Feb. 10th, 2012

achtungexplosiv: (Default)
... and more clichéd Borg-related puns. The reason being that Star Trek Online has just celebrated it's 2 year anniversary with heavy promotion of it's newly released free-to-play side and anniversary content such as Borg invasion events and a special mission to acquire a limited edition ship.

Star Trek Online

STO had a troubled development history, having begun life as a project of now-bankrupt Perpetual Entertainment and getting shelved when it all went south. Luckily, Cryptic Studios picked it up and began developing it again, with much fanfare and hype and even getting on board Leonard Nimoy for voice acting and promotions. I followed it's development with interest because Star Trek was something I grew up around (I knew my Andorians from my Betazoid), and I even applied for the Beta. Needless to say, with my old rustbucket of a computer back then I didn't get a lookin.

However, what I heard coming out of the betas was disappointing. Spaceflight was primitive and like Freelancer but sluggish, ground combat was basic and never really got anywhere. Even though it looked good and there was a lot of effort on matching up lore and keeping star trek aesthetics, themes and sounds, my enthusiasm drained away and I barely gave it any thought. The game is set a while after the Voyager series finished: the Klingons are at war with the Federation, the denizens of the Gamma Quadrant are gearing up for an invasion, the Borg are ever-present, the Undine (species 8472) are plotting to wipe everyone out and the shattered remains of the Romulan Star Empire are causing trouble. Plenty of scope for activity but from all I heard it just never lived up to it's potential.

Fast forward a year and a half and while I investigate Champions Online, I end up hearing more about STO as its sister product at Cryptic. The item shop microtransaction model had kept me away, I had Eve Online for my spaceship pewpew needs and Anarchy Online for my ground based sci fi. It wasn't until this second anniversary celebration when a couple of friends jumped into the game that I decided I'd give it a go.

With Perfect World International's acquisition of Cryptic, there's been a big push to amalgamate accounts into a single PWI entity. I have reservations about this, particularly since I have a PWI account already because of the couple of days I faffed about with Forsaken World, but as yet it's still possible to use an existing Cryptic account to play STO/CO. The fun part about that is that a Cryptic account spans both games to the point where you can be logged in as one character on one account in one game and chat to yourself, in-game, to another character on the same account in the other game. Quite nifty for keeping track of friends I feel. It also meant I had accounts existing ready for STO so I could log in, roll up a Starfleet officer and get going with a minimum of fuss.

First impressions

Free to play means restrictions all round. My experience with CO meant I knew what sort of thing to expect with STO: limited character selection, limited costumes, missing out on customisation and so on. I wasn't expecting only ONE character on an account though, which is a bit stingy. Would it have hurt to allow 2? Still once technical hiccups had been resolved (running the first time defaulting to 800x600 fullscreen whilst at the same time the character creation auto-started in the middle of the client's Gamma test: hilarity ensued), I got mucking about creating a character. Science, Engineering or Tactical officer and then picking a species or creating your own custom alien. The usual suspects were available to play, such as Human, Vulcan, Andorian etc, as well as some less popular choices like the Pakled. No Klingons until you have a character at 25 (they're an entirely seperate faction) and therefore none at all to free players unless they buy more character slots.

In my usual style, I went with a custom alien Engineering Officer. A weird looking tall thin thing with bone plates and spikes, dreads, infra red vision and a thoughtful composure. Recognisable themes from the various series and films play during character creation and once you're done you jump right into the tutorial.

Having played through the CO tutorial plenty of times I was hoping for something similar: open world with much to explore, mobs to pewpew for XP and items, extra quests lurking around and achivements/perks (called Accolades in STO). Sadly, it's not like that at all. The experience is very linear, eases you in slowly with how to best use your phasers, movement controls, scanning for anomalies, explaining bridge officers and absolutely nothing of interest. You are a lowly ensign beamed aboard a ship under borg attack to help them fend off the invaders, who are acting very oddly. Upon your victory, you find that the Borg killed all the command crew of your own ship. In the ensuing spaceflight battles you prove yourself to be a worthy acting-captain and you rescue some personnel from various less lucky Federation ships before getting together with other ships (other tutorial newbies or NPCs) to kick some Borg butt. Then it's home in time for tea and medals and a promotion to Lieutenent. That is, level 1 and entrance into the main star trek galaxy playfields - a single server with instancing used for all locations. All in all it was more of a cinematic cut scene with little else, and absolutely no replay value.

