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.