Star Trek Rewatch

Star Trek Online: First Contact

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If you’ve been wondering what Eugene and Torie have been up to while the re-watch has been on hiatus, here’s a little hint: today is launch day for Star Trek Online!

The beta and head start weekend have been rocky1 and while we have our quibbles, Star Trek Online is shaping up to be a compelling, engaging MMORPG. We each had the chance to poke around for several hours leading up the release, and below the fold we share our first impressions and reactions. A more in-depth post will follow once we’ve had the chance to dig our teeth into it even more.

Eugene: I come to Star Trek Online, the first MMORPG set in the Star Trek universe, as a veteran fan of the franchise but a complete newbie to the wide world of “Massively Multiplayer Online Role-playing Games.” My credentials as a ST fan are well-documented, but my gaming “expertise” is primarily in platformers like New Super Mario Bros Wii. My idea of an RPG is closer to The Legend of Zelda than World of Warcraft, and I’ve enjoyed only a handful of multiplayer console games in my life.

I don’t play computer games at all, not even Minesweeper; the last one I installed was The Sims, which I quickly removed from my PC after I lost three hours of my real life to making sure my character took out the trash. Yet the potential of STO encouraged me to try it out on a friend’s computer for this review. After only a few hours with the beta last month, I wasn’t completely hooked, but I wanted to continue exploring the universe enough to order a new PC. It doesn’t arrive until Tuesday.2

Before even starting the game—after a lengthy download process on high-speed internet—it’s obvious that STO is designed for Star Trek nerds, of all generations. I gleefully observed that the buttons to confirm the installation of patches are labeled “Make it so” and “Engage” instead of “OK,” and I immediately felt at home. It may be a small, pandering touch, but it indicates that the game designers a) know their audience and b) know the material, which is a good sign of what’s to come.

Torie: I am much more of an MMORPG player than Eugene, here. I played WoW for several years, tried out City of Heroes, and have an active Lord of the Rings Online (LOTRO) account that I toy with when time permits. So for once, Eugene and I get to switch roles, and he gets to be the n00b while I’m the seasoned veteran.



Character Generation

Eugene: The character generation phase can be a full and satisfying experience in itself. My experience with character creation is limited to an hour or so with City of Heroes (also developed by Cryptic Studios), creating a Mii, and customizing my avatar on the Xbox 360. But I’ve seen friends endlessly fiddle with their characters in Rock Band and Mass Effect, and I have it on the good authority of my WoW-playing girlfriend that the STO character generation is extremely detailed, allowing you to customize your avatar right down to the way he stands.

I started off by choosing a career for my Starfleet character, from one of three tracks familiar to anyone who has seen more than one episode of Star Trek: Engineering, Science, or Tactical. Each category has accompanying attributes that affect the character’s abilities, but if you’re more concerned with the color of your uniform, this breaks down to gold, blue, and red respectively (following the color scheme adopted from the TNG-era on). Then users select a race, which includes some interesting and confusing options. Among them: Human, Andorian, Bajoran, Bolian, Vulcan, Betazoid, Trill, Ferengi, and “Unknown.” Many fans will cry out in rage and frustration. Where are the fierce Klingons? The conniving Romulans? What if I want to be a Tholian or a Horta? (It’s a fair bet that no one is interested in playing a Reman.) The key to most players’ happiness lies in that option for “Unknown,” which grants you the ability to make your own alien—or lovingly recreate a species from the past forty-five years of the franchise. At least so far, it looks like you’re stuck with humanoids, so no Tribble deck officers this time around.

The option to customize characters finally gives players the chance to roleplay as that feline communications officer from the Animated Series, or just make an entirely new species up. There are some limitations—for instance, I don’t think you can make a character whose face is half white and half black—but otherwise it’s incredibly versatile, with settings and options for altering the tiniest details, from his preferred style of combadge to the hair on his chinny-chin-chin. I was most surprised and impressed when I noticed that there’s even an option for Unknown gender in addition to the traditional choices of male and female; instead, you choose which gender your character is “most similar to.” The designers should be applauded for this sensitivity to human and alien gender distinctions, if nothing else.

