ground & Space combat. An interesting mechanic which offers some good customization long term, but short term not so much. When I finally hit Lt. Cmdr. I had nearly all first tier skills maxed out, there were only a couple that I did not have points in, the others were all at ‘Level 9′, the highest. However, in the upper ranks there are lots more “branches” so it will not be possible to be master of all.

I enjoyed both the ground combat and the space combat, whilst leaning a little more towards the “spaceships & lazers, pew pew”. Being that this game is in space, and that there aren’t many other current MMOs in space, the majority of comparisons for STO are against EVE Online, which is I think flawed. Apples & Oranges in my opinion. EVE is very complex and meticulous in detail. You have a million different configurations for ships and skills and need to utilize strategy heavily to survive. STO is worlds apart from that. The space combat is simple at first (too simple for EVE Veterans), but eventually it grows more complex as you gain different weapons and ship skills. A direct combat session will likely only last 5 minutes at the longest (in solo encounters, not for missions overall) and involves mashing the keyboard with various “fire!” commands and adjusting your speed and maneuvering such that your various shields are taking their share of the damage and that your enemies are properly within your current weapons’ firing arcs, etc.. Ultimately I like it, if I had to envision space combat this is probably exactly what I would come up with…even if it is so simple.

Ground combat is also engaging, but much more similar to other scenarios and genres we’ve played before. If you are not in a team then you use your BO’s as support, otherwise your partners are a part of your “Away Team”. Depending upon your character creation decision of what ‘role’ you are (Engineer, Science, Tactical = Support, Medical, Weapons) you have varying abilities available to you. I chose Engineer and so I’m able to create small shield generators and phaser turrets to augment my team members abilities to heal and recharge our shields and fire the big guns at the bad guys. The missions are fairly blazay, but are varied enough to remain appealing.

I wouldn’t say that it is quite as time friendly as World of Warcraft, as some missions can take upwards of an hour to complete and there is no mid-mission saving. However it’s much easier to jump in and accomplish something than EVE Online. In addition, every single aspect of the game is instanced…everything. There is no single shard world of vast open space filled with thousands of ships…more like 10-30 other people and I don’t think that is even a possibility from the way it’s designed. The sector space map, for example, is a giant map that you navigate through normally which signifies your vessel travelling at warp speed to various parts of space. It’s big and bright and neat looking and thus gets super crowded with even 20 people, as ships and ship names cover up destinations and just adds to the clutter. The map would be simply unusable with even slightly larger groups of people.

Being that the game is in Beta, there are many rough edges and I cannot even imagine that they are thinking of shipping STO in 2 weeks. 2 weeks??? I’ve encountered so many issues I lost track. My favorite one so far is that I was stuck in space combat while in my human form. So as I would engage thrusters my character would start walking faster and faster eventually having his legs blur together he was running so fast. Eventually the client couldn’t handle me controlling my man in space and eventually took away control of my space craft and just started following the nearest enemy. Eventually I caught up to the enemy and it looked like my avatar was getting a wee bit friendly with whatever ship I was facing…monkeys & footballs if you will. So yeah, when this game goes “live” you will be effectively funding the continued beta development of this game. That’s not to say I won’t subscribe as I am enjoying my time in space and can put up with issues…as long as they aren’t game breaking. (The Klingons don’t even have basic functionality in their home port yet I hear)

I’ve read several ‘first impressions’ that wholly damn the entire game based on a couple of hours of playing, comparing it to any number of current MMOs and just throwing up their hands. I will completely agree that this game has it’s share of problems, but being Beta they are expected and I don’t think you can gauge the depth of this game in one short night of playing.

I think Cryptic would have benefited themselves if they opened the beta months ago and slowly showed progress patch after patch, but since they opened up a scant month before release they appear doomed. What were they trying to accomplish with a month long open beta? Typically the problems that arise in the full load testing phase (a.k.a. – open beta) are the big boys, the ship blockers, the ones you can’t fully test or comprehend until you have thousands upon thousands of people hitting your poor servers. Automated testing is great to a point, but I’ve never heard nor used a method that fully simulates “opening day”. But this wasn’t even a fully open beta as they limited the amount of keys that were given out. So with the apparently huge popularity of STO, (most likely indirectly increased from the recent Star Trek reboot movie last year…which was awesome) come opening day we’re likely going to see chaos. It seems to have an insurmountable amount of bugs and problems, some quite huge, like admitting to not having the server infrastructure due to poor planning numbers, this isn’t something that is fixable overnight.

Regardless I think the game has character. It’s been a lot of fun kicking the tires and enjoying the space combat. I’m not quite sure of it’s longevity (no trade skills, limited amount of ships & space, etc.) and my gut reaction is that after a month or two you’ll probably experience all that STO has to offer, but I hope I’m wrong.

So those are my thoughts after spending a fair amount of time in space. It’s kept me glued to my screen though even in its rough state, which is more than can be said of many games of late, so I’m sticking with it for the rest of beta. Now, I’m off to purchase my next class of ships, of which there are 3 (Cruiser, Escort, Science Vessel = All around, Attack, Support)…I’m thinking Science Vessel. “Who released the monkeys?!?!” (StarCraft quote of the day).

