Star Trek Online
A few days ago, we reported on the early hours of Star Trek Online, the new MMO from Cryptic that entered into open beta testing earlier this week. We’ve since had plenty of time to dig into the space and ground combat, skill system and upgrades, and even play a little bit of the unlockable Klingon faction. Here is our full report along with screens taken from our time in the game.
At the end of our last look at the game, which you can read here, we’d completed the introduction as a young Star Fleet officer, having been promoted to our first command during a crisis period for the Federation. Threats lay heavy upon the galaxy – war with the Klingons, the reemergence of the Borg, and deeper, more mysterious dangers that seem to be looming on the horizon.
The early missions that follow the game’s introduction do a fine job of establishing many of the complex and interconnected game systems that govern play. The first and most significant is the skill system – the primary way to build up your avatar’s abilities and have them rank up. Players acquire skill points by completing missions and defeating enemy forces. Once attained, they need to be spent upon various abilities that improve your in-game actions. We initially threw some points into Starship Command for added maneuverability and damage with our ship, and then several points into energy and projectile ship weapons, so that our phasers and torpedoes would pack more of a wallop. With the last skill points we’d built up during the introduction, we fleshed out our ground capabilities – improving our own personal combat skills and our ability to command away team members and improve the use of their skills.
Spending these points helps to ascend the long road through the ranks of Star Fleet, the leveling system of the game. Every rank has 10 grades (levels) that build up as you play. After the introduction, players will already have moved out of their roles as Ensigns to become Lieutenants. From there, the progression is Lieutenant Commander, Commander, Captain, and Admiral. Each new rank brings with it a new tier of abilities, weapons, and missions. However, more notably, it gives players their next tier of ship.
Star Fleet ships are split into five tiers to match the corresponding ranks. Every player begins the game as the captain of a light cruiser. However, at the Earth spacedock that serves as home base for the Federation, players can quickly customize the look of their craft within the constraints of that ship's class. For our ship we changed out the saucer and nacelles, and altered the color scheme for the exterior before heading out for our first major missions. It’s fairly limited this early in the game. It will take many hours to reach the second tier of ships, but at that point the options expand dramatically. Beginning as a Lieutenant Commander, players are able to choose between fast and dangerous escort ships, heavy and well-fortified cruisers, and technologically advanced science ships.
The following hours of play were filled with numerous missions that had us crisscrossing the nearby regions of space. An overview “Sector Space” map allows for easy transversal across the galaxy between systems, but it’s only once you enter a system and its surrounding space that you’ll dive into space combat. In addition, many systems will have ground sections attached to missions located there – requiring you beam down for exploration, negotiations, or most commonly, ground combat. We tackled one mission that had us negotiating to end a work stoppage on a Federation mining colony. Another mission sent us into a heated space battle with the reptilian Gorn after their attack on a science facility. Still another demanded we patrol several separate star systems for signs of Klingon incursions into Federation space.
Along the way we were automatically placed in open instance groups with other players who were attempting the same missions we were. Though this feature can be turned off to play solo, the open instance approach often sends players into much larger and more exciting battles than they might encounter alone. With three or four player ships as allies and a commensurate number of enemy cruisers and fighters, space battles can become impressively explosive affairs. If you like the team you’re automatically assigned to, you can stick with them for several upcoming missions. When you’re ready to head out solo once again, it’s easy to leave.
We also explored another largely group-focused activity called Fleet Actions. These massive battles had us dropping in with a large group of other players to tackle extremely large battles. For Trek fans, imagine the really big battles in the latter seasons of Deep Space Nine or the opening battle against the Borg in Star Trek: First Contact, and you’ll have a good sense of what Cryptic is going for with these sessions. These large-scale battles are objective driven, and can be found scattered about the galaxy – easy to drop into when you want a break from the mission tree.
After four or five hours of missions and battles, we’d acquired some significant upgrades to our equipment, both from mission rewards and through purchases at friendly neighborhood starbases. For our ship, we chose to apply some regenerative shields that would power back up quickly after a hard fight. We changed out one of our phaser banks for a disruptor with a smaller firing arc but a higher damage output. Our avatar saw similar advances, with some impressive body armor that helped with her targeting, and a powerful sniper phaser rifle that could start off any battle with a big hit. When extra equipment came into our possession, we’d either sell it off to pay for future upgrades or pass it along to one of our bridge officers, helping to assure they’d be as sturdy in combat as our main commanding officer.
Upon hitting Lieutenant Grade Six, we were well on our way to our next ship, but that benchmark opened up another fun option – the ability to play as a member of the Klingon Empire. The Klingon faction opens up halfway through your progression through Lieutenant. Log out, and a new option appears to create a character from this opposing galactic power. A tweaked visual overlay in the character creator delivers several new allied races currently at war with the Federation. Honor-bound Klingons, violent Nausicaans, sensual Orions, and the reptilian Gorn are all among your options.
Completing our new Klingon warrior, we found that his adventure began on the Empire’s home world of Qo’noS. As an untested battle commander, a Klingon battle master demanded we prove ourselves in arena combat before acquiring our first ship. Bat’leth in hand, we engaged in some melee combat with the surrounding NPCs, and impressed the officer. She put us in command of a fast and dangerous Bird of Prey, and set us loose upon the galaxy to win honor for the empire.
The Klingon faction of Star Trek Online has a fundamentally different focus than the Federation. While you can still rank up in the Klingon Defense Force, upgrade your ship through multiple tiers, and go on missions, almost all of the content is geared towards battle – mostly PvP. Skill points are acquired by winning honor in various space and ground battles – defeating foes for the glory of family and empire. We only got a glimpse of these variations on the gameplay formula, but we played enough to see that Klingon ships handle in fundamentally different ways than their Federation counterparts. Our Bird of Prey was fast and maneuverable, and packed an incredible punch with its forward-mounted disruptors. However, its side and back shields were dangerously weak, and meant for some quick defeats if we didn’t maneuver well through the hail of combat fire.
Logging out after about a dozen hours in-game, Star Trek Online shows some significant promise. No matter your chosen faction, space combat is strategic and fun, demanding a constant juggling of ship systems, defense, and weapon fire. Enthusiasts for Star Trek lore will have little to complain about – it’s clear that Cryptic shares a strong commitment to the deep fictional backdrop established over the last 40 years. Additionally, the game’s characters, ships, and environments all look great.
There are still some significant hurdles to be overcome. Technical hiccups still abound in the beta – perfectly acceptable at this stage, but with a release date looming in early February, it will be surprising to see all the issues addressed. Additionally, ground combat feels too simplistic and unpolished in the early hours of the game. We’re hoping that later game abilities, weapons, and missions help those sections feel more engaging.
Those concerns aside, the game represents an exciting opportunity in the MMO game space. Mixing two fundamentally different combat mechanics, a unique approach to faction play, and a devotion to the license that rivals any other MMO – all are positive signs for the game.
Have you begun to explore Star Trek Online’s open beta? What do you think so far?