Whether you're a jumpsuit-wearing die-hard Trekkie, a newly converted fan of the latest blockbuster film, or you hate anything with pointed ears and repressed emotions, it's hard not to see how the venerable Star Trek franchise could make for a great MMO. Going boldly into the universe with a crew of various alien races, facing rival alien empires like the Dominion or the war-hungry Klingons, and discovering new worlds and new civilisations. Working together with other players to expand your knowledge of the universe, or playing as another faction like the Borg to dominate it. There's a lot of material here for a great online game. Cryptic Studios, already having produced Champions Online less than half a year ago, have beamed down their take on all this with Star Trek Online. Does it have what it takes to live long and prosper, or is it no better than a plate of Klingon gagh?
It's worth explaining at this stage that the Star Trek universe currently exists in two realities. The original, 'prime', reality is composed of all the TV shows and movies which have been produced up until the latest one. The events of the newest Star Trek film, which was released last year, have created an alternate reality with edgy action, explosions and Eric Bana. Star Trek Online is set in the prime universe, albeit even further into the future than we've been taken to before, so if all you've seen is the newest film then you may be in for a lot of backstory.
In the world of Star Trek Online, the peaceful Federation (of which Earth is a part of) is finding itself under attack from all sides. For fans, here's the plot: The classic villains of the franchise, the Klingon Empire, have rebuked their alliance with the Federation to engage in war with whoever looks at them funny, really. The Orions and Nausicaans are causing a heap of trouble with colony raids and all manner of piracy (eyepatches are sadly missing, though). Even the Borg have returned to try their hand at assimilating the Alpha Quadrant once again, and now the supremely powerful shape-shifting Undine ('Species 8472' as they were known on Star Trek Voyager) have entered the fray, with mysterious intentions. You're placed in the middle of all this as a newly recruited Starfleet officer who's forced to take command after a Borg attack. After successfully assisting in repelling them, you'll be rewarded with your own starship, crew, and creed to explore the universe and blow stuff up. We haven't seen someone advance through the ranks this fast since Star Trek 11, hey-oh!
For non-fans: You're a guy on a ship and it's time to splow stuff up.
Customisation in this game is fairly extensive. You can choose from a variety of different races to create your character, such as Human, Vulcan, Betazoid, or you can even create your own race using all kinds of forehead appendages that the series is known for. You also get perks along with the race you choose, such as passive leadership benefits and the like. You're also able to design your own ship, choosing from an assortment of existing classes. Want a Miranda-type saucer on Akira-class nacelles? Go for it.
Of course, this is all for your first, Federation, character. After a few levels in the game, you'll be able to create a Klingon character, where you're unceremoniously dumped onto Qo'noS, the Klingon homeworld. For those interested in the difference between the Federation and Klingon sides, the Klingons are primarily PvP focused, and definitely provide a lot more fun for short bursts of gameplay. PvP, as it exists in Star Trek Online is entertaining, but not really what you'd want to hang the whole game on. However, there's no real story for the Klingon Empire, nor opportunities to grow your character which makes giving up your Federation character in favour of a Klingon one something of a bad move.
Assuming you stay with a Federation character, then the game appears to have a lot to offer. In true Star Trek style, the game's main quests are 'episodes' which are given to you by admirals and send your ship to the farthest reaches of space. Sometimes these episodes can actually feel like true Star Trek episodes. One early mission sees your ship escorting an eminent Vulcan ambassador to another planet, only for the Klingons to show up claiming that the ambassador is an Undine, and demanding that you hand him over. Of course, you send a few torpedos their way instead, but when it turns out the ambassador is really a shapeshifter, you're caught in a race against the Klingons to catch him and find his intentions. This is pretty great stuff. Another early mission sees you handling a mining strike. You talk to a few miners, find out their grievances, and work out an amicable solution. This is completely, and utterly, boring. Unfortunately the game wavers between these extremes far too often.
There are other mission types as well, including the 'exploration' missions which we were quite excited about. However, unfortunately they often slip into the latter category of 'boring' which we mentioned. You'll discover a new planet with a strange sky and geography, and huge ancient structures rotating around it, but your mission on there will simply be to collect meteor fragments while fighting some angry pirates who followed you. What? What about the giant ancient mining towers? Can't we explore? Also, you generally can't return to a planet you've discovered in an exploration mission, so be sure to enjoy it while you can.
Gameplay is divided up into two parts - space and ground combat. We say 'combat' because despite the Star Trek creed of peace and understanding, 95% of what you'll be doing is killing everything in sight. You're allowed to recruit any number of officers onto your ship, as well as form your own 'bridge crew' who depart with you on away missions for the ground sections, and who also impart special abilities which you can use during space combat. When you beam down to a planet, this AI-controlled crew will surround you and help you take out enemies, and for the most part they do a reasonable job. Ground combat is very easy, especially since you can usually let your other party members do the work for you while you hang back. This is good, because the ground controls are pretty terrible and sloppy. You veer around like some kind of tank that can dodge-roll, firing at enemies, waiting for your gun to recharge, then firing again.
Space combat is a slightly different story. The starships of Star Trek are huge, like battleships really, rather than the fighter plane X-Wings of Star Wars. That means that you won't be zipping around taking out small craft in one hit. Your ship will turn slowly, have to wait for enemies to come within range of its firing arcs, and keep its strongest shields facing them. It's all about positioning and patience, and it's actually executed well enough to take a lot of strategy to defeat different enemy vessels. Unfortunately, this too can get repetitive after a while, especially when you're forced to do it for long periods of time. A mission's objective may be 'Destroy the enemy squad', which you'll do, only for another objective to appear saying 'Destroy the enemy squads (0/8)', upon which you'll let out a heavy sigh and prepare to mash the space-bar for another hour. That said, if we had to choose which we'd rather play between the ground and space missions, the space battles definitely have our pick.
We found that there's also not a great feeling of community on Star Trek Online yet. Almost all of the missions can be done without any help at all, so there's no incentive to team up with other ships and create a fleet so you can tackle problems together. The only times we've really had fun playing with other players are in the large 'fleet actions', which occur from time to time and anyone can join. These are huge space battles, sometimes with related ground-missions as well, but are really fun to play with a large number of other players. One which we've played saw the Federation defending a space station against a huge Klingon onslaught, while another was an attack by the life-sapping Crystalline Entity. These were moments when the game really came together, but alas they're few and far between.
One area in which Star Trek Online does succeed is in its presentation. It's definitely one of the prettiest looking MMOs out there, with detailed ships, colourful and varied spatial phenomena, and epic environments, such as the shattered remnants of an exploded planet. Characters look a little cartoony, but this is forgiveable considering the rest of the visual quality. There's also a pretty fantastic soundtrack to go along with the game too, with an excellent main theme and some bizarre (but catchy) mission music too. Sound effects remain authentic, and reminiscent of TNG-era Star Trek.
Star Trek Online only partly manages to rise above mediocrity and present an experience which truly captures the promise its licence holds. The PvP can be enjoyable, and certain missions and fleet actions full of Star Trek epic-ness. Space combat is also true to the series, and can be quite tactical and interesting to play. However, a lot of the game is bland, repetitive, and sometimes just feels half-finished, as in the case of the Klingon faction. There's also been no end of patches to the game since its release - it's gotten to the stage where it's rare to actually play the game when you double-click on its icon without waiting for a patch to download and install. Nevertheless, the primary audience for this game will be Trekkies, who'll find a lot of authenticity and novelty in creating their own race, starship and flying around the universe for a bit, before leaving the game in favour of watching Star Trek: The Original Series re-mastered on Blu Ray.