It's amazing how far Star Trek Online gets just by having the right sound effects. The high-pitched warble of scanners and transponders, the hiss of phasers, the shimmering harmonics of the transporter: these sounds beam you directly to a universe which, you find, you already know by heart. It works even if you're not a particularly big fan, Gene Roddenberry's benign science-fiction now being so ubiquitous that everyone has absorbed it by a kind of cultural osmosis, whether they wanted to or not.
So, from the moment you hear that unmistakeable French horn fanfare on the character-select screen, Cryptic's Star Trek MMO is winning the immersion war without even having to try. It's just as well - the Champions Online developer needs all the help it can get. Not because of any shortfall in talent or ideas, but because this game has clearly been put together on a fairly limited budget and schedule by MMO standards - it is, after all, only 18 months since Cryptic announced it had the Star Trek licence, and four months since it launched Champions, with four weeks to go to Star Trek's release. The Californian developer hasn't got time for world-building on the scale of Azeroth or the Old Republic, but the Star Trek licence has raised interest and expectations for this game far beyond the niche. It's great news that it sounds right - and, as we reported from the Eurogamer Expo, feels right - but what's next?
Playing through the early stages on the beta, you're confronted with a game that's being assembled, almost before your eyes, out of multiple discrete parts - like a flat-pack MMO. Star Trek Online is essentially a series of short bursts of instanced action - either ship combat, or planet-side runabouts with the away team - hung on a framework of massively-multiplayer socialisation and novel, flexible RPG progression. It's a little rough, surprisingly simple, immediate and accessible - and it hangs together surprisingly well, despite having so many disjointed one-click jumps between starbases, sector space, space combat and beam-me-down rucks.
Character creation is more straightforward than Champions'. You can knock together an archetype for your Federation officer very simply and quickly, choosing from most of the famous (and some not-so-famous) Star Trek humanoid races. Inveterate slider-tweakers will enjoy creating their own race though, with Cryptic's peerless experience in character customisation allowing you to conjure up all kinds of unique, yet somehow inimitably Trek, blue-skinned and ridge-browed freaks. Otherwise, it's a simple matter of choosing your career specialisation: science, engineering and tactical.
Broadly speaking, science is a buffing and healing class, engineering provides gadgets and crowd-control abilities, while tactical is straight combat and stealth. All three classes can be further specialised later on. But as with many things in Star Trek Online, Cryptic is clearly thinking about Star Trek first and MMO convention second. Your main combat abilities are dictated by your weapon, not your career, and any class is effective in man-to-man combat, while the careers apply slightly differently to ship skills than personal ones, where there is more scope for hybridisation.