Star Trek Online
12th Mar 2010 | 11:59
We've all wanted a Star Trek-based online world for many, many years now. We've dreamed about it, plotted it out, made our plans for what we'd do, gotten excited over potential, and then steadied ourselves in moist anticipation once it was finally announced that the dream would be turned into reality all those press releases ago. And they've given us... well, a travesty.
Star Trek Online is almost comically bad in execution, an obvious sufferer of rushed production schedules, inept design and very, very poor execution.
At its base level, Star Trek Online puts every player in command of their own starship, complete with an automated crew, throws a mix of spaceship and ground combat at you, and coats it all in every Trek reference you could think of. Which sounds OK, until you play it and realise that none of it gels and everything has been horribly crowbarred into Cryptic's existing MMO format. A setup that, as anyone who's played Champions Online will tell you, was never that great to begin with.
Not all the blame can be thrust in Cryptic's direction, mind you. When you look at Star Trek in the cold, hard light of day, you quickly start to realise how awkward the universe's structure is for an MMO interpretation. Just to cite two examples: the Federation doesn't use any form of currency, and 90% of any classic Trek episode is actors talking to each other: hardly the stuff of low-attention span gaming greatness.
But what really saddens the game-loving heart is how clear it is that, even with the challenges in front of it, Cryptic haven't even tried to make the most rudimentary attempts to translate the true spirit of Star Trek - that force of nature that can survive multiple awful films, several turgid spin-off shows and a host of God-awful cash-in novels and merchandise.
You can almost see the developers at Cryptic looking at the huge whiteboard of All Things Trek in the initial stages of design, realising the amount of creative effort that would be required to pull anything decent off, and just saying "Ah sod it, let's re-skin the Champions engine and make a basic combat game instead."
It's not like there isn't precedent to try this stuff