It's a big night. The Eurogamer Star Alliance, our very own forum guild for Star Trek Online, has made a date to assemble and enter a Fleet Action, one of the game's repeatable large-scale space battles, en masse. We meet at Earth Spacedock and assemble our flotilla of cruisers, escorts and science vessels in picturesque orbit over the Mediterranean. We warp out in splendid unison and charge majestically across sector space to Starbase 24. We warp in... and cross our fingers, close our eyes and hope for the best.
Most of us make it. Others are stranded in another instance of the same location. We couldn't form a group large enough to take us all in, but even some of the small five-player groups have been split. There's a moment of frantic chatter as we try and organise ourselves into the same fragment of space-time, but it's too late, the Klingons are here, and we surrender to our own individual pockets of pinwheeling, phaser-strobed mayhem.
This isn't at all atypical for Star Trek Online. The space MMO itself has warped in unprepared, jury-rigged, piecemeal and scatterbrained. It's a jumble of broken-up content, inconsistent rules and half-finished systems that does a great job of throwing players together but a terrible job of keeping them together, a game where you never really know what's going to be on the end of your next warp (although it will probably involve blowing stuff up). I'm not quite sure that's what Gene Roddenberry would have meant by the wonder and mystery of space exploration.
To be fair, it does keep you on your toes, and like Cryptic's other games Champions Online and City of Heroes, Star Trek Online possesses an unpretentious, scrappy charm and a kind of fast-and-loose immediacy that you don't come across too often in MMOs. Unlike those carefully masked superhero adventures, however, this game isn't hoping to get by on its winning personality alone. This one comes with a peculiar and hugely popular pop-cultural phenomenon attached: the camp, worthy sci-fi world of Star Trek.
It gets it a long way. I've already written about the Pavlovian response you'll have to its unmistakeable, iconic sound effects, for one thing. The game is smartly set later in the timeline than any existing Trek fiction, allowing Cryptic to conjure a scenario that suits the game - a reignited war between the Federation and the Klingon Empire - while liberally peppering it with references to anything and everything that has gone before.
The game's chat channels are already bubbling with happy Trekkies revelling in this banquet of fan service, batting arcane knowledge to and fro while enjoying the wish-fulfilment of captaining their own Starfleet vessel or visiting Deep Space 9. If you love Star Trek, it's a great place to indulge your enthusiasm and share it with others.
Furthermore, despite the fact that Star Trek Online is built on the same engine as Champions Online - which will be quite obvious when on foot - Cryptic has been careful not to simply force Star Trek into an existing MMO template, choosing instead to build the game around what makes sense for its licence. It has the fundamentals - long-form RPG progression built around loot and skill customisation - but it's structurally and mechanically pretty unusual for an MMO, and moment-to-moment it's quite a different experience.
The most obvious manifestation of this is the way the action is split between space and ground action, since it simply wouldn't be Star Trek without either. There is one sense in which it's not very Star Trek at all, though - although there are simple-exploration elements, the majority of what you'll be doing in either instance is combat, and pretty frenetic combat at that.
On foot, you participate in messy firefights with quite large groups of enemies, backed either by four AI bridge officers, four other players, or a mixture of the two. You're selecting hard targets and punching out skills in the MMO style, but everything's a lot faster, you have fewer skills, and there are several action-game twists such as flanking damage, cover and a crouched "focus" mode that make movement and positioning important.
It's shallow fun, but rather incoherent, and the extremely fast rate at which your shields and health recharge means that you seem either to be invincible or dead in a flash, but it's seldom clear why. The three character classes - Science Officer, Tactical Officer and Engineer - each have different utility, but they aren't that clearly drawn and are defined more by the weapons and equipment they're carrying, since these dictate their main combat skills.
Teamwork and tactics don't really come into play and ground combat remains an unchallenging, repetitive and random fracas (although you can pause the action even when grouped with other players to issue orders to your AI companions, Dragon Age style).
It's the ship combat that shines. Despite the slow movement of the spacecraft under impulse power, and their ponderous turning circles (which mean the game sometimes looks like houseflies doing a mating dance in treacle), fighting in space is intense, rhythmic, finely balanced and thoroughly enjoyable. The basics remain the same - circle enemy ships, using energy weapons to deplete their shields enough to fire photo torpedoes against their hull. Manoeuvring skill and timing are key.
But there's also a wide range of tactical options in the way you fit your ship out with weapons, bearing different types of damage and firing arcs in mind, and bridge officers, who essentially provide interchangeable skills - not to mention shield and power management. All of this is nicely brought into focus by the different types of enemy you'll need to combat, from swarms of weak fighters to hulking, heavily armoured cruisers via trios of slippery frigates.