Don’t worry, there’s much more to praise in this game, but we’re still in character generation. Once I liked the cut of my character’s jib (a Nausicaan/Jem’Hadar hybrid), I named him (Riko), named my ship (the U.S.S. Hugh Everett), and even filled in a little backstory. I appreciated the latter feature, because it shows an emphasis on story and character, even if it has no observable affect on your gameplay experience. (Playing through with different character types doesn’t seem to alter the storyline one bit, at least initially.) It also gives you an active role in creating your character’s story, and consequently you may become more attached to him as more than a set of pleasantly-shaded pixels.

Torie: The first character I created is Leah Brahms of the U.S.S. Ada Lovelace. As Eugene described, the character generation portion is overwhelming.3  I stuck with a yoo-man to keep it simple. One thing to keep in mind: you only get two character slots. This bothers me a lot. With nearly a dozen possible races in addition to the build-your-own, the limitation of two is, frankly, absurd. LOTRO gives you five per realm; WoW gives you ten per realm. STO will give you more if you buy them. Considering they’re charging $50 for the game, plus a monthly membership fee, I certainly have no plans to fork over any more money. I really hope they change their mind about this.

All characters regardless of race or class begin in the same spot with the same quests, which is pretty disappointing. WoW and LOTRO both have different starting zones based on who you are, but STO appears to be the same game no matter what character you chose to play. Without that there’s little incentive to re-roll from scratch.


Gameplay

Torie: Gameplay is divided into two categories: space and ground. Space combat involves maneuvering your ship in three-dimensional space and engaging with enemies. You have four shields, one in each direction, and you must strategically maneuver yourself to avoid losing your shields and taking direct damage. The same goes for enemies: if you can manage to target one area of the ship, you can take down that area’s shields and fire away. For attacks, you get torpedoes and phasers, both of which can be modified by ship upgrades or the presence of special bridge officers. Ship combat was intuitive but challenging. Rather than simply firing all torpedoes, you must actually strategically position yourself for maximum target effectiveness while protecting your vulnerable spots. I will note that fighting the Borg was waaaay easier than it should have been, but perhaps that’s just because it’s a training mission.

Ground combat is very reminiscent of City of Heroes, which should come as no surprise as it’s from the same developers. Your attacks have individual cooldowns, and you begin with a direct damage phaser, a stun phaser, and a melee attack. Through missions, merit points, and promotions, you accumulate special Bridge officers. These officers operate like additional party members in a Bioware game like Knights of the Old Republic (KOTOR) or Mass Effect. They have an AI that you can modify, if you would like them to be offensive, defensive, or buffers. You can also directly control them and give orders. I found this interface to be difficult to use (moreso than KOTOR, at least, which I have the most experience with) and confusing.

Ground missions are more than simply hack and slash, though. One of the first missions is a diplomacy mission, in which the leader of the colony will not speak to you until you hear the grievances of the men and women there. Only then will he negotiate (and he quizzes you to see if you learned anything!).

You acquire buffs, upgrades, and expand your bridge through merit points that can be traded with NPC vendors. Inexplicably, you can also buy and sell bridge officers on the Exchange! I guess the post-scarcity society doesn’t apply to human resources?


Story & Graphics:

Torie: Star Trek Online is part of the Abrams-verse, and canonizes the events of the film. It takes place about thirty years after the events of Star Trek: Nemesis and seems to be premised as a kind of sequel to the new movie. Leonard Nimoy does the opening voiceover in which he rehashes the events of the movie and explains that after his disappearance the world has basically gone to hell. At war with the Borg, Klingons, and Dominion, the Federation is fighting for survival. If you’re like me and were happy to forget the plot of the new movie, you’re out of luck. Surprisingly, there is no “space: the final frontier” in that intro, or anything else iconic that ties it to the series.

