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.