To appreciate Star Trek Online--and there is a lot to appreciate here--understand up front that it's not going to be very "Star Trek." This game is all war, all the time, where nearly every mission is just a matter of shooting things.
- Detailed fast-paced space battles
- Lots of varied character development
- It's not a garden-variety MMO
- Not very "Star Trek" like
- Overwhelming "Huh?" factor
- Lacks world-building
MMOs: The latest, most profitable frontier. These are the voyages of the starship you will probably give some silly name to like USS Terd Burgler or USS Riker Is A Douche…or maybe just USS Normandy because you can't be bothered to think up something else. Its subscription-based-but-with-an-option-for-micropayments mission: To find the clearly labeled objectives on small worlds; to seek out and play through a whole lot of cool ship combat; and to go with mild determination and decent graphics where many MMOs have not really gone before (At least not in any meaningful sense; don't get me started on Star Wars: Galaxies.) Okay, cue the music, because Cryptic definitely licensed the music!
The "Star Trek" Part
To appreciate Star Trek Online – and there is a lot to appreciate here – understand up front that it's not going to be very “Star Trek.” This game is all war, all the time, where nearly every mission is just a matter of shooting things. This isn’t the Star Trek that many fans know and love, where Starfleet is like the UN in space, benevolently enforcing Prime Directives with its complement of mellifluous captains. Instead, this is a whole mess of Star Trek-shaped ships doing Wrath of Khan kinds of things to each other and wildly shuffling characters in shiny uniforms who shoot different colored laser beams at bad guys.
Constant war isn’t necessarily a complaint, since the combat is mostly good. This is especially true in space where battles are like a fast strategy game or a slower action sim. Your choice of officers determines what special abilities your ship can use and you manage shield facing and power allocation. As you level up, you fold fancy toys like cloaking, mines and warp core dumps into the action. The tangled fleet battles are almost like something out of Star Wars or maybe Galaga. Down on the ground, it's a bit more conventional, but you still get lots of abilities and fancy hardware. Once you resign yourself to rampaging around the universe firing phasers wildly, STO proves itself a solid game with a generous spread of hi-tech havoc.
The "Online" Part
You should also know up front that you're not going to be playing a typical MMO, which is both a strength and a liability for Star Trek Online. It's a strength because there's a lot of unique gameplay going on. For instance, you are not just an avatar. (Speaking of which, the robust character generator will let you be nine feet tall and blue if you want.) Instead, you are a bunch of interrelated things. In addition to your avatar, you have ships, skills, officers with their own skills, and a wide array of equipment. The officers and equipment are available for the choosing rather than left to chance. If you want a bad-ass disruptor rifle, you don’t have to kill Klingons until you hit an “oh look, someone dropped a bad-ass disruptor rifle” moment. Instead, just requisition it at the local Starfleet base. Of course, the degree of your disruptor rifle's bad-assery is based on what level you are. The more things change…
It's really satisfying to mix and match various parts, creating a sense that you're outfitting a ship and setting out into the galaxy; however, a significant weakness of STO is that there’s not much of a galaxy to set out into. This is space pieced together as a series of boxes, many of them without character. World building is a huge part of a good MMO and it's almost entirely absent here. You pass through loading screens on your way to a weird blue sector space effect (arguably one of the least Star Trek things in the whole game) or a graphic of a lovely ringed gas giant or a small box representing the surface of a planet. However, after you've marveled at a couple of these, there's no sense that they're fitted together into anything other than a place where you blow up ships and shoot aliens. There is no concept of ecology, geography, cultures or settings.
If I Had a Tricorder
Furthermore, a lot of the trappings that keep players playing in a traditional MMO feel underdeveloped. For instance, the crafting isn’t fully realized. While you're gadding about shooting your phasers, sometimes you'll see an anomaly, which is the STO term for a space treasure chest. You loot it for materials that you can cash in at a science station for loot. There…you just crafted. Or at least did the STO version of it. As you play, the stakes are oddly low because death means nothing; there is no penalty whatsoever for getting killed. To clear nearly any mission, just throw yourself repeatedly at the bad guys after you respawn.
There is also little reason to group with other players, although you'll be in a de facto group during public missions called fleet actions. (These are pretty chaotic, but they can be epic.) During ground missions, you can bring along your ship's officers instead of teaming up with other players. To the AI's credit, it acquits itself admirably. In fact, it's almost like you're better off not bringing along someone else. For an MMO about a Federation mounting fleet actions, STO does an oddly good job of catering to soloists.
Make It So-So
Star Trek Online mostly gets by on how it plays unlike any other MMO and these days, that's a considerable virtue. It remains to be seen whether dyed-in-the-wool Star Trek fans are going to tolerate the ongoing combat grind. For everyone else, there's still a sense that that the developers at Cryptic have a lot of gaps to fill before Star Trek Online is going to hold player interest the way other MMOs can. Until then, Starfleet sends you to boldly go with the game you have, not the game you might want or wish to have at a later time.