The RPG Scrollbars: A Dip Into… Star Trek Online

There’s no prizes for predicting this Christmas’ biggest movie… but once everyone’s seen Alvin And The Chipmunks in The Road Chip, there’s a good chance they’ll consider checking out the new Star War as well. What better time to check in on The Old Republic and… actually, no. For as Yoda once so vaguely commented, “There is another.” I’ve been meaning to take a look at the competition, Star Trek Online [official site] for a while now, and this seems as good a time as any. After five years, is it worth signing up for an investigative tour of duty on the original final frontier?

Star Trek Online’s relative obscurity has always felt a little odd. It landed back in 2010, and then largely, well, disappeared, despite ticking along quietly and with a stream of fan-pleasing actors and characters showing up to bolster its continued mission to boldly go and all that. It’s hard not to see it as an indictment of the franchise’s general decline as much as anything else, with the rebooted movie not having made up for the failures of Enterprise and Nemesis and other recent offerings. Fingers crossed the new TV series being worked on will finally make it worth being a fan again.

All that said, it’s not a big surprise that Trek Online didn’t take off in the day. My memories of the launch version aren’t very positive, from the depressing premise of every empire being at each other’s throat to unfortunate aesthetic decisions like custom uniforms destroying the meaning of the word, y’know, ‘uniform’, and extremely fiddly mechanics. Five years is a long time in gaming though, so I was prepared to forgive and forget, and take what the game had to offer now on its own terms. Certainly, there’s been a lot of content since then, including appearances by the cheaper end of the Star Trek convention regulars. Admiral Leeta? Really? Even the Mirror Universe is rolling its eyes.

But I digress! One thing that the game definitely does better now is its tutorial, in which you start at Starfleet Academy (as a Starfleet player, of course) and are assigned to a training cruise with an experienced Captain. This promptly goes wrong, leaving you in command, and facing off against Klingons and Borg and earning the Captain’s Chair within basically a day of graduating. Even Wesley didn’t manage that. This is a big improvement on what I at least remember from the original game’s set-up, which was essentially “We’re so short of people, we’re letting bloody Ensigns have their own ships,” even if the desire to have a military themed leveling system still seems like a dumb reason to not just have you be a proper new Captain.

The tutorial though does feel very much like a theme park version of Star Trek, way beyond the point of necessity. It’s one thing to go up against an angry Klingon captain, and that feels like it would be enough. Five minutes later though you’re batting away Borg like they’re aggressive ping-pong balls and that’s just a step too far. Yes, they’re probes, yes, Janeway brought technology back from the Delta Quadrant, and yes, the entire run of Voyager couldn’t have humiliated the Borg more if Attack Plan Delta had been to yank their pants down in front of their childhood crush, but still. It’s not empowering to blow away one of the greatest threats in the galaxy while still learning what the keys are. It’s depressing. Fiction needs bogeymen, and while I know the threat of a Borg Cube isn’t what it was at Wolf 359, it should never be a case of “It’s cool, we’ve totally got this.” Not until your Captain has seriously earned their stripes, anyway.

What I do love though is that Cryptic approached the license in the right way – designing around the needs of Star Trek as a license rather than trying to squeeze the World of Warcraft template into a Captain’s corset. The split between space combat and ground combat to cover both bases, with space combat offering a half-way house between the arcade style of something like Star Trek DAC and the more strategic approach of Starfleet Command (though I do wish it was further to that side), and ground action offering basic RPG action and phaser battles on assorted planets around the galaxy. I’m not so wild about either’s execution, with both being somewhat fiddly and the space combat unfortunately reliant on upgrades and skill points and crew skills instead of having the courage to simulate a complex war machine, but then I tend to dislike the effect of MMO progression systems on known quantities, and I do appreciate that there needs to be something to provide a power curve.

My favourite thing about playing though is that the designers clearly understood what players would want to do, and made it possible. Like most MMOs, you start in a safe space and you work your way through quests to be given resources and upgrades and all that- wait, what’s that? You want to ignore all of that and fly to Deep Space Nine instead? Of course you can! You’re the Captain, you can go where you like. And when you do arrive at DS9, not only does Star Trek Online have the exterior so that you can fly around like you’re in the intro, you can hit a button and beam in. The map features the Promenade, Operations and Quark’s Bar, all rendered pretty well and with great attention to detail. You can wander into the Bajoran temple where they keep one of the Orbs. You can play Dabo. You can poke a head into Sisko’s old office and see his signed baseball still sitting on the table. The actual crew have long been replaced (unless you count a holographic Leeta), but that’s fine. Time has after all moved on. Even Ensign Harry Kim is now a Captain, despite Janeway’s best efforts.