Graphics are, well, fine. The art doesn’t feel very epic, and most things come across as cartoony and silly, much more in the WoW vein than the LOTRO vein. LOTRO is absolutely stunning. Sometimes I just sit in the fields of Bree and watch the wind blow across the tall grass, and really feel like I am immersed in that world. I never had that moment with STO. Graphics are stilted and do not scale well to older computers.

Most missions are text only, and the lack of voice acting adds to the lack of immersiveness. The voice acting that is there—I’m looking at you, Zachary Quinto—feels like someone reading idly from a script while watching something else on TV. It’s stilted, silly, overblown. Instead of feeling like I’m part of a grand epic story, I feel like I am playing a silly video game and am an absolutely ridiculous person to do so.


The First Mission:

Eugene: When I was finally done creating my character, I submitted my application to Starfleet (no, really). Fortunately Riko was accepted to the Academy and fast-tracked into the first “episode” of the game, “Prelude to a Crisis,” where he appeared in a vast Mess Hall with fellow members of his crew. Here, you can access the Library Computer to get some information on how to move your character around and interact with the environment and other characters. This was my first disappointment–surely this interface should be named LCARS, for Library Computer Access and Retrieval System! Everyone knows this. But the computer’s voice sounded oddly like Zachary Quinto, so all was forgiven. I submitted my naming suggestion to the beta bug system, also pointing out a typo, then tried to figure out the controls.

I had some time to mess around in the uh, Mess Hall, before the Captain called me to the Bridge. Those rascally Borg were attacking the Vega colony! At this point, I received my first mission objective: go to the Turbolift. As simple a task as this may seem, at times in STO it was difficult to figure out where you’re supposed to go in a given area, so having a glowing door indicating the right path is much appreciated. I also liked the fact that episodes are broken down into small, clear goals to guide you through missions. Sometimes, games can be too open-ended.

After I made it to the Bridge, I was directed to use a console to hail the U.S.S. Khitomer (another welcome ST reference), which took heavy damage in the attack. The ship’s Emergency Medical Hologram (who oddly also sounded like Zachary Quinto) responded and asked for help with a referential “I am an EMH, not a miracle worker.” The Captain told me to pop over there to offer some assistance, which consisted of scanning a couple of patients with a tricorder while the EMH complimented my technique. Pretty soon it was time to hunt some Borg and prevent them from taking over the ship. Except for a moment where I beamed a bunch of them into space using the cargo bay transporters, combat mostly involved wandering the corridors picking them off with a phaser. They take a lot of damage, but it took me a while to get the hang of defeating them; fortunately, Starfleet officers are equipped with a personal force field, so I didn’t die immediately…at least, not often.

Fighting the Borg got more repetitive than it probably should, and it never felt quite satisfying. Surely the Borg should be adapting to my phaser settings, or trying to infect me with nanites, or something challenging. Instead, they were basically identical zombies, advancing relentlessly or swarming with no real strategy, and I missed my melee weapons from Left 4 Dead 2. The problem with STO, as with many of the films, is you just want more. The accomplishments of the game are technically solid—I never tired of hearing familiar effects from the series, like the doors opening and the whine of the transporters—but it falls just short of delivering on all of your expectations. No matter how much the game gives fans, it will never be the game they imagine it could be, but we’re a picky bunch.

It’s a bit too soon to judge the whole experience though, since there’s so much more to the game. If you successfully survive the Borg, you’re instantly promoted from Ensign to acting Captain (which happens all the time), then you choose Bridge officers to work with you, who operate under computer AI or your direct control. I only navigated my ship in space for a short time, with some of the same problems I had moving my character around on foot, but it was encouraging to see you can propel your ship along multiple axis in three-dimensional space. I could probably get the hang of this, but it might take some time. Once I figured out how to reach the Vega colony, I chose an away team and led a mission to the surface, where we had to stop the Borg by disabling the forcefields around their devices. When I last left them, they weren’t doing too well.


