That's today, by the way.
It was the little MMO that couldn't. First developed by Perpetual, and went nowhere. With the license in danger, Atari just threw the brand at Cryptic and told them that they had 18 months, start to finish, to produce and release an MMO. Understandably, it was rushed, buggy, downright half-finished in places and didn't have a wealth of content. Certainly not enough to justify a monthly fee.
Two years later, the Chinese MMO giant Perfect World have bought up Cryptic, and rather than make a slash-and-burn takeover, they've actually increased the development budget, undone the hiring freeze that Atari put on the studio, and seem to be providing far more support than the previous management ever did. The game is now almost unrecognizable compared to what was originally released. In a lot of ways, this is both the game that should have been released first time round, and the perfect business model for it.
STO is not Eve Online. It's the polar opposite. It's a fast, casual, story-driven MMO that can be played entirely solo if you want - if you're playing by yourself, then you've even got party management aspects to keep on top of, as you bring your four best officers with you on each ground mission. It's also almost comically generous with XP. I've played maybe a couple of hours a day for the past week and am at level 29 of 50 with no sign of slowing. I'm also currently on the main story quest intended for level 17 players - thankfully, everything scales to your level (no one-shotting everything or vice versa), and there's sidekicking both up and down, so you can always play with friends with very few barriers.
You can even level without playing - a new minigame provides a remarkably high XP reward. You build up a crew of named Duty Officer characters over the course of play, and send them off on 'off-screen' missions. Sometimes boring stuff like sensor diagnostics, sometimes interesting and risky stuff like breaking up a smuggling ring or breeding gene-spliced ubertribbles. If they succeed (and their missions continue even when you're not logged in), you get money, XP, loot and other rewards. It's pretty fun stuff, and you get kinda attached to your officers, especially when they die or end up in sickbay because something went horribly wrong.
The biggest change between launch and now is what they did to the ground combat. When it first launched, planetside missions were traditional MMO fare. Two groups of characters played awkward animations at each other until one side fell over. Now, it's much more akin to Tabula Rasa, for those who remember it - you play it in traditional shooter style, with crouching, cover, dodge-rolls, grenades, zoomed aiming, etc, but with more of a focus on the RPG stats under that. Weaker enemies can be killed in just a couple of seconds, and stronger enemies in 10 seconds or less. Only bosses provide any kind of protracted brawling, and they usually only appear once per major story quest. If you never played Tabula Rasa, just think 'Mass Effect Lite'.
On a tangent, the Borg have also been completely redesigned to make them more like they used to be - slow-moving intimidating cyberzombies that adapt quickly to your weapons, forcing you to stop firing and remodulate, or just bash them with something solid (you can't adapt against a Bat'leth to the face). They can also assimilate both NPCs and player characters. I've had to kill friends a couple of times because they got turned by a sneaky group of drones silently lumbering towards them. The latest major update brought a global event that happens every few days where all players (Federation and Klingon) team up to defend a whole open city map from a Borg ground army, and it's really impressive.
Ground combat is solid now - not great, but fun enough. The space combat is still the high point of the game. Better now that they've re-done the entire skill system to make it more logical and accessible. Depending on ship type, you can play it traditionally Star Trek-ish, circling round with your space-battleship and blasting away with broadsides, or play it a little more arcadey if you favor a Defiant-style 'escort' craft, which tend to be much faster and have a strong focus on forward-firing cannons rather than omnidirectional phaser banks. The larger 'fleet action' space battles that you can join from just a few levels in are really impressive, with up to 20 players against sometimes hundreds of enemies at once. Constant explosions all the time.
In general, it feels like a singleplayer RPG with a strong (but optional) multiplayer aspect. There's no grind here - literally none. Just doing a couple of sidequests, I've ended up levelling past everything intended for my character. There's even difficulty settings - it defaults to Easy (although they call it Normal here), you'll want to bump it up to Advanced for better combat XP and loot, and an occasional challenge. Getting KO'd or killed on Advanced or Expert difficulties can cause injuries to your character, which start out mild and can be quickly treated with an item, but multiple successive deaths can cripple you and require a costly trip to sickbay. The same applies to your ship.
I've been having a lot of fun these past few days - I just made my second character, a Gorn over on the Klingon side of the war (you unlock KDF characters at level 24, and they start out at level 20), and while the Klingon side of things looks to have a fair amount of content of its own, even if you combined both Federation and Klingon games, you'd maybe have 2-3 standard singleplayer RPGs worth of content. As a subscription MMO, that's bad. As a free-to-play game that you play with friends a couple of times a week? That's perfect. New content is being produced faster now, and the developers promise at least one major 'episode' (a major story quest with new locations, cutscenes, a boss, etc) added every week for the next couple of months.
STO has been a very pleasant surprise for me. When I first bought it (again, £2) I played maybe an hour or two and then decided to shelve it until it went F2P, so I've effectively gone in blind as a newbie, and been very pleasantly surprised by what I've played so far. The early quests are a bit weak (it shows that they were developed first), but you get more cutscenes, bosses and interesting locations about halfway through the Klingon arc. I've not even touched the PvP side of things, but mass PvE combat has run very smoothly so far, and even provided some notable space boss battles which require some teamwork and thought.
So, are we going to get a fleet (guild) going when it launches? Sidekicking works both ways, so low level players can play with veterans and vice-versa. High level players even get a respectable amount of XP from replaying earlier missions, which is nice. One thing I really like is that the game now acknowledges that you're in space and can communicate with people half a galaxy away - you get 95% of quests now from a massive captains log that just shows every quest available to your level and lets you accept and cash them in without having to fly anywhere. You can even pay a little in-game money to warp directly to the start of any major story mission. You can even replay it all again at your current level for a reduced (but still respectable) reward.
On a final note, I'll say that this is one of the best implementations of free-to-play that I've ever seen. Content-wise, there is NOTHING that free players cannot do. No barriers, no limits, nothing. The only thing locked off to subscribing players only is the Foundry, which lets players create quests and upload them to the community repository. Free players can play those, but not make them. Cash-shop wise, 90% of it is just fancy costume items and rare player/crew races for those folks who just HAVE to be a former-Borg. There's a few premium ships, but stat-wise they're identical to non-shop ones, but with usually a single extra skill slot. Yes, it's an advantage, but a fractional one that doesn't matter at all in a 20-player brawl.
And that's why I think you shouldn't turn your nose up at STO once it goes fully live on the 17th, and why veterans might want to give it another look. I will say this - if you're a vet, then roll a new character. A lot of experienced players have been really confused when they jumped back in because so much has changed.