Exploration and Boldly Going

Spaceflight and combat is very Freelancer, much more so than it is Eve Online, though it's using similar 'clearly defined up and down' space as opposed to true 3D space. That said your ships are big and slow so steering them is a tedious and fiddly prospect, especially given your weapons don't autofire so you end up having to mash the spacebar for your phasers and the number keys for your photon torpedos. I really wish I had the option to double-click in space move rather than hold down all mouse buttons and slowly drag the cursor, or WASD. Having only a distance to your object with no other spatial information in a pseudo-3D environment is a real pain as well, and overall it feels primitive. There's a lot of manual flying around 'sector space' which is basically warp space which you use to fly through sectors and quadrants, dropping out of to arrive in various systems. The autopilot can only fly you in a straight line. If a zone boundary appears within that line, you go into that zone regardless of whether that was where you'd plotted a course to or not. It then leaves you there, scratching your head and wondring what your navigation console was smoking.

You can scan for anomalies and those lead either to mission objectives or, more often than not, objects you can play a wave-matching minigame with to win loot that's used for crafting. This occurs in both space and on the ground. It's a bit fiddly at first but once you're familiar with the increment size of each click of the arrow when matching a wave, it gets to be rather easy and you win lots more loot.

Ground combat I actually found to be rather fun. I had a very nice sniper phaser that could 1-shot just about anything if I dropped into Aim mode, and early on found a hand phaser with an AoE setting to swap to once multiple hostiles were in range. The NPC-controlled security officers and bridge officers that comprised the rest of my away team were rather erratic and often rather stupid, not moving out of the radius of a photon grenade thrown at us, or just charging right into the middle and getting shot up. The movement animations looked bad though; my body hovers through the air with my erratic limb waving having no tangible effect on anything. I jump like an idiot. There's equipment like armour, kits for a special move/attack, 2 weapons you can switch between and 4 slots for consumables such as shield rechargers and medical stims *.

Customising your Bridge Crew is a nice touch. The specialisations, race and gender are fixed but you can alter any other aspect of their appearance, and it's up to you what equipment you want to give them. They each have one special Ground skill and one Ship skill. As an example the Andorian Female Tactical Officer everyone is issued with in the tutorial can use Photon Grenades on the ground, and can supercharge a double Photon Torpedo attack in space. As you do things in the game and gain officer ranks (levels), you gain points to spend in your own skills and points for your bridge crew.

As with CO, once you're at the main earth space station after you finish the tutorial, there's a bunch of runaround missions to talk to people and get the hang of things like the tailor, shipyard, medical bay and so on, then you're sent off on some story related basic missions (escort a Vulcan ambassador, add a dash of Klingons and leave to simmer with an Undine - it gets messy). Eventually you're given the obligatory runaround in how to craft and a lesson why getting involved in Ferengi money-making schemes behind the Federation's back is ultimately a headache. Then you're given free reign on what you want to do next. At this point I found the game to get slow in terms of progression.

Odessy Class Ship

Q gives freebies?!

The spangly Odessy-class ship mission for the anniversary celebration can only begin at Lieutenant (5) (which is only level 5, sounds easy enough). It's simple enough to do: chat to Q on the earth station and after sitting through his attempts at humour and exasperation at human's obsession with phat loots, he tells you to get your arse to Mars where you can test fly this new super-secret uber class ship on some deactivated Borg. A Klingon shows up in an uber battleship pursued by other Federation vessels, you blow it the hell up and then it's home in time for more tea and more medals.

The trouble was that I found it surprisingly long and awkward to make up the levels to go and do the mission. So much so that I ran out of time trying to get it on another character. Grinding the Delta Voranis anomaly missions was what the game strongly suggested I do by giving me lots of repeatable missions there and all it really did was build up a big pile of crafting materials I didn't have the currency to make use of. The main currency is Energy Credits and at lower levels at least, it's hard to come by. But I persevered and the ship was big, majestic, powerful and slow as molasses. Sadly you can only actually pilot the thing for real at max level, which I didn't realise at the start.

All in all

I spent much of the weekend playing STO and it was overall a fun blast. It's shared programming and game design roots with CO are very obvious all over the game, though I wonder why they made ground movement so different when CO's works well and STO's doesn't...
I'm not sure if I'll play it any more than maybe a random hour here and there as whilst character creation is fun (Female Ferengi Tactical Officer you say? That'll get all the RPers knickers in a twist if I go RP with it...) and they've captured the feel of Star Trek nicely, I can see ground combat getting samey and space combat isn't all that entertaining. Still, it's free so chances are I'll give it a look back now and then. It's not engaged me particularly and I see much of it's wasted potential, but I don't hate it and haven't uninstalled it so it's doing better than many other MMOs...

* The best ones I found were Tribbles. They had monosyllable names, if you idled your away team would take them out and stroke them complete with tribble sound effects, and when you got shot you could eat them to regain HP...


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