It doesn’t hurt that since launch Star Trek Online has been updated with the Foundry – from that brief period of time when it looked like user-generated content was going to be a much bigger thing for MMOs than it actually was – which bolsters the existing mix of missions and PvP and general exploration stuff to create a universe where you can somewhat go off and do your own thing. It’s all done from a boring map though, which makes sense, but does rather demote the ability to walk around your ship and sit on the bridge and all that to a quick optional nicety – though admittedly a very nice nicety where your crew stands around and gets on with business. Again, glancing to the list of things I like, I appreciate the attempt to make you feel like a Captain, with early missions at least (I don’t know about later on) offering a lot of moments where you interact with your crew, or beam down to a trouble spot with a team of five instead of risking your own ass planetside while their asses remain comfy.

(That said, I’d have laughed if it had blatantly stolen from Yahtzee’s Adventures In The Galaxy Of Fantabulous Wonderment and had all ground missions undertaken by dedicated redshirts who would never be mentioned again after snuffing it.)

Yet despite all the stuff that Star Trek Online does that I like and feel I should like… I really didn’t enjoy my time with it. Really, it felt like a great example of how sometimes someone makes the right basic choices and yet the result lands flat. That flatness is in the fiddliness of the MMO side, with all its resources and levelling systems and alternate modes making it hard to get sucked into the fantasy of it, the crap ground combat that wants to be action packed but is constantly chained down by being an MMO, the space combat that is neither the submarine style that it feels like it should be nor the spammy action experience that its recharge rates and enemy encounter designs feel like it was actually designed to be. Four Borg anything at once? That’s no sim. I’ve also found it a buggy experience at times, including one particularly painful moment of being stuck in the tutorial when a script trigger wouldn’t fire. Also, some bastard stole my chair.

It’s frustrating. I’d like to enjoy it more; to appreciate it in the way I like its cosmetic details, from the DS9 thing to the way your ship’s name is proudly emblazoned over the hull, to being able to customise the bridge staff, to being treated like a captain with the whole universe at your disposal. In those moments, I can only grin and be glad that Cryptic went so far above and beyond in not simply reskinning World of Warcraft, but in trying to find moments that shine with Star Trek flavour instead of merely offering a dab of it. But then a mission starts and I realise that I’m not actually going to stick around for very long. I’m certainly not tempted by the DLC packs, which run the gamut from £19 for a basic starter kit to a whopping £115 for the ‘Delta Rising Operations Pack’. What do you get for your money, besides a smidgen more than what looks like fuck all? A few ships, some upgrade tokens, and the chance to dress up like Neelix. I would rather clean a transporter pad with my tongue.

(I’m told by players who’ve been around longer that the endgame, and the need for ships and such, can be a problem and so this may well be a great deal for players… but personally, for £115 I’d want an actual bloody starship delivered to my house.)

As is often the case, your mileage may well vary. It’s cool to see that STO has tried to continue the story from the original universe, with the original cast and big episodic galactic plotlines like the Iconian War and visiting the Delta Quadrant to see the mess that Voyager left behind. There’s certainly enough fan-service in the non Leeta-wearing-that-outfit sense to last a while, with the game seemingly ticking along quite comfortably despite long since abdicating the spotlight in favour of other MMOs and other adventures. It’s at least worth a look if you’ve been meaning to already, as an MMO that plays things differently, if not necessarily one you’ll play for months.

31 Comments

  1. Chris Cunningham says:

    At the end of the Federation tutorial, if instead of returning directly to Starfleet HQ by portal you opt to hang around and head back there manually, should you quit the game (or your network connection be interrupted) then on restarting you’ll find that it is no longer possible to complete the quest (and therefore exit the tutorial stage). I opened a ticket for this was told that it was Not a Bug, and that the solution was to re-roll a new character and play all the way through the tutorial again. That sort of thing in an MMO (f2p or not) tends to give one a somewhat poor impression of the general health of the game.

    That said, the game is pretty enough to be worth losing a few hours in from time to time, even if only to see the locations.

