Trekkies can put one fear to rest right now: Star Trek Online feels just like Star Trek. From the 10-minute demo available on the Eurogamer Expo show floor, it's difficult to learn all that much about the mechanics and structure of this licensed MMO (you can read more about these in our recent preview and interview). But it's immediately apparent that developer Cryptic has nailed the unmistakable flavour of faintly cheesy, high-minded, planet-hopping science-fiction with a straight face and a glint in its eye - with an equal love of politics, philosophy and punch-ups.
The demo whisks the player through a brief burst of ship combat and a couple of on-foot engagements. It's strictly single-player, and its contained environments and miniature storyline can't give much of an impression of the game's full scope. But Star Trek has always been more intimate than most sci-fi - rooted firmly in sixties television as it is - and the limited stage actually suits it well. The warp jumps between instanced locations aren't as jarring as they would be in other online worlds - it's the nature and style of this particular fiction.
There's a brief opportunity for the player to get used to ship controls while orbiting a planet in peace. WASD take care of the starship's ponderous pitch and yaw, while Q and E, or an on-screen slider, handle the engines' throttle. It's gracefully, glacially slow, as it should be - Star Trek's craft are battleships, not fighter planes.
Following a text-box prompt from a crew member, you're warped to a planet called Penn'Arc VI - only to find the region has been claimed by the Klingon Empire. Arriving in a colourfully hazy asteroid belt, three Birds of Prey attack you for your intrusion. Space combat isn't EVE Online - although your weapons do lock on, they have limited fire arcs, and there are no autopilot options. The focus is on physically manoeuvring your ship to keep your enemies within optimum firing range while manually firing weapons and keeping an eye on power balance.
There are only three weapon systems: forward phaser, rear phaser, and a forward-facing photon torpedo. They're fired using 1, 2 and 3 or the on-screen buttons, with the space bar firing all simultaneously. The phasers have wide, overlapping firing arcs ensuring 360-degree coverage, while the more powerful torpedoes have only a narrow range. Although these Klingons don't present a stiff challenge, they do circle you faster than you can turn to follow them - so guessing their attack patterns and tactically pre-empting them seems to be the order of the day.
Rather than worrying about a depleting power resource, in ship combat you'll concentrate on managing your power balance across the ship's weapons, shields, engines and auxiliary systems. You can tweak these or use the presets for attack, defence, speed or a balanced setup. You can also influence your ship's strengths with tactical buffs - "attack pattern alpha" and "evasive manoeuvres" - and the special abilities of three bridge officers, selected and slotted on the UI.
Birds of Prey dispatched, you beam down to the planet - or rather, into a series of dark red metallic corridors - with four officers to engage the Klingons up close and personal. Your AI crew members have simple commands - they can be set to defensive or aggressive stances, and commanded to select the same target as the player character.
For your own part, you have two weapons to switch between, each of which provides three attack skills (on the 1, 2 and 3 keys once again). Both phaser rifle and standard-issue stun phaser have two ranged attacks and one melee, the melee handily knocking the enemy back into firing range. The phaser can either damage or stun, while the rifle has light and heavy attacks; once again, there's no resource to worry about, so combat seems mostly to be about managing your cooldowns and triggering buffs. Anyone who's played Cryptic's other game, Champions Online, will be familiar with the relatively fast-paced, knockabout combat with a more action-game feel than most MMOs - but with an attendant vagueness and slightly erratic AI behaviour.
You discover that the Klingons are attempting to access the "Guardian of Forever", and travel immediately - via a mere text-box click - to the surface of the Guardian Planet to head them off. This is an eerie pink desert-scape straight out of a concept oil-painting for Kirk-era Trek. Another quick rumble with a hostile band of Klingons - who are attempting to use the Guardian to access the past - segues into a conversation with the Guardian itself, a stone archway holding rippling images of the moon landings and ancient Federation shuttles.
There are several conversational options - one, highlighted in yellow, is mission-critical, but the others are well worth exploring for the dialogue, which is vintage Trek hokum. Ask the Guardian why it speaks in riddles and it says, "I answer as simply as your level of understanding makes possible."
"Control is had by all and by none," it intones when you ask it if the Klingons succeeded. "Your reality, your world, your beginning - all is as it has ever been. Now it is time to reset the stage. All players shall be reborn. All paths shall be reopened." And with one click, the demo restarts.
It's no more than a neat little joke at the transitory nature of this demo, but it's done in such a quintessentially Star Trek way that it doesn't just raise a smile - it raises hopes that Cryptic knows exactly what it's doing with this beloved licence. This demo suggests a game with made with more love than budget, or attention to gameplay depth - but Cryptic's fanboy enthusiasm for the material shines through.
Star Trek Online launches in early 2010 on PC. It's already in closed beta, so look out for a report on the full game soon.