Star Trek Online is the stuff of dreams: not only for fans of the series who've dreamed of piloting their own starship since they were six, all tucked up tight in their Next Generation bedsheets, but for the developers at Cryptic. Star Trek presents them with a massive ready-made fan-base which will probably be willing to play the game for a few months regardless of how they treats the license. But there's no laziness or complacency evident here; Cryptic is creating a flexible yet faithful interpretation of the Star Trek universe that stands a good chance of living up to even the unrealistic expectations of the faithful.
Cryptic's aim is to give fans that dream: to be a starship captain. Every player in Star Trek Online is a Kirk or Picard (or a Janeway or Sisko, I suppose) rather than a behind-the-scenes red-shirt working their way painstakingly through the Starfleet Academy and up the ranks. "We didn't think it would be very interesting to sit down in the transporter room and press a button for twenty hours to level up, and then maybe get to work in engineering for a while," says executive producer Craig Zinkievich. "What everybody's really interested in the captain experience, the command experience."
He's not wrong. In a universe as vast and complicated as Star Trek's, the thought of being consigned to transporter-room duty for your first 10 levels would surely fail to enthuse even the least thrill-seeking members of it target audience. You'll be working together with other players, but as fleets, rather than as part of a crew. You don't have to be a Federation do-gooder, either - you can also be a Klingon limb-severer instead, aspiring to be in charge of a war-painted Negh'Var rather than the majestic Enterprise. You can be any race from the Star Trek universe, or create your own. The basic philosophy of the game is to enable you to experience it exactly as you want to. You can wander around in the neutral zone picking up trading missions, you can go out fighting in the great vastness of space, you can follow the story, you can just explore. It's all cool, as far as Cryptic is concerned.
The game is approximately equal parts space combat, interstellar travel and on-planet missions. As with the TV series (the original one, anyway), the action ensures that you're never in the same place for very long, constantly moving between space and planet surfaces, boarding ships, spacestations and satellites, zipping between systems at warp-speed in search of where no man has ever gone before. Although the Klingon and Federation players will be locked in a war, the game is heavily instanced; all the foes you face will be computer-controlled. It's emphatically not EVE Online.
Space combat is slow-paced and tactical. "If you look at combat in the Star Trek universe, it's not a dogfighter,"says Zinkievich. "These are huge, powerful starships. It's a tactical, strategic experience. It's all about positioning, how you're balancing the energy to your different systems, lining up that final attack and taking them down."
During a fight with a small fleet of Klingon fighter craft, our demonstrator transfers shield power to the forward shields on approach before beefing up the weapons systems and turning side-on to blast the ships with both forward and rear phasers, then circling round to deliver a fatal flurry of photon torpedoes. Positioning is indeed essential: forward and rear-facing weapons all have different firing arcs, and ships don't zip through space like Star Wars fighters; movement is appropriately slow, calming the pace of the combat to suit the strategic mood.
The Klingon vessels eventually explode, beautifully and silently, leaving the Federation ship to drift triumphantly towards the planet as fragments of metal spin, with balletic grace, into the ether. A slight trajectory-plotting error causes a final explosion to catch the rear left side of the ship, which takes out the shields, but they start to recharge quickly. The bridge officers that you take on board with you determine what you can do in combat - take a good engineer with a shield-recharging skill and you'll be better able to recover from damage.
These bridge officers essentially take the role of skill slots - you equip them, deploy them and level them up in menus, and as you level up you'll be able to use more and more of them. Your crew is a main element of player customisation according to Zinkievich - you'll get to name them, choose their appearance and equip them as you please. When you're not teamed up with other starship captains, they'll also accompany you planetside, making the game relatively solo-friendly.
With the Klingon ships vanquished, it's time to beam down. The away team always consists of five people - you, a friend and three bridge officers, five players, or you on your own with your AI pets. The perspective, combat and pace of the game all change completely when you undertake on-planet missions, upping the tempo to an action-game rhythm. The AI can take care of itself, or you can command it directly - warning the red-shirt to stay back, for instance, or putting the poor unfortunate in front of everyone else as a human phaser-shield.
Equipment, rather than stats, dictates the flow of the game on planets. You can equip two weapons - we see a phaser and a plasma rifle, and the Klingons on the planet surface are all packing bat'leths (that tremendously impractical-looking two-handed slashing weapon famous from The Next Generation). There are three careers that determine your skills - science, engineering or tactical - but there's a lot of flexibility within those disciplines. You could follow a warrior or stealth archetype within any of them.
The planet we see is a jungle with Romulan-style buildings. "We have hundreds and hundreds of maps in the game right now," claims Zinkievich. "We have invested a lot of time and engineering resources in what we call the genesis system, which allows the game to algorithmically generate new planets, new systems and new alien races to meet." While story content will probably have been designed by the game's artists, other exploration will be generated automatically.
The studio seems full of ideas for the story, perhaps unsurprisingly given the richness of their source material. It's set in 2309, 30 years after Nemesis and 22 years after the supernova that destroyed the Romulan homeworld. It wouldn't be Star Trek without time travel, mirror universes and the Borg, all of which make preposterously unlikely meetings with long-dead characters from the series a possibility.
There are already plenty of ideas in place for post-release updates, too - including ground vehicles and the ability to go inside your own ship and use it as a lobby space - but Cryptic wants to make sure you can customise every aspect of your bridge and officer's quarters, rather than just giving players a generic space to call their own. You don't lose access to old ships as you gain new ones, in case you ever fancy taking your starter-class ship out for a spin for old time's sake. Plans for the high-level game are also looking promising; it will offer raid-style Borg battles, and exclusive areas for endgame players
We're getting a beta "really soon", apparently - "I can't tell you exactly or I'll get yelled at," grins Zinkievich - and the PC release in 2010 will be followed by a console release sometime in the future (although we don't know exactly which consoles yet). Star Trek Online is clearly shooting for a broad audience, and though its permissiveness and flexibility might mean it lacks depth for players who like keen specialisation, it's an approach that makes sense when you're trying to fulfil the childhood dreams of a huge number of people.