I Boldly Went…then it crashed

Captain’s Log, Supplemental:

If you haven’t yet heard Cryptic Studios has just launched the Open Beta for Star Trek Online. After reading several reviews and thoughts on the subject, and being a closet Trekkie from years gone by, I decided I’d take the plunge.

Now, this isn’t a truly “open” beta, as you must first have a key to get in. Luckily for me I waltzed over to Ten Ton Hammer and snagged one. I then spent about 4 hours downloading the 7+ GB install package (using BitTorrent btw, I highly recommend) and then…there it sat.

I was on the edge to begin with, as I’ve heard lots of negative things so far and I really didn’t want to set myself up for disappointment. But finally this morning I felt compelled enough to fire up STO and see for myself.

The installation went quite smooth, no real problems there. When the client finally loaded I jumped directly into character creation. For the most part I enjoyed this stage and had only a few issues with it. You can tweak nearly all areas of your character, but nothing to the extreme. When I adjusted, for example, the width of my nostrils it was hard to tell too much of a difference no matter how far I dragged the slider in either direction. I guess it might make a difference if you exaggerated every slider possible, but for the most part you can never get too extreme, just subtle changes. Finally, the color selection was pretty vast/tacky for my tastes as the choices were from a giant grid of colors ranging the spectrum, but they never felt natural once applied. Anyways, just some minor details.

In the end I chose a Human: William English “Bulldog” McQueen

William English "Bulldog" McQueen

Once that was finished you found yourself aboard a starship being attacked by The Borg. The initial tutorial consisted of getting you familiar with character movement and object interaction, standard stuff for any gamer used to the genre. Overall I felt the game was a bit “sluggish” if you will. Player actions and movements were just subtly delayed and didn’t feel immediate. I’m comparing my experience to World of Warcraft and therein I always felt everything was snappy, not a huge knock on STO but one nonetheless.

The starting tutorial area is instanced, so you will see your fair share of other players, mostly named XXUberDudeXX or HelloKittyVII or whatever nonsense, but it didn’t feel too over crowded. Eventually you complete the ‘run-around’ portion and advance to the starship control section. I quite enjoyed this stage, though it’s nothing like EVE, again slow, deliberate movements and actions of your ship…but ultimately it worked. The final stage of the tutorial is an ‘Away Team’ mission where you attempt to learn to control your NPC party members and more advanced combat controls.

My major problem with the tutorial, mainly the ship control and away team sections, was that the majority of features and UI were not explained and felt clunky. There is a narrator and for the most part you can get by with self discovery, but it should be smoother than that. If they added giant arrows or made sections of the UI flash that would be a great start, but for the most part nothing is explained fully and you just have to “wing it”. It took me a few minutes to figure out why my away team wasn’t following me…turns out they were set at a ‘rally point’ and I couldn’t figure out how to ‘un-rally’ them.

Once the tutorial was finished, and you were back at Earth, you could begin to play with the character skills, missions & limited ship creation. There were several NPCs that attempted to explain these various activities, but again I think they could do a bit better job of in-depth descriptions. Perhaps I’m just rusty, because again if you play with them enough it makes sense, but there is no clear cut advancement outline. What skills depend on other skills, etc.?

Eventually I took on my first mission which was to find a lost freighter, which entailed heading out to a space map which outlines the various systems. Again, I was a bit lost on what and how to do anything. Turns out the freighter was there on the map, but actually warping to it involved maneuvering close enough to the object on the map to then interact with it. Once you dropped out of warp you had to kill a few ruffian ships and then transport down to the ship to help. At this stage of the mission, the difficulty seemed to ramp up substantially and I found myself dead, or ‘incapacitated’. A quick re-spawn found myself attempting the mission stage over again, but in the heat of battle the server crashed and here I am writing this review.

So all in all, I’d say I enjoyed my time with Starfleet. I understand that this is still a beta and things will be fixed/improved, and I will continue to enjoy the beta and who knows, I might even subscribe. Ultimately STO did an amazing job of making you feel a part of the Star Trek world, from the environments, sounds & interactions, it just felt Trekkie to me, which is a good thing. There were some subtle issues with the speed and interaction of the client (I had to turn lots of the video settings down to make the game playable, even though my video card can easily handle the maxed out settings), but again this is a beta and those are to be expected.

Ultimately I think the success of the game is going to be it’s depth. I didn’t see any semblance of a player economy or trade skills, but again they might be there and I just couldn’t figure it out or being that the server is still in its infancy those portions aren’t flushed out yet. I would hope large scale fleet encounters and player battles are possible (ah la EVE Online), but I didn’t get the feel that was part of STO. So I can see this being a fun escape during breaks from more permanent commitments (i.e. – WoW, EVE, etc.), but I’m still unsure of it’s staying power.

We’ll see how the rest of the beta unfolds!