Instances & Multiplayer

Torie: Here Star Trek Online does something really interesting. The universe is divided into sectors, and within each sector are a number of systems (we live in the Sol system). Any time you enter a system you are entering an instance. Since it was the beginning of the game and we’re all on the same missions I can’t be sure, but it seems that it puts you into an instance with other players appropriate to your level who are on the same missions. It auto-groups you, which I would otherwise find annoying, but rather than forcing you to interact with strangers it simply allows you to collectively complete your quests. Rather than the usual fight to “tag” enemies (claiming them to get credit for yourself, thus denying others the chance to claim credit for the kill), there’s no tagging—you can destroy anything in this instance, and the other handful of players there will likewise receive credit. If another players hits the Borg cube before you do, you don’t have to fret and wait for respawn. You get credit for helping him destroy it, and with many of these quests, you need more than one person to successfully take these things down.

This kind of cooperate play is exactly what’s missing from other MMOs, and I look forward to seeing higher level instances. I have not had a chance to join a Fleet (guild) or participate in PvP, so that will have to wait until the follow-up review.


Conclusions

Eugene: In my handful of hours with the beta, I barely scratched the surface of STO. I haven’t even had a chance yet to experience the true potential of the game: its multiplayer component. Even though Cryptic Studios hopes that people with little or no background in Star Trek will be interested in the game, I just don’t see it appealing to more than the hardcore fans of the franchise who have long wanted a sandbox universe to play in. We’ve put up with a lot of crappy Star Trek games over the years, eagerly grasping for a taste of leading an away mission or participating in a space battle. STO already offers something for everyone, and it could easily become the best virtual Star Trek experience yet—but whether that’s enough to become a hit remains to be seen. There are a lot of expansions and enhancements planned after launch that will gradually improve the mechanics, so it’s important to remember that the game itself is organic, growing and changing over time. The gameplay possibilities could be endless, if one sticks with it long enough.

I was apprehensive going into the game, expecting it to be an addictive experience the way World of Warcraft is for some people. I came away looking forward to spending more time with it, but no longer worried that it would consume my life. I was pleased by the fan service and attention to detail in the game, but I was so busy learning the controls and game mechanics that I can’t say I’ve had any real fun yet. I hope that when I’ve become a bit more immersed in the experience and get to play it with friends online that I’ll be fully assimilated, but right now I’m still resistant to giving this my full recommendation.

Torie: Star Trek Online is a solid MMO. The game is engaging, interesting, and nerd-tastic, catering wonderfully to the hardcore fans out there. Gameplay is straightforward and easy to pick up, character creation is great, and the story is adequate for the purposes of an MMO. The limitations—two character slots, no ability to play Cardassians or Romulans, and Klingons only appearing after they’ve been unlocked later in the game—are significant and difficult to overlook.

But ultimately, it hasn’t wowed me. It doesn’t disappoint, but it doesn’t exactly impress either, and with that kind of lukewarm adequacy I don’t know that it will be able to get a serious foothold in the MMO genre. It’s not stunning, or ground-breaking, or even that original. The graphics barely surpass KOTOR, which is over six years old, and Mass Effect feels a lot more epic in scope than this does.

That said, these are first impressions, and I look forward to putting some more hours in and seeing how the game changes (if it does), and whether I’ll change my mind. I am itching to try out grouping and away missions with other players, so give me a holler—I’m Leah Brahms on the U.S.S. Ada Lovelace (character name “Leah”), a human female, and Jadzia Daxx on the U.S.S. Curzon (character name “Jadzia”—Dax was a forbidden name!), a Trill female.


1
The servers were constantly crashing, for hours and hours at a time, and some bugs, like perpetual loading screens, made the game unplayable. These had much improved by the time of this writing.

2
Tuesday, February 16th, alas.

3
A bizarre exception: you can only choose one kind of long hair. ONE. Four kinds of ponytails. One style of long hair. That’s why Leah Brahms doesn’t actually look like Leah Brahms.


Torie Atkinson loves Cardassians so much and wishes they were in the game. She wants a cat, just so that she can name it Gul DuCat.

Eugene Myers now has to decide on a daily basis whether he’d rather watch Star Trek, play it, or write about it. We create our own Sto’Vo’Kor and Gre’thor.

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