    • teppic says:

      Well, PWE customer support is possibly the worst I’ve come across. Extremely unhelpful, even if it’d make no real difference other than to leave a player happy, they’ll say no.

  2. gbrading says:

    This sounds pretty accurate to me. I invested something like 300 hours into STO and I can tell you, it’s just not a very good game. I love Star Trek but sometimes STO is barely a Star Trek game. The best bit is the space combat, but that is just basically cribbed from Bridge Commander.

    I did manage to play entirely without spending real money, but a hell of a lot of grinding was involved to be able to get a Tier 1 ship (curse you Dilithium). I check in yearly basically to see what’s changed, and I’m always disappointed when it’s not that much.

  3. Premium User Badge

    Cooper says:

    I disagree that they’ve built an MMO around the license. I spent quite some time with this game, wanting to like it, but it never ever feels like Star Trek.

    On a purely aesthetic level, it has the issue of MMO spaces being incredibly cavernous. The ship bridges, DS9 interiors etc. feel like large echo chambers, not spaces designed with efficiency of use of space in mind…

    But my biggest annoyance is that everything is about combat. Since when was Star Trek predominantly about space battle and phaser blasters? Sure, I get it, it’s an MMO, it needs a consistent gameplay loop to keep people playing, and endless grinding through combat missions is cheaper content to produce than something narraive driven.

    Basicaly, it’s made me realise how much I want BioWare to take on Star Trek. Mass Effect is basically the closest we will ever get to a game that actually has the feeling of TNG era Star Trek…

    • aliksy says:

      Man, fuck Bioware. It would have a ton of filler combat that would be just as out-of-theme. Telltale might do a good job of it, in my opinion. More choices and dialog, less “here’s another group of bandits to murder”

    • empty_other says:

      Then you will most likely get Star Wars The Old Republic re-skinned, but with a new story and new romanceable companions. Do you really want that?

      • montorsi says:

        It would be lightyears ahead of what we have in STO. SWTOR is generally enjoyable singleplayer experience.

    • malkav11 says:

      Yeah, a Star Trek MMO really shouldn’t be primarily about combat, even if that is basically the core gameplay loop of the MMO genre. I get that some of the better Trek games were the ones that were all about strategic-scale ship combat, but while fighting certainly punctuates the shows regularly, the point was always things like exploration and science. And peaceful resolutions were preferred if not always practical. The adventure games were really a much better fit for the license.

  4. Robert Post's Child says:

    I tried it a year or two ago and it did seem a bit fiddly, but I admit I enjoyed being able to custom build my own crew, and the space battles were actually decent fun. my computer at the time was a bit shit so I didnt play more than a week or so, but overall it was… better than I expected, given my utter dislike of mmo’s in general.

  5. crowleyhammer says:

    Tutorial bugged out on me when i tries it. Sacked it off after that.

    And id argue star trek insurrection fucked the license for films far more than Nemesis. It didn’t help it came out after First Contact which was superb but it was a shite film that was more like an extended filler next gen episode.

    • Vandelay says:

      I recently watched all of the Trek films. All of the Next Generation ones are actually pretty bad. Even the quite well regarded First Contact has a fair few issues.

      It is still the best of the bunch and has quite a lot going for it, but it lacks the characters interacting with each other and spends most of the time having Picard with Lily, Data with Borg Queen (who is a character that doesn’t make much sense with what we know of the Borg,) and occasionally dropping in with a bunch of the characters hang out with Zafron Cochran. It really doesn’t compare to the films with Kirk’s crew (if you exclude Star Trek V.)

      I would rate Insurrection the next best of the lot. As you say, it does feel like an extend episode of the series and it drags a bit in the middle. There is a better film there though, not a particularly great one, but something enjoyable. Similarly, Generations is close to being good, but stumbles in too many places. Whilst watching it this time around, I couldn’t stop thinking why the hell was Data allowed to just go ahead and fool around with this chip that could potentially damage him irreparably or at least effect his judgement, whilst still being able to go off on away missions without deactivating it. The whole plot relies on this idiocy. The Nexus idea is also very woolly and ill-defined. There are some spectacular scenes that justify the move to the big screen though (opening sequence and the Enterprise crash.) I also really love the way Picard is forced into a fight and loses, having to go and get a helping hand from Kirk. I know many find his final death rather unsatisfactory, but I like the build up to it. Pretty much everything else various from silly to annoying though.

      Then there was Nemesis. Yeah… People complain that the films made Picard into an action hero. They actually didn’t. There is a great sequence in First Contact where they are making their way to Engineering. On route, they get attacked by Borg, who they end up having to engage in hand to hand combat. Watch as Picard dodges out of the way as Data or Worf actually do the clobbering. He doesn’t throw a single punch. The final confrontation with the Borg Queen also features him climbing up cabling to escape a gas that is tearing off the Queen’s flesh. Again, he never directly fights her. Then you get to Nemesis, where he is a thrill seeker, driving around a dune buggy, just to set up a stupid sequence in which he flies a ship inside a ship. You also get the weird pointless mind rape of Troi. Really, this is pretty fitting for the way the series treats Troi, but that doesn’t make it any less completely bizarre and, again, only used to setup a plot point later on.

      It was a shame that none of the films lived up to the potential. I loved TNG growing up and I watched it again not too long ago. There is a lot of really great stuff going on there, although it is hampered by it rule that everyone must get on, which often makes it a rather bland show. I hope that the new film next year, with Simon Pegg now taking a turn at the writing, will get us back to something that is truly Trek.

      • SomeDuder says:

        A Star Trek MMO set in the new old (old new?) universe, on the other hand, would be excellent, especially with Abrams in the director’s seat.

        • DrMcCoy says:

          Considering that Abrams stripped Trek of everything that made it Trek, leaving an empty husk of a braindead action flick…yeah, an MMO would fit right ontop of that. :(

  6. Maxheadroom says:

    Back when this was announced it sounded very promising: Multi crew ships, taking different paths through Starfleet academy to become command staff, engineer, scientist etc then looking for vacancies on various star ships to fill those positions..or something like that.

    Did any of that come about? I think I played through the tutorial when it went free to play but it didn’t grab me

    • Richard Cobbett says:

      Nope. You just choose a specialisation in character creation.

    • SomeDuder says:

      That doesn’t sound like something that would attract the CoDBlOps crowd and is completely BORING. Who would want anything but a grind and action and instant gratification. PEOPLE DON’T WANT THAT CRAP NO MORE.

      And yes, I’m completely serious when I say that manshooting fans are the target demographic of Rick Berman’s Star Trek universe. Roddenberry was a hack fraud, after all.

  7. EhexT says:

    The tutorial is a classic Cryptic problem that they’ve also pulled in Champions Online.
    You do not have the first thing the player, at the lowest possible power level, beat up the MAIN VILLAIN of the setting and then act like they’re dangerous every again. Yet cryptic keeps doing it (they’re also goddamn doing it in Neverwinter, in a less extreme form).

    As for STO – there was a period of a couple of months before the release of the Delta Quadrant expansion, where it was genuinely a good game. It had a great (for a F2P game at least) monetization, in the form of end-game ships that were no better or worse than any other end-game ships, they just gave you new ships to play dress up with and a couple of non-game breaking unique light-show abilities.

    Then the full force of the Korean Overlord monetization hammer fell on the game and now it’s an utter hole of a game. Not only did they introduce better ships nobody wanted, they massively bumped up the difficulty of the endgame (not put in a new one – just made the old one harder), massively reduced the rewards for playing it but also by introducing that new real-money-only tier of endgame ships, made every other real-money purchase obsolete.

    So basically, for gods sake don’t play STO – just be sad that those few months where it was great are over.

    • EhexT says:

      Yes, most STO players are aware of the irony of the Delta Quadrant expansion ruining the game.

  8. iambecomex says:

    I was going to ask what the hell is going on with that uniform in the third picture, but I guess Admiral Leeta is all the explanation I need. A picture of Picard with his head in his hands has never seemed more appropriate.

    • Premium User Badge

      Bluerps says:

      Yeah. In what universe does an “Admiral Leeta” make any sense, no matter how her uniform looks?

      I wonder, if you play long enough, do you meet other people with unlikely Starfleet careers? Admiral Guinan? Admiral Vic Fontaine? Admiral That-Half-Romulan-Who-Was-The-Daughter-Of-Parallel-Universe-Tasha-Yar?

      • vecordae says:

        Admiral Leeta is a fairly recent addition, I think. They wanted to do stuff with the mirror universe and needed a recognizable Bajoran character. Leeta was who they could afford.

        Guinan and Vic don’t show up as admirals. Or at all, if I recall correctly.

        “That-Half-Romulan-Who-Was-The-Daughter-Of-Parallel-Universe-Tasha-Yar” shows up. She’s not an admiral, though, she’s Sela, the empress of the Imperal Romulan faction. You might think “There’s plenty of Romulans more qualified than her to run the Empire”, remember that they all died Romulus blew up during the backstory to the Star Trek reboot.

        • Premium User Badge

          Bluerps says:

          Yeah, ok. I guess in the mirror universe, everyone can potentially be an admiral – I mean, there was one episode in which almost everyone was already a captain (Mirror O’Brien even complains about it, if I remember correctly).

          I wasn’t entirely serious about the other three. Though I am actually surprised that Sela appears in the game, to be honest.

  9. Vandelay says:

    “I would rather clean a transporter pad with my tongue.”

    Clean transporter pad? Could be worse. Picard would regularly force those that stepped out of line to clean up the holodeck after one of Riker’s “parties.” Why do you think everyone on TNG was so well behaved?

    (Do you really think the worst thing they ever caught someone doing with the holodeck was Barclay having a picnic with Crusher? Really?)

    • Premium User Badge

      particlese says:

      Oh jeez, you just brought memories of some horrifying yet highly amusing link a friend once sent me…

      I’m afraid of searching for said link, so I leave you this link in its stead.

    • vecordae says:

      Somethingawful put out a bit of entertaining fiction about that. “Blue Stripe: The life and times of a holodeck janitor.” The janitor had a lot to say about Riker and Worf.

  10. Premium User Badge

    particlese says:

    Ah. I don’t have the time for it anyway, but I had always hoped it would do the franchise a better service than it sounds like it does. It did sound promising back before release, and my flatmate at the time seemed to like it well enough, albeit without being inclined to chat about it much.

    But holy butts: a new TV series? I’m cautiously very excited by this news…

  11. trjp says:

    I played this at launch and thought the space stuff was OK, the ground stuff was dire and it became a tiresome slog with very little ‘carrot’ to keep you playing.

    I recently re-installed it to take a peek but haven’t gotten around to that – wondering if I should even bother but, hell, costs nowt!!

  12. Nick says:

    I’ve been playing this on and off for a couple of years now, and Steam reports I’ve got more than 400 hours in it.

    I’ll be the first to argue that the content is pretty hit-or-miss. That being said, I find the space combat to be rather soothing now and a lot more interesting than, say, EVE Online, which I felt had very little to no interaction at the early stages.

    I’m going to make the “you should wait until later on in the game” argument, which I hate, and I’m sorry, but honestly, the early content for STO is pretty weak. It wasn’t very interesting storyline-wise, for the most part; it doesn’t have very interesting level design; it doesn’t have a truly compelling gameplay loop; and you see other people doing cool things you can’t do.

    The content they’ve all added in the last few years, though, has been pretty good. They’ve gotten much better about skipping a lot of the MMO crap that plagues the genre – most missions are a lot more straightforward now and generally more interactive.

    Regardless, it’s still a free to play MMO, and the content (both user-generated, and company-generated) is based around the idea that you will have to work for your rewards. I somehow feel better about playing STO, where I can directly see that what I get out depends on how much time and effort I put in, for free, as opposed to paying $13-15/mo for a paid MMO (like WoW), where the cost is the same whether I play for 10 hours a week or 10 hours a month.

    There are grindy bits, there are boring bits, there are silly bits, and Cryptic isn’t great at fixing non-critical bugs, and their customer service isn’t great at handling non-payment-related issues. But if you like Star Trek, it’s one of the only good video game experiences you can really get, and if you can look past some of the more irritating Free2Play MMOisms, there’s a lot of good stuff in there.

  13. The Dark One says:

    One thing that the game definitely does better now is its tutorial, in which you start at Starfleet Academy (as a Starfleet player, of course) and are assigned to a training cruise with an experienced Captain. This promptly goes wrong, leaving you in command, and facing off against Klingons and Borg and earning the Captain’s Chair within basically a day of graduating. Even Wesley didn’t manage that.

    Red Squad! Red Squad! Red Squad! Red Squad!Red Squad!
    Red Squad!Red Squad!Red Squad!Red Squad!Red Squad!
    RedSquad!RedSquad!RedSquad!RedSquad!RedSquad!