Saturday, 18 February 2012

It's full of stars Part I: Star Trek Online

Action! Adventure! But mostly Action.

While the whole world and his wife (Mrs. World, PHD) are playing "The Old Republic" I spent the last two weeks playing Star Trek Online, which went free to play.

Strange Old Worlds

I wouldn't consider myself a Trekkie, because I know people who can recite the "Rules of Acquisition" by heart. But most would agree I know more about Star Trek then a healthy person should, and STO is nothing if not fan service. It starts with the familiar races at character creation like Vulcans or Trill. But just on that same page you have much less familiar ones, like Bolians or Pakled (Seriously? Pakled?). And the fan service never stops. While most of the main quest givers and enemies are new characters, there is scarcely a paragraph that does not reference a character, incident, episode or a quote. While the game is set long after Voyager or The Next Generation, you will see and interact with major characters from the series from time to time. Although you will encounter their children with much more regularity.
The last decade was tough for any Star Trek fan. Voyager was wasting its potential for interesting stories while Enterprise searched for direction for over two seasons. The last two Next Generation movies, Insurrection and Nemesis, were mediocre to outright horrible and it is still uncertain if Star Trek (2009) will reignite the franchise. And all of these introduced controversial elements into the Star Trek universe. From Nemesis' never before seen or heard about Remans to the destruction of the Romulan homeworld in Star Trek (2009). STO embraces these awkward elements with a degree of grace. Even the conflicting information about the supernova that destroyed Romulous is incorporated, as the game builds a comprehensive story around what was originally sloppy writing. Similarly, rather then push the Remans aside, it flashes out their plight and relationship with the Romulans. All of which contributes to a feeling of a cohesive universe.

A Space battle. In fluidic space- Species 8472 territory.
Not a Final Frontier
The gameplay is very traditional massive multyplayer stuff. So traditional in fact, it reminds me of the Anarchy Online era rather then its contemporary competitors. The number line on the keyboard sees more use than it has in a long time. And you find yourself spending agonizing minutes on arranging your various skills and abilities on the UI. It's a bit weird to return to such busywork after DC Universe Online and Champions Online allowed you to play with a controller with relative ease. Likewise, you will find all the staples of MMO's are on full display. There's an enigmatic crafting system and the game world is divided into blocks and further-more into sectors. You can leave to feed your cats in the time it takes your ship to cross a sector, but you provably wont be able to make a sandwich (it's not Eve Online after-all). It feels very early 2000's in its design, whether this is good or bad is up to personal taste. The space combat manages to shine with emphasis on power allocation and attack vectors and a simple use of two basic weapon types, all the while remaining quite accessible to new players. Ground combat is, again, a very traditional affair that will be familiar to anyone who played an MMO in the last decade. There's really not much to the game-play beyond the combat. A few missions will run you around from character to character, trading information or solving the occasional riddle, but these are both rare and completely text based. Its amusing that at it best, the shows were rarely about direct conflict, while the game focuses on it almost completely. Similarly, there's a complex monetary system despite the Federation anti-capitalist nature. But this will only offend people who liked the preachy tone of the first season of TNG, all three of them.
A typical away team.

Darmok and Jellad at Tanagra
Where STO shines is in its ability to tell a story. Given through "episodes", the main quests tell a series of enjoyable if simple stories. At first you'll chase a demented Klingon General in his quest to prolong the conflict between the Federation and the Klingon Empire. But soon you'll do everything from time-traveling to ferreting conspiracies using the show's vast cannon. And these missions are really fun. While you almost always run, shoot, fly and shoot again, it is always delivered in a way that keeps you interested in the plot around you and the conflict at hand. Leonard Nemoy is so far the only familiar voiced character I encountered, but seeing the digital faces of Worf, Bones and others, was almost as gratifying. Apart from the episodes are user created mission. Some of which are really good and rival the official content in quality. Another area where STO does good is the customization. While nowhere near as extensive as Cryptic's Champions or City of Heroes, the character editor still lets you feel you are creating a face rather then choosing an archetype. If you choose to play as an unknown alien, the editor opens up and allows you to run wild with your imagination. Customizing your space-ship is much more limited. And yet I experienced a weird feeling of pride, when I gazed upon the name I've chosen for it embedded on the hull. Similarly you build a little crew of mini-characters in the form of Bridge Officers. These are the faces that will deliver most of the routine messages. While it is nice to receive such dialog from faces you have chosen, they have little to flesh them out beside your own imagination. The Bridge Officers grant you special powers during space combat and join you as fighters on the ground, but your interaction with them is sadly limited. In fact when I think of Star Trek I think on the characters, exploration and diplomacy. And STO doesn't mange to capture these in spirit or gameplay. As I mentioned, a few missions offer non-combat challenges in the form of text based puzzles, but non of them are involving. Exploration takes the form of randomly generated missions. But the possibilities are soon reveled to be quite limited.
Get to the choppa!

On the technical side, STO is a mixed bag. It is far stabler then any of the MMO's I played recently. I was able to Alt-Tab to my heart's content. Graphics are nothing special, nor are they bad. A few areas even impressed me with the occasional shimmering planet or nebulous comet. But most planets and zones just feel like palette swaps. Some of the randomized areas had minor graphical glitches on my machine, I have no idea if this issue is universal. What is really missing in STO is a sense of scale. Every planet seems to be the same size and all of them feel like objects. They have no gravity and only your vision is impaired if your starship gets to close to them. All of the maps have invisible boundaries marked clearly on the map, further diluting any illusion of space you might cultivate.
Server downtimes were annoyingly frequent for the first week of play, but hopefully this was anomalous. Despite going free to play, the servers held nicely and I encountered non of the problems that plagued Champions Online or DC Universe Online when they opened their gates to the public. Bug however, are still a problem. A recent patch turned off Auto-fire for space combat, and a patch fixing the problem took almost three days to arrive. Aggravating affair with the dominance of combat in the game. Fortunately, a relatively easy to type command allowed players to bypass the problem for its duration. But this was not a singular incident. I encountered two separate bugs which prevented me from completing missions. And while these were quickly corrected, it was evident that the game has some polishing problems despite the long time in which it has been active.
A game of Dabo on Deep Space 9.

Star Trek Online relays on fan familiarity to sell itself. But for once, I think it is doing it well. If it could just elevate itself above the superficial and manage to grasp the shows' spirit of exploration and adventure, it could evolve into a truly unique and rewarding experience. As it is, the gameplay is very traditional and the content will endear itself to fans only. For fans it is refreshing to enjoy Star Trek once more without feeling exploited and used, but I doubt anyone else will manage to derive similar value from it. It is sadly average. By no means bad, nor will it impress you.