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.