Star Trek Online – Review
Our sensors had picked up a distress signal coming from the USS STO, flag ship of the Cryptic Studios Fleet. We feared the worst and wasted no time in responding. The special team was immediately mobilized, was armed with coffee, pen and paper, and placed on standby. Engine room reported that we are ready to warp. On deck the suspense was almost tangible: what will we find? I drew my breath, mumbled a prayer and issued the order: Engage! We reached our destination only to find some scattered ship components, many badly damaged and some hardly identifiable. Patiently we proceeded to analyze them hoping to find something that could shed some light upon this disaster.
We’ve already experienced firsthand Cryptic’s way of addressing the character customization aspect of an MMORPG Game, so being presented with a huge variety of options in the character creation section didn’t come as a surprise. With the ability to choose from countless clothing, racial and makeup elements originally introduced in Star Trek TV series and to combine them in any way you see fit, you can tune your avatar up to the finest details. If you are willing to invest patience into customization and you don’t get fed up with the login server constantly kicking you out of the game every few minutes as it considers the client to be idle, when you eventually click the play button for the first time you can be almost 100% sure that no one in the game looks exactly like you. This only happens once because after a few hours of gameplay you will manage to get your hands on your first gear items and when equipping them you will notice that placing a suit of armor in the only available armor slot will completely cover your entire original costume. Even though this presents you with the opportunity of showing off your rare and highly efficient gear, it also makes you look pretty much the same as everybody else.
When I reviewed Champions Online, an MMORPG developed by the same company, I criticized the fact that items had no impact on the way your character looked and now I’m complaining about them having too much of an impact. The answer to “What exactly do you want?!” is somewhere in the middle, a mix of these two. I want to be able to enjoy having a unique visual identity and have it also reflect my in-game experience and achievements. Since Cryptic seems to like learning the hard way, I guess they must release another MMO in order for us to see some sort of step forward regarding this issue.
Customization doesn’t stop here. After getting through the introductive tutorial which is rather poor, but also holds little value in the overall gameplay experience, you will be offered command of a USS. From a combat effectiveness point of view there is absolutely no difference between these new-player ships, and your career choice (Tactical, Engineering or Science Officer) will not influence the way the ship looks or behaves, although I think it should. These cruisers’ features can be augmented later in the game with the help of components obtainable as quest rewards or random loot, but if you strip them down of all these upgrades you will notice their core is identical. However, they do look different because every player will have the opportunity to customize his ship before heading out into the great unknown. There are some limitations so don’t expect something as spectacular as the character creation tool or to be able to fly around in a spaceship never seen before in the Star Trek universe, but you can combine some parts together from different models, fine-tune some of the details and eventually apply a paint coat on top of everything. You can even customize the interior, but that’s the first and only time you will visit the deck of your ship as there are no gameplay-relevant actions that can be performed there and thus it has absolutely no value above the cosmetic one.
With that out of the way you can consider yourself the proud owner of two distinct Star Trek Online characters. On one hand you have your avatar, your humanoid character which will prove useful for ground missions, trading, crafting and general administrative tasks. On the other you have the USS RandomName which you will use from get from point A to point B and to blow things up, mostly NPC ships. Although parts of the same game and probably developed by the same group of people, the differences in quality between these two worlds are quite shocking. As many of its composing elements rest on opposing extremes it’s impossible to review STO as a whole. So in order to obtain a comprehensive overview of both its qualities and flaws the game must be torn apart, its building blocks carefully separated and then each of them analyzed independently.
Space combat for example is catchy, fun and rewarding even if you have only a few minutes available to play. You can jump into your ship, pick a fight with a random enemy NPC and you’re immediately thrown in the middle of a firefight that under certain circumstances can turn out to be an epic battle. As there are tactical elements you must take into consideration, such as balancing energy output to your shields, using the correct weapons in order to maximize damage, prioritizing targets or utilizing special abilities at the right time, large scale encounters will never feel dull. Space combat can be both easy and challenging. Easy because if you mindlessly blast away at an enemy ship for a long enough period of time, chances are you will probably win the fight. Challenging because you can take your puny ship and jump into a clearly overwhelming cloud of fighters that are supporting cruisers that are in turn protecting a monstrous battleship many times your size and still come out on top if you play your cards right – what can be more rewarding than that? This is where having handpicked, highly trained officers as part of your crew really pays off. This is where your choice in equipment can make the difference. And this is where your skill can be put to the test. Thumbs up for space combat!
