| Star Trek Online is merely the second modern MMO (massive multi-player online) that I have played. As such, I probably have an odd perspective on the game's online nature. On the other hand, I have played many other RPGs, sci-fi games, and maybe a dozen Star Trek games dating back to Begin. The game's Federation story opens with a major Borg force overrunning the fleet. Through a twist of fate, you find yourself ranking officer on board your vessel and your command career begins.
Let me begin with the clearest strength of this game. It is clear that many employees of Cryptic must be Star Trek fans. While all the story events are action oriented, they are well integrated into the Star Trek history. The first one in particular, involving the Klingons and the race now known as the "Undine" is especially well scripted. More interesting to me, STO has shown me repeatedly that I am not a Star Trek fanatic. There are countless references that are simply lost on me. I know the original, Next Generation and Enterprise series fairly well, but before playing this game I had only seen two or three episodes of Voyager and only one of Deepspace 9. I have found that the Cardassian storyline was simply uninteresting, possibly even boring. I have a feeling that if I'd known more about DS9, things would have been more fun. I feel this to be true as the final story arc versus the Borg, which I know quite a bit about, is again quite fun.
Another strength is the action itself. Cryptic's experience with previous MMOs like City of Heroes and Champions Online shows in the ground combat. There are three career choices for your character; tactical, engineer, and scientist. Each one has unique skills that will be learned as you level as well as a unique choice of 'kits' that can be changed out giving your character multiple play styles. For instance, kits for the scientist include medic healing kits, buff/debuff kits, and shield draining/gravity generator rooting. Tactical officers have access to kits that may include grenades (photon, plasma, smoke, and stun) and are the only ones to have martial-arts skills. I am most familiar with the engineer kits that have two major versions. There is the support role where you can recharge allies' shields, give equipment buffs, cause enemy weapons to malfunction, and repair allied turrets. The other kit allows beaming down phaser turrets, quantum mortars, medical generators, shield generators, automated support drones, and force-domes. Siege engineering at its finest.
Space combat takes place with your ship in 3rd person view. The ship is maneuvered in psudo-3D space preserving the always-up feel of the Star Trek universe. Ships like escorts will have very high maneuverability while cruisers have increasingly painful turn rates, but close to double the shields and armor. Science vessels split the middle in maneuverability and have lower armor than either, but derive their main power from the abilities of their bridge officers.
A player's ship is even more customizable than his character. A given ship will have X number of front weapon slots, Y number of rear weapon slots, an engine slot, a deflector slot, some number of device slots, and console slots. Consoles are divided into tactical, engineering, and science. The purpose of having slots is to provide some controlled amount of customization of the ship's base parameters. Each weapon slot can hold a beam weapon (phaser, disruptor, plasma, tetryon, polaron, or anti-proton) or a torpedo (photon, quantum, plasma, transphasic, chroniton, or tri-cobalt). Front slots can have cannons and rear slots can have mines. The consoles provide always on buffs (all photon weapons +15, turn rate +12%, etc). Each ship has positions for bridge officers of a given career and rank. These officers provide MMO style 'clicky' abilities during combat. Officer's can be taught different abilities allowing a player to have a fairly large amount of control over what clickies are available to him.
Here Cryptic's inexperience outside of avatar MMO combat starts to show. The system is fairly good, but does not scale well to higher levels. For instance, a level 50 player has 7 or 8 weapon slots instead of the 3 in the beginner ship, each of which can to 4 times the damage. He may have 40,000 hull instead of the beginner's 10,000. He has 7500 shields to the beginner's 1500. Now notice, 8 weapons times 4x damage = 32x damage, however 7500/1500 is only 5x shields. 40,000/10,000 is only 4x armor. This is best case. An escort only gets 6000 shields and 20,000 armor. That's 32x damage vs 4x shields and 2x armor. Far from feeling like you are progressing, as the game proceeds, you both kill and die far more easily.
Another problem that should be a bug, but has been outstanding for the entire game is how they implemented ship-stat adjustments. When you acquire a ship, all of your items are adjusted by multipliers from some base stat and a multiplier from the ship just acquired. For example, escorts gain about 2/3 the shields a cruiser would from the same item but get many times the turn boost from an impulse engine. This would work fine except that you are also permitted to have more than one ship (something I like very much). What this causes is that when you buy an escort, all of your shields lose a third of their strength, even if you swap back to the cruiser. This can be flat out crippling if the last ship bought was a runabout where your shields drop from 7500 to 1200 and your weapons also go through the floor. The flip side of this: if you don't need an extremely agile escort, buy the escort, then immediately buy the cruiser. You now have much better shields than other escorts. One would think the stat multipliers would be locked to the ship and the boosts applied when the item is equipped, but I don't know the details of their code.
Another flaw from my point of view is the instance on giving clickies a higher priority than ship equipment. As best as I can follow, clickies appeared shortly after MMOs moved from text driven games to graphics. I know they existed in Everquest from seeing friends play. I'm less sure about Ultima Online. Then again, the old MUDs generally had abilities what would require a given time before they could be used again. Their existence was probably due to lag inherent in nearly all online gaming.
The problem here is that I tend to insist on simulation-like game play. The fact that pushing a button makes something magically (and generally instantly) happen annoys me. Click, I just gained 1000 shields. Click, your sensors are jammed. Click, my single torpedo launcher just fired four torpedoes. In fact, that last one is so strong, that Cryptic had to place all torpedoes on a shared cool-down (only one can fire every three seconds). To me, if I used two weapon slots for two torpedoes, I should fire two torpedoes. But, that would be too powerful with the clicky, and we have to have the clicky, so shared cool-down it is.
In all, the space combat is fairly fun, but was massively simplified from even it's DOS based predecessors. I suppose that was to make it more 'main stream' but it seems odd that a game that might be played for hundreds of hours needs simplifying.
The last truly odd thing about this game is the side effect of Cryptic's rather masterful way of reducing lag. Everything is instanced, meaning battles, deep space transit, and even the starbases have multiple copies running and you will randomly drop into one of them. The problem? There's basically no community. You play through the game more or less completely isolated from other players. You randomly join a fight with people you don't know. You finish the fight and part, probably to never see them again. The fight auto-adjusts the difficulty in most cases, so you didn't even need help to begin with. I'm a member of a fleet. Even when we *want* to operate together, the game defeats us. Most of the time we do successfully join the same fight, but other than slightly better item drops, there's no incentive worth the effort of gathering the team. In one case, the crystal entity, we as a fleet could probably have beaten it at level 20, but even at level 50 we can't because the game allows other players to join. It destroys all coordination to have even a single loose cannon in the fight.
All said, Star Trek Online is a fairly good, if simplistic, Star Trek game hobbled with all the baggage of an MMO and very few of the advantages. It's worth a play through for the excellent script writing, but lag and drop-outs are not offset by any real advantage of being online. The only real payoff for paying monthly will be if the developer continues to create new stories. That would be a real joy to the player and a gold-mine to writers.