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Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Video Game Review: Star Trek Online

Are you a Trekkie? Have you seen every episode ever at least 7 times? Do you have fights with friends over how long a red shirt can survive in an episode? If you can't answer those questions, fear not because Star Trek Online does not require that kind of fan devotion.

Star Trek Online is a Massively Multiplayer Online game (MMO) that will be officially opening on Feb 2, 2010. Those that have pre-ordered the game will be able to play from Friday on through. Given the number of fans the universe of Star Trek inhabits, expectations are high.

The first question you might ask is the first thing I addressed here. Is it a uber-fan targeted game. And the answer is no. It is not focused on any 1 Star Trek series or movie, nor is it restricted to information and actions that only the ultimate fan might know. The MMO is actually more casual gamer based, and something anyone could enjoy from die hard fans to those with even no knowledge of Star Trek, if such a thing were possible.

With that main question out of the way, what is STO like? Is it similar to other MMO's? Is it worth the time? Is it a complete fiasco like Star Wars Online?

I would say that STO (Star Trek Online) is a decent MMO. In a way it's kind of like jumping into an episode of Star Trek, any of them, for a while. You really get the feeling that you are part of the Star Trek universe.

STO is similar to most MMO's in that you can modify characters in a dozen differnt ways. You can have aliens of your own creation, make a 8' gaint Vulcan female character, or a tiny Bajoran for that matter. You can select from a host of clothes and hairstyles, even adjust the length of fingers and/or scars and skin color if you wish.

There are 2 main character races in the game, Klingons and Federation. If you have pre-ordered the game and taken the option to sign up for the lifetime subscription (a limited time offer as of now) you also have the option to create a Borg character - so expect that to be an option in the future along with Romulans I expect. So far I have only played the Federation side of the game.

Once you create a character you go through a tutorial that places you right in the middle of the action. In STO you are told up front that this is the universe outside of the latest revisioned movie, you are in the original universe where Jame T. Kirk is Shatner and all the television shows are derived from. (We are told this by Leonard Nimoy's Spock no less) Thus you are in the middle of another Klingon-Federation war, with the Dominion, Romulans, Borg, and everyone else involved as well.

Within minutes of starting the game you get to become a Captain of your own starship. Don't worry that you are starting as a Ensign (the lowest rank officer) since whoever is in command is automatically Captain. The logic of this upgrade in position makes sense and feels organic.

The initial battles, on ship and in space, are pretty easy. Just enough to keep you busy enough to pay attention to what is the next button you want to mash. The ground game, where you get to roam with an away team and fight phaser to phaser or hand-to-hand, is decent but hardly the kind of battles you get in say WoW. Then again, the focus of the game is really not the ground game. It's primarily about space.

Focusing on the ground play for a bit, you get an away team that is initially just 1 other character. The character is similar to pets in other MMO's or NPC characters you have limited control over. They can heal you in battle, set up turrets and provide additional firepower, and other similar background tasks. So far the ground game is decent but not thrilling.

Space on the other hand is what it's all about. That is where the game excells. Even in the initial levels of the game you get the feel of running around and fighting the good fight just like James T. himself. The controls do take a bit of getting used to as a fight in space is 3-dimensional. So you can fly over, around, and under other ships in space. I only did it onece, but you can also bump inot another ship, though other space items like asteroids are not collidable.

There a lots of GUI controls when you are in space, but they are organic in that their use is logical, the size is not too large to interfere with the game, and the information is easily understood at a glance.

The graphics of flying through space are superb. You get a feeling of really being out there. That space is huge. And you get to do this via an over the shoulder view of your ship. It really works well. That alone would make this game worth the money.

But like any new MMO there are detractions. They aren't so much in the gameplay as in other places. The pacing of some missions are slow. Flying through space takes time (when you are in a planetary system or in the Warp zone to another galaxy). You don't just instantly pop up against whatever, you need to find it. When in a planetary system with gas and asteroids, it can take a couple of minutes to find what you are looking for if you are moving at less than top speed.

Another issue is the specializations. There are 3 - Tactical officer (warrior class), Science (magic user class), and Engineering (support/ranged class). You can be any of the 3 and you will have a set of bridge officers that will have at least one of each of these titles. This allows you to focus and enhance certain aspects of your ship and crew on the ground. But at least early on, you don't get a feel for what effect that really has on your ship or in ground battles. Yes there are buffs and weapon specializations, but the need for one or the other isn't clear early on.

The biggest issue I had is the rank and promotion system. You get skill trees instead of skill levels used in most MMO's. That system was a fiasco in Star Wars Online. In STO it's not too clear exactly what you want to take on as a skill, how high you should make it go, and what benefit you are getting from choosing one option over another. But you must take on new skills becuase your characters rank, and thus ability to gain more ships, better crew, improved weapons, ect are based on rank.

Overall playing STO is kind of like being the star of your own television show. You are the Captain in charge, you set the course to travel thru space and fight the good fight. It's the kind of game that I would not want to play for 3 days in a row (but likely would like all MMO's I own), but surely would play 3x a week for a few hours each time.

These are just the early impressions of playing the game for about 8 hours. This is very early in any MMO and so there is much more to evaluate. But as MMO's go, this is a great start and an indication of a solid game that is worth the time investment any MMO player knows goes with building a good character.

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