While switching weapons and "kits" (extra skills, essentially) on your ground character tends to be no more than a way to alleviate boredom, customising and optimising your starship setup is a satisfying, absorbing and never-ending pastime, especially once you've reached the rank of Lieutenant Commander and are able to specialise in nimble offensive Escorts, large and powerful Cruisers or flexible Science Vessels. As ever with Cryptic, the whole thing is based on a head-scratchingly bizarre, unintuitive and poorly-explained RPG system - but at least in this case the basics are simple to grasp and the rest can wait.
Every time you advance in rank (every 10 "levels" or so) you get to choose a new ship, and they provide some of the most exciting milestones and most enticing carrots in any MMO. Your ship, and how much you covet your next one, is the glue that holds Star Trek Online together - because, sadly, there's little else that does.
It's an extremely bitty game. Content comes in chunks that last anything from five minutes to an hour, but chunks is the operative word - they're discrete missions in small instanced locations, each existing in its own bubble with little or nothing to connect it to the big picture. Even that big picture - "sector space", the abstract star map that connects one system or deep space encounter to another, that you crawl across at warp speed - is broken up into tight little squares. Loading screens are everywhere, and the use of instancing is extreme, relentless.
There's little sense of place or continuity, and that applies to the game's social dimension, too. It's great that there are no server divisions as such and you'll always be able to find your friends, but the fact that absolutely all content scales to accommodate either a solo player or several means you never have to group, and the style of both space and ground combat means you never have to get organised - you just shoot away until you're done.
Allow "open instance" teaming and the game might throw you in with a couple of others who happen to be starting the same mission at the same time, but you probably won't speak to them. It's not like asking a passing stranger for help. The more successful examples of multiplayer gaming are the big 20-ship Fleet Actions and the repeatable Deep Space Encounters, which can be started and finished by a single player but gain an inevitable momentum as more and more players join looking for a quick mission completion.
More traditional "questing" is represented by Patrols, Episodes and Exploration. Episodes are mixed strings of space and ground combat hung on a story framework that usually has a pleasingly, identifiably Star Trek structure, even if it's an awful lot more violent than the TV series ever were. Patrols are groups of shorter capsule missions that still sometimes manage to deliver a satisfying nugget of narrative here and there.
Exploration was one of the game's most exciting prospects - randomised planets, species and missions that would lend the game that all-important sense of discovery, of being somewhere no player had gone before - but is a dreadful disappointment, consisting of basic, poorly-refined and endlessly-recycled mission templates with a few variables thrown in.
The problem is that all of these, and indeed Deep Space Encounters too, are built from the same few building blocks, and the action gets very repetitive very quickly. The same criticism can be levelled at questing in many MMOs, but Star Trek Online is lacking in the variation of location, the downtime, the social aspects, the way different missions interlock and the alternative activities that liven up other games and give each play session a sense of personal choice.
The diversions and alternatives simply aren't there. Crafting barely exists at all - you can "research" materials and trade them in for pretty meaningless upgrades at Memory Alpha. Skill points (experience, in other words) are heavily weighted towards mission completion, so grinding is a non-starter.
Cryptic has never been very good at loot, and Star Trek Online is no exception - there's too much of it, it comes too late in too fine gradations, and it's hard to tell the effectiveness of one item from the next. So pursuing treasured trinkets doesn't work as motivation either - it's just a case of clearing missions so you can do more missions. Levelling is slow and that next rank can seem awfully far away.
Star Trek Online does have potential as a player-versus-player game, but in its current form that's completely unrealised. This is a particular problem for players who choose to start a Klingon character, which unlocks quite early on at Lieutenant Grade 5, because PVP is all there is for Klingons to do.
There is some insultingly basic mission content that's a variation of Exploration on the Federation side, and Klingons can fight each other and the Feds on a variety of undistinguished space and ground maps, but that's it. Players are miserable, and Klingon chat channels are among the most dispiriting places to hang out on the internet right now. This faction will need to get some serious love if it's to foster a community healthy enough to provide the happy hordes of Starfleet with proper competition.
Despite all of these complaints, those hordes of starship captains are quite happy. They may not have many different things to do, and the missions and UI may be rather buggy, but there does seem to be enough content to sustain them - at least until the endgame - and even at its worst that content is knockabout fun with more instant appeal, and more suitability for casual, short-session, low-commitment play than most MMOs.
And more spaceships too - Star Trek Online is in a field of one in terms of its theme, its only real rival being the intimidatingly complex and political EVE Online, right at the other end of the accessibility scale. It's a unique offering then, in many ways a loveable one, and for Star Trek fans if not MMO gamers it's a great social experience. It makes its licence a blessing, not a burden, but it's a blessing this rickety voyage into the unknown badly needs.
6 / 10