Star Trek Online Preview (PC)

I kind of feel sorry for Cryptic Studios. When J.J. Abrams was given permission to pump new life into a much loved franchise, not only did he coax Leonard Nemoy out of a 15 year hiatus, but he also got many of the other legends of the 'Original' series to come down and give their input. And yet all the creators of Star Trek's first MMO get are some pre-recorded sound bytes, and if the rumours are true, limitations on how much material they can use from the established canon.

Still, it's clear, after having spent a good solid week testing out Star Trek: Online, that the studio has poured their heart and soul into it, and are trying to make it the best experience they possibly can. Strategy Informer was invited to participate in the Closed Beta session that kicked off last year, and we'll be following the game's progress through Open Beta, right through till launch and beyond.

Initially, it was hard to take an accurate 'picture' of the game, as quite honestly it's unlike any MMO you will have played in the past. Many people have been comparing it to EVE, much like the also in production Jumpgate: Evolution, but aside from being set in space, there's not THAT much in common with CCP's title. This is a good thing, as it avoids getting stereotyped by those that have come before it, but since people like to draw on past experiences when in new situations, they may find this particular MMO more 'alien' than they're used to.

New players are introduced to the game through a opening 'sequence' that introduces you to all of the main gameplay elements, and this really sets the tone for the rest of the game. Your standard 'quest' dynamic comes in the form of 'Missions' and mission blocks, the aim of which is to make it feel like the player is actually in an episode of Star Trek. This ethos actually works really well, nine times out of ten. Like all games, there are some rather boring mission types, or missions that could have been designed better... with any luck, these will be improved upon for release, but even if they're not, there's more decent content here than not.

Like most MMO's, Star Trek follows a system of linear progression, although it's always as clear cut as you'd like. The map is divided up into 'blocks', which generally encompasses a certain level range, and whilst the first couple of blocks are self explanatory, sometimes it's hard to know where to go if you need to make a one off visit in a place not along your line of progression. It's also slightly puzzling why some places that you may need to frequent a lot, for example Memory Alpha, are in areas that are beyond you.

Whilst travelling through 'sector' space allows you to avoid fighting anything if you don't want to, mistakes can happen, and sometimes you accidentally get drawn into a random encounter that you really didn't want to be in in the first place.

Cryptic have taken an altogether different approach to levelling, which pretty much eliminates the need for grinding. You get the bulk of your skill points through completing missions, which are scaled so that they don't take too long, and so you can find yourself levelling fast provided you can complete your objectives (it's not as easy as it sounds, trust me). You get minor point rewards for killing enemies, but nothing near the amount you get for missions, and not enough to make a difference. This is a bit of a mixed blessing, because this system only works so long as you don't get stuck. If you get stuck however, there's no other 'way' of earning points. At least with grinding, you could always get kills if you were having trouble with a particular mission.

The main focus of the game of course is combat. At the moment, the divide is something like 70/30 between ground-based missions and space-based missions, although it's hard to tell which one is more fulfilling. You can control your ship using the standard WASD configuration, and you have to move your ship so that your target falls into your weapon's firing arcs. Equip the right weapons and be at a good enough angle, and you can fire off both fore and aft weapons for extra damage. Ground is more straight forward and familiar (and at times a little too easy), but can be just as engaging.

Star Trek: Online is shaping up to be a decent MMO. Its space setting will instantly set it apart from the mainly-fantasy based competitors, it's mainstream enough to attract the usual MMO crowd, and the Star Trek IP behind it should guarantee its success.

There are still elements of the game that we haven't been able to preview, either because they weren't working at the time, or because we felt it was best to let the developers work on it a little bit before trying them out. With a good few weeks left to go till launch, Cryptic have a lot of time to iron out the kinks, and finalise the last few content areas. Look out for our next preview which will cover Klingons, PvP and the element that is known only as the 'Genesis' content. Till next time.

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