As you have cleared the planet’s first line of defense you can safely beam down and continue the fight on the ground. Unfortunately it will sometimes feel like you have teleported into a completely different game. At first everything related to ground combat seems to fit in just fine and for me a lot of its elements triggered a pleasant Mass Effect déjà-vu. You have your own team with you and they respond to your orders, you have two weapon sets that come with different abilities and so offer different solutions to combat situations, you can sprint in combat to either flee or get in melee range, etc. On top of that STO introduces some relatively new elements such as flanking your enemy which leads to an increase in damage output. The whole ground combat recipe sounds good in theory, but everything was so poorly implemented that the whole system tail-spins the moment the first gunshot is fired. The AI is horrendous both for friendly and enemy NPCs, leading to either frustrating or comical situations. NPCs constantly storm into disadvantageous melee combat, pick targets rather randomly and they have no sense of task priority. There is no cover element and the encounters are so fast paced that giving orders to party members on the fly is almost impossible. You can however pause the game for a few seconds and try to enforce some order in the middle of all this chaos, but as soon as your set of instructions has been carried out, friendly NPCs will return to their regular illogical program(ming), so at the end you feel like you just wasted your time. Again: the ideas behind the ground combat section of the game are good and hold tremendous potential, but the actual implementation leaves a lot of room from improvement.
The quality differences between these two sections of the game also extend to graphics. Space looks really good, but to be completely honest it isn’t hard to make it look good when all you have to do is play around with a skybox and few objects. However, the result doesn’t fall short of spectacular and it would be unfair not to present it as such. On planet surface things are a bit different though. Character animations could be regarded as some sort of comic relief, colors seem randomly picked and some models appear to be unfinished and rushed into the game. Things go down slope in areas with high density population, which means that large space stations which you must visit constantly in order to purchase new equipment upgrades, officers and even ships, can sometimes look worse than the base from a random mission.
With so many problems assaulting you from every direction the possibility of game immersion is drastically limited. To make matters worse, the wrapping of the whole PVE experience lacks meaningful story support and cohesion. A significant part of the quests you will receive are provided via long range communications which can be accessed with the click of a button. This means that you don’t actually have to stand face to face with the NPCs that are sending you across the galaxy to investigate some distress signal. This is a time saver, which is good, but it also means you are receiving orders from “people” you’ve never met, you don’t know where they are, who they are and why they are on your speed dial to begin with. These quests don’t come in short supply and some of them are repeatable so there will always be some objective pushing your forward through the levels. Unfortunately many of them are just copies of ones from the first batch you receive so after going through some of them a couple of times you end up feeling left out of the story. There are hardly any chain quests and there are no significant background events to link everything together. This leaves the whole role-playing part of the MMORPG rather unattended and you have to rely heavily on your imagination to fill in the blanks.
There are many more PVE related issues in the game, but it would simply take too long to go through all of them in detail. Suffice to say that: travel times are exaggerated; there are way too many arcade elements into the game; tooltips and item descriptions are confusing and insufficient; the crafting system is a failed attempt at novelty; the economy and the whole currency system is the source of serious headaches; some missions are bugged or just poorly designed; there is no incentive for people to join fleets (STO guilds); the game has no dungeon system; the Klingon faction, currently the only alternative for The Federation, is in dire need of content. Does that mean that at least the PVP is good? No! The entire PVP experience is currently limited to instanced battlegrounds in which teams of players are pitted against each other. Such battles are a quick and easy source of fun, but their appeal is short-lived. More meaningful, large scale PVP should be introduced in order to keep players interested in this section of the game.
I saved for the end one of the most disturbing features of Star Trek Online, more damaging to the entire gameplay experience than all the other above mentioned issues: universe architecture. The STO universe is divided into sectors which are instanced so identical sectors can exist. In every sector there are numerous systems and these are again instanced. Within certain systems there are planets or space stations which the player can access. You guessed it: they are also instanced. STO is apparently ideally housed on a single server, but in the same time it’s so heavily fragmented it should not be allowed to call itself an MMO Game. This is not the first game released by Cryptic Studios with such universe architecture and Champions Online received its fair share of criticism because of the same issue. While other companies work towards finding new and efficient solutions for bringing more and more people together, Cryptic seems to have decided to make a u-turn on a one-way street and artificially isolate players.
MMORPG is short for Massive Multiplayer Online Role Playing Game and Star Trek Online is advertised as being one. Heavily instanced as it is, the game does not allow a Massive multiplayer experience, so it’s safe to say it’s just an MORPG. The multiplayer features are also a bit shallow and most of the time you will be playing the game alone, so multiplayer should be considered optional: (M)ORPG. Since the role playing is limited most of the time to extent of your imagination, in the end you realize that STO is just an (M)OG, meaning an online game with a touch of multiplayer. Sure, for a (M)OG it’s a pretty good game, with some interesting features and quite entertaining for limited period of time. However, for a subscription MMORPG based on the richest and one of the most popular sci-fi franchises currently available it’s a disappointment of galactic proportions.
Rating: (MMORPG): 6 / ((M)OG): 8
By Seth Lex