Mar 18, 2015

[Games] Star Trek Online

So the only other time I got into an MMORPG was back when Pristontale was still free-to-play here in the Philippines. I wasn't particularly keen on the game, but an officemate really wanted me to give it a shot and so I eventually signed up. And I won't lie - playing even rather simple MMORPGs like that one over a dial-up connection was kinda bonkers.

Recently I found myself in search of more Star Trek in my life since it has been about 10 years since we last had a regular Star Trek show on television. So I found myself going in a weird direction by deciding to try out Star Trek Online since it's free-to-play and there has been a fair amount of online discussions related to its original content.

I joined the game community right as their 5th anniversary in-game event started, so it was a pretty fun time. And with the game now gearing up to launch it's tenth "season" of missions, it's probably one of the best times to get into the game for anyone. And with my first character finally at the rank of Vice Admiral (Level 50), I think I've clocked enough hours to be able to review the game in earnest.

Star Trek Online (STO) is an MMORPG developed by Cryptic Studios based on the Star Trek franchise. The game is set in the 25th century, 30 years after the events of the movie Star Trek: Nemesis. The game also ties into the J.J. Abrams version of the Star Trek universe in the sense that the Romulan homeworld has been destroyed, as mentioned in the 2009 Star Trek movie.

Now to flesh out the setting beyond the facts above, we also have to note that the alliance between the Federation and the Klingon Empire has collapsed and these old enemies are at war once more. The Romulan Empire is fragmented and choosing them as a faction eventually leads to you being made to choose between allying with the Federations or the Klingons. The Dominion continues to rebuild its forces and the Borg are an active threat within the quadrant.

The overall escalation of conflict in this Star Trek setting supports the game's greater focus on combat. As much as the Star Trek universe as a whole has been largely about diplomacy and scientific research, as a game I can see why they had to go the combat route. After all, combat is one of the easier game mechanics to implement and is one that is consistently utilized in the MMORPG space. The game lets you choose which faction to work with and your character can be crafted based on the races aligned with that faction (e.g. choosing the Klingon faction allows you to be Gorn among others in addition to being a Klingon). Naturally most of the content is designed for the Federation faction, while the Romulans are still playing catch-up as they are the last faction to be added to the game.

The game places the player in charge of a ship as its acting captain, although with experience you'll eventually achieve the rank that your ship deserves. Experience is completed through a series of missions and the primary single-player mode has provided over 9 "seasons" worth of content thus far. Each season consists of a series of missions primarily set in a particular section of the universe such as repelling the Klingons are investigating intrigues on Deep Space Nine. The game also has user-created content through the Foundry system, that allows players to create their own missions.

The missions are probably the most compelling reason for any Star Trek fan to play the game given how this becomes an on-going source for new stories that one can experience directly as a player as set within the Star Trek universe. The very first adventure explains how you end up in command of a starship while later adventures have you defeating time-traveling aliens or revealing a secret Romulan plot using forbidden technology.

Now combat is primarily divided into two types - Space combat and Ground Combat. The Space combat engine is fairly clever and allows you to command a variety of starships with different design profiles, the primary categories matching officer career paths of Tactical, Engineering and Science, which represent offensive (DPS), tanking, and healing / special abilities. You are not required to have ships related solely to your career, thus you can be an Engineering captain using a Science-type vessel or what have you. I rather enjoy how the space combat engine plays out - it's not perfect, but it works well enough. Everyone just argues about how ships don't seem to respond in-game as they appeared on the show, which really may be asking for a little too much.

Ground combat is sadly clunky and tries to implement the same space combat engine on a per-unit basis. You typically travel with an away team of 4 officers and you'll typically find that they're a lot better at dealing with enemies than you are. Their AI is tied directly to your character for the most part, so I find that I end up wading into new areas, triggering the bad guys, then pulling back to let the Away Team do most of the fighting. The reason for this is that the enemy AI seems to single out the first attacker, and thus almost everyone in a squad will gun for you once you enter combat.

At the very least, ground missions get balanced out with weird side tasks related to your career path. Thus in-between the fighting, a Science officer may have a side quest of sort to heal injured members of the crew while an Engineering officer will need to make some quick repairs to stabilize the ship. These moments help make the ground missions a little more tolerable despite the awkward combat system. Plus most key story dialog tends to happen on the ground and this usually features familiar voices given the participation of Star Trek alumni in the game. For example, the Romulan Empire is now ruled by Sela, who is of course voiced by Denise Crosby.

And the single player missions barely scratch the surface of the game - they pretty much just help you get your character maxed out to the level cap. Beyond that, a whole new variety of play options open up including adventure worlds like helping out on New Romulus, exploring the Solonae Dyson Sphere and other such adventures. This "endgame" state is where players have a lot more options available to them.

The game has a lot of other bells and whistles added to it over the years. You can join up with other players in Fleets and take on challenges together. You can craft items and gain experience in this area and you can also have Duty Officers engage in missions that help you gain experience while you're offline (not logged into the game). And there are seasonal events and other fun things that keep things interesting.

The game has a free-to-play tier that allows you access to pretty much all content in the game in terms of missions and such based on your character level. A subscription option remains which helps unlock additional content bonuses like bonus in-app currency on a regular basis and things of that nature. The game also offers a lifetime subscription option which gives you subscriber status indefinitely for a larger one-time payment, which is a pretty good deal. So far I'm still on free-to-play in the hopes that they offer a special promotion for new lifetime subscription members with the release of Season 10 or something.

Star Trek Online is hardly a perfect game or the best MMORPG out there. However it remains the best source of new Star Trek material and has a very engaged and lively community, all of which makes the game a lot more fun to play. Plus you have Star Trek veterans coming back to voice their characters and a responsive development team supporting the game and you have quite the robust MMORPG indeed. Thus the game gets a good 4 Tribbles out of a possible 5.

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