Another Look at Star Trek Online

Space may be the final frontier, but Cryptic Studios is boldly going where no other game company has gone before. Check out our impressions from Star Trek Online @ PAX.

Space may be the final frontier, but Cryptic Studios is boldly going where no other game company has gone before.  Star Trek Online, the first MMO based on the legendary franchise, was one of the most exciting new games we previewed at PAX '09.  We got to experience first-hand Cryptic's unique blend of space combat, role-playing and epic exploration, and we're more stoked than ever to pilot our very own capitol ship when the game finally hits store shelves.  Taking a break from his primary duties during the convention, as Ambassador to Planet Nerd, Craig Zinkevich, Executive Producer from Cryptic, talked to us a bit about the game and gave us a taste of what it's like to pwn a Klingon battlecruiser with a full-spread phaser salvo.

As our stalwart crew engaged the enemy in orbit around a hostile alien world I quickly realized just how much a tactical officer really has to keep track of: positioning of the ship, relative energy levels between shields and weapons, firing arcs and reload times and some suicidal captain shouting highly illogical orders over his shoulder even as the bridge is rocked violently by torpedo volleys.  The over-zealous captain in this case would be our very own Andrew Beegle and, despite his lack of proper academy training, we ultimately triumphed against the bloodthirsty Klingons.  How did we do it?  Human intuition, you silly Vulcan.  Intuition that is on full display in the game's interface and makes it easy for nublets like us to quickly grasp the mechanics of interstellar travel and combat inside a gravity well.

Here the game really shines, even in its pre-beta state:  Simple mouse and keyboard controls maneuver your vessel through space, and hotkeys familiar to any MMORPGer control individual weapons and ship abilities.  The ship's computer takes care of most of the conundrums associated with intra-orbit physics, freeing your attention to concentrate on all the colorful explosions and well-rendered backdrops.  The pacing of space combat feels perfect to a Star Trek fan and, in my opinion, Cryptic has struck a great balance between action and strategy.  This is already much more than can be said of most Trek games to date and, to be fair, it's rather difficult to do.

To simplify things Cryptic has kept the combat relatively two dimensional, just the way Khan likes it.  Said Zinkevich, "You can't go upside down, you can't flip, you can't roll.  Your shields and your firing arcs are on a 2D plane, but you can actually go up and down.  You can go under asteroids.  Flying over somebody gets you to their other shields much faster.  So it is 3D movement and 3D positioning, but a lot of the stuff is simplified as if it were 2D."

The ships in the game are displayed gorgeously, with all the minor details you could hope for, and I was pleased to see that their relative sizes match very closely to what has been portrayed on film.  A Galaxy class cruiser like the Enterprise D dwarfs a Constitution or Reliant class, but smaller vessels are also more agile.  You can customize the appearance of your ship in just about any manner you'd like, which should please fans of specific Star Trek eras.  We were even shown a Constitution class ship that looked a lot like J. J. Abrams' Enterprise.  We're told that visual customizations of this sort won't impact your combat effectiveness, however.  I'm a little concerned how it might appear for an Original Series-style ship to take on the Next Generation and win, but we'll have to wait and see how this plays out in the game.  For my part, I've always thought Spock would find some way to neutralize the shields and weaponry on Enterprise D if it ever came to that, and Picard would tuck tail and run as soon as Kirk started bluffing over the comm.  Oops, did I just offend anybody?

Zinkevich elaborated on the ships in the game.  "There are three different classes of ship in the game.  There are escorts, cruisers and science ships, and there are multiple configurations of each of those.  So if you want to go heavy DPS...," Zinkevich paused as he reconfigured his ship in the game, and then continued, "you can do something kind of like the Defiant.  One of the things we want to do, though, is allow players to customize their ship.  So within that configuration there are a lot of pieces you can end up swapping in and out."  When asked about ship components that you can pick up as you're playing the game, he said, "You can swap that stuff in and out, but the appearance of your ship is purely cosmetic [...] If you're a fan of the original series, you can say 'this (configuration) is the gameplay that I like, but I also like the retro-fit appearance.'"
We also asked about the combat roles each ship configuration will play, to which Zinkevich replied, "To make it really simple: escorts are high DPS with lots of weapons and more room for tactical officers, cruisers have a larger crew and can tank better, and science ships provide more of a support role.  That being said, who your bridge officers are, how you level them up, what ones you decide to activate –  really defines the role.  I can take a Defiant and kind of push it more into a tank role, and absorb more fire, if I get more engineers who can help my hull."

Cryptic's incorporation of the bridge officer system is really quite unique.  Everyone plays the game as the captain of a starship, and bridge officers rank up alongside you during the course of your career.   Your character starts the game as a lieutenant, and your bridge officers start as ensigns.  Eventually they can earn the rank of commander.  Bridge officers provide your ship with special abilities in addition to accompanying you on missions to planet surfaces.  In a way, you play the game as a party of characters, which feels a bit like a single player RPG ala Final Fantasy.  Red Mages might be potent magic users, but enough Red Shirts in your group should virtually guarantee you never get shot in the back, right?  Other captains can join your away teams, but they'll replace one of your bridge officers as a member of your party when they do.
Commenting on the bridge officer system, Zinkevich said, "Where you get your really cool powers from are your bridge officers.  Just like the show, it's all about the crew and what they know.  So, Ensaladas here is a tactical officer with a photon torpedo salvo skill, and I've loaded that up so the next time you use the photon torpedo salvo it's going to fire off multiple photon torpedoes.  You can level-up Ensaladas, invest in that skill and make it more powerful.  And then Wright over here has got Tachyon Beam, which ends up knocking down players' shields.  So, based on the bridge officers that you choose you're customizing your build and what role you want to play in the game.  I love this build because I'm all DPS."  When we asked about another bridge officer's ability we saw, he said, "That's actually a shield boost, so when you Leeroy Jenkins you've got a little bit of time before needing your Olympic class friends to save you."
For fans of the television series Cryptic has a unique episodic quest structure they've created.  Missions break down into several acts that follow a clear storyline.  Settings and characters from the series will definitely be making an appearance in the game, as our PAX demo confirmed.  During the course of our preview we landed on a strange desert world that was home to an entity of considerable power and wisdom, yanked straight from one of my favorite episodes of the original series, "The City on the Edge of Forever."  I could hardly contain my Trekkie glee when The Guardian of Forever, a sentient portal-through-time, appeared on the computer monitor and began to speak in riddles.  Previewing the various chat options I realized just how faithful the game was to its source material.  I think I even raised an eyebrow.  Fortunately, there was no cordrazine-crazed McCoy to chase after in MY Star Trek episode.  It will be interesting to see just how many of these sorts of episodic quests Cryptic manages to squeeze into the game, and the abundance of new content will surely play a part in the game's overall appeal.  Thankfully they have decades-worth of television shows and movies to draw from.  Whatever happened to V'ger, anyway, or those pesky humpback whale space probes?  Maybe we'll get to raid Q!

After such a brief encounter with a game that's still under development it's hard to draw too many conclusions, but I can say this: The game FEELS like Star Trek.  Beyond the gameplay mechanics, this is probably the single most important quality Cryptic could hope for.  If the game can really make you feel like you're a Federation or Klingon captain zipping around in the early 25th century it'll be sure to attract a large and loyal fan base.  As for me, I'm ready to beam aboard.  As I engage warp factor 9 to escape the impending end of my article, I leave you with this final captain's log supplemental: Live long and prosper, but please don't send this article to anyone I'm trying to date.

Chris "Xenophage" McGraw
Junior Editor


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