Star Trek Online Hands-On PreviewBy Morgan Webb - Posted Nov 11, 2009
Pick Me! I'll Boldly Go!
I need to be perfectly honest here, Cryptic Studios had me at "To Boldly Go." I grew up a Star Trek fan, and when I heard that an MMO was in the works, I rapidly set about the task of recruiting my friends to play Star Trek Online with me. I can't be a Starfleet captain without loyal officers, can I? Unfortunately I still have a little longer to wait before I get to take my ship for a spin, so until then I'll just have to be satisfied with the hands-on I got from Cryptic.
I'm a Born Leader
Star Trek Online would probably be more realistic if you started as an ensign and around level 20 finally moved up to transporter chief (probably the most useless job in the entire series). Cryptic knows, however, that we are not interested in being a low-ranking ethnic stereotype from the future, so everyone starts out as a starship captain, roaming the universe as master of a tiny pressurized domain. When you create your character, you have the option to either customize one of the known races, or create your own race with any number of forehead ridges and facial markings. Want a lizard-like neck frill and a bony occipital structure? It's yours, in a rainbow of colors. Then share your model with your friends so they can make a character of the same species. Your guild can be entirely populated by pink lizard people. I'm going to call them the Anoleans and you are all invited to join my species. Together we will take over the galaxy.
What may be a little confusing to people is that while you start out in command of a ship, you don't actually start out with the rank of captain. Instead of the standard numeric leveling system you will find in other MMOs, this leveling system is broken up into military ranks of 10 levels each. You are a lieutenant for 10 grades, up through the ten levels of admiral. It works the same as the leveling in other games, where you acquire talents and even access to new ships and crew as you level -- it's just the nomenclature that is different. Cryptic promises that there will be plenty of end-game content to keep the admirals happy.
The game takes place 40 or so years after Star Trek: Nemesis, when the treaty between the Federation and the Klingons has broken down. You choose a side (OK, let's just be honest here and call them factions) and try to make your mark. Space combat is a tactical affair. You must keep your ship moving to spread damage taken over different parts of your shield, and you must position your ship so that weapons firing from the front or back will hit their intended target. You also have to monitor the amount of power available to each shield and boost it in an emergency. Your bridge crew, which you expand as you level, will also grant your ship special abilities, such as the ability to fire three photon torpedoes at once. The PvE battles I saw ranged from the simple takedown of two Klingon Birds of Prey to a pitched battle between my Galaxy class ship and a large battleship supported by a number of smaller vessels. I would have failed miserably if the developer hadn't jumped in to help me, as these space battles will take some skill and practice to get right. Especially since you are frantically trying to keep any one shield from taking too much damage.
There are a number of different ships available, from the Galaxy class (e.g. The Next Generation Enterprise) to small tactical ships, to science vessels, and everything in between. The different types of ships will give buffs of relative importance to different classes of characters, but as you level you will earn access to many different types of ships, so even if you are a science officer you can play with any type of ship you please. You can also choose from a number of different looks and paint jobs for each type of ship. There are so many cool options you may even feel compelled to stray from an exact replica of the ship from your favorite series.
Kirk vs. Picard
Captain Picard rarely went to the surface for an away mission, it put the captain in too much danger. Kirk always went, especially if there was a chance of first contact with an alien that looked even a little female. Your Star Trek Online character is old school in this respect: you lead away missions to ships and planets that can consist of up to 5 people. These 5 people can be any combination of real players and AI characters. For example, my buddy and I want to do a quest together, so he and I team up, he brings two tactical officers, and I bring along a medical officer in case any of them run off and get hurt. The ground combat is pretty fast-paced. You have a variety of weapons depending on class and preference, and some special and secondary attacks if the right opportunity presents itself and your enemy is open. Your bridge officers happily fight alongside you, blasting away at the Klingon scum (or Federation scum, if you're a Klingophile). If you are familiar with MMOs, you can think of your AI bridge officers as being similar to pets in other games. They help you on your battles and give you advantages both on and off the ship. Your crew is so important that Star Trek Online is mostly based around 5-man instances.
The Vast Emptiness of Space
Are you the only Trekkie among your friends? Don't worry if you can't get 5 people to play with you (though like me, you should start your campaign early, I'm recruiting fellow players through the wear-down theory). Your bridge officers seemed perfectly capable of helping you out of a bad situation, but in case they are a little thick, Cryptic will help you out. If you start an instance and a fellow captain is in the area right behind you, he may beam down into the same instance and you can tackle it together, and maybe you'll even make a friend. If your group is almost done with the instance, they'll give this Johnny-come-lately his own to start. This way you'll run into lots of other players and you'll overlap on the same part of a quest. That makes it a lot easier to help each other out.
If you're not interested in helping anyone out, you can of course set out to destroy them. What's an MMO without PvP? The Federation and the Klingon Empire sure do hate each other, and while PvP is not in effect everywhere, you can take out your aggression in the Neutral Zone or in battlegrounds.
To Seek Out New Life and New Civilizations
Star Trek is about exploration above all else, and while it would be impossible for the developers to make an infinite amount of content, it's not impossible for the computers. They can procedurally create novel systems and species to explore and meet so you'll never run out of places to...well...boldly go. The Anoleans are avid explorers, so I'll see you on the edge of the galaxy this February.