An Hour With... Star Trek Online
I'm a space captain, ma! Yeah, it's amazing - I was only an Ensign 20 minutes ago, but they've given me my own ship already! I'm going to fly it into the sun and see what happens - I expect it will be lovely and warm there, so the crew will surely be delighted.
STO made me feel pretty important pretty quickly. I like that, even if it seems like open foolishness on the Federation's part. I was deeply curious to try this here MMO back when it was in beta, but knew that sitting down with an MMO can be like giving a vampire permission to enter my home. Danger! Danger! However, as I currently have a work calendar more frighteningly empty than the soul of Haliburton executive, I quite literally have nothing better to do - I can justify getting my Captain's Log on for a little while. As the title states, this isn't a review: it's just me dicking about in the first hour of the game then deciding if I want to continue playing or not. If I was going to give it a score, though, it'd be eight fourths out of C.
I called my Vulcan Science Officer 'Spork.' I am a comedy genius/idiot/completely predictable/delete as obvious. Between borderline copyright-infringement (albeit the game's own copyright) and being the most obvious gag in the world, I'm pretty sure I'm going to annoy a lot of people. Thing is - I almost couldn't help it/ There's something about Star Trek Online that makes it hard to take it seriously. I don't mean as a game, but in terms of being a Star Trek product. It's a series that's largely speaking very serious, even despite the giant hands and pratfalls of the recent movie do-over. It always come down to the universe being imperiled, but I'm not convinced this could ever entirely convey that.
It doesn't seem to take Star Trek seriously either, despite its somber text-boxes and urgent pleas to rescue people. It's openly cartoony, sharing as it does much of the same tech as Cryptic's other MMO, the ostentatiously comicky-booky Champions Online - which means it feels a long way away from the formality and seriousness of the Federation. And the character creator may be stuffed with pre-made options for Vulcans and Klingons et al for the more devout Star Trek fans to flock to, but for a more casual follower such as I, it's hard to resist the option to create a new species, which inevitably gets far wilder than anything Star Trek has historically included. This guy, for instance:
Yeah, well done me. Captain Obvious, I am. I'm quite sure everyone comes up with something pretty similar when they create their first character, but don't deny me my enormo-foreheaded fun. This kind of thing is a major lure to such as I - if I can't put my own visible imprint, no matter how asinine, on my player character, I can struggle to connect to an MMO. Trouble is, this chap here has absolutely nothing to do with anything; he's based on nothing other than pulling most of the sliders to extremes. In other words - I'm not treating this like Star Trek. In other other words: Star Trek Online isn't encouraging me to treat it like Star Trek.
That isn't a criticism, just an observation. I'm not sure I could even stomach a super-serious Star Trek MMO, to be honest, but certainly the obvious commonality to Champions forces this down a slightly tongue-in-cheek path it may not intend to be on. Or maybe it does; who knows? It's enjoyably relaxed as a result - very much a plug straight in and have a good time affair. To the point that I'm worried it steals its own thunder with the tutorial missions. They include pretty much every Star Trekky element you could name - a Borg invasion, Phaser combat, explodey spaceships, Phasers on stun, an Away mission, warp speed and plenty of beaming up. What else do you want from a Star Trek game? Oh yeah. That, but at higher levels. Yay MMOs! But it's an impressively fun, explodey intro, well-paced and managing to introduce the game's core concepts without seeming patronising. I just hope it manages to outdo the precedent it immediately sets itself. I'm a bit worried it's shown its most interesting enemy too soon, but at the same time I've very glad I didn't have to wait until I was level 48 or something to see them. Hook me in from the off.
I'm not much beyond the tutorial, but I've really enjoyed having an AI squad - so far, just bald, scarred, bearded Vulcan first-mate Spork, but there's space for a couple more. It immediately makes this not Just Another MMO and, in contrast to what I said earlier, a lot more like Star Trek. It's a team thing, but moreover a military team thing - something you wouldn't get with a squad that was purely made up of players, as they'd all try to run off and do their own thing rather than follow orders. No idea how that's going to play out when there is a whole mass of players and their robo-chums, but I'm definitely interested enough to find out.
The space combat I'm not so sure about - the controls feel a bit off, imprecise and unresponsive. I'm surprised there isn't a click-to-move-to-target thing on the ships, as that would seem to have more in common with Star Trek navigation as we know it. Clearly, it's more hands-on this way, but I'm not convinced a city-sized spaceship from the far future should handle like a broken kite. Maybe I'll get used to it, but right now it feels like an uncomfortable halfway house between, say, Eve and Freelancer. It's a jolly nice change from running around pressing number keys, at least. And I can't pretend I wasn't thrilled that the name I gave my ship - the U.S.S. Pripyat - appeared on its hull:
Odd spacefaring aside, STO feels a whole lot fresher and more interesting than Champions Online's introductory gobbets, though there has been a little touch of the Tabula Rasas about the ground combat. As long as the missions and the worlds are interesting it'll do fine, though. A far greater - the greatest, in fact - concern is how hideously convoluted and poorly explained the skill upgrade system is. I've assigned points to the preposterously large grid of similarly-named statistics pretty much at random, with only the vaguest guesstimation as to their effects. Hopefully it'll take greater pains to clarify it a little later, but right now it's making exactly the same mistake as Champions' messy stat-fest did. Which is a sad surprise, given it it was probably the most common complaint about Champions. Surely Cryptic would have been determined not to do it again?
Still, would I play more? You betcha. While there are some major areas of concern, there's certainly not been anything to scare me away at this early stage. In fact, I'm going to boldly go where I went about two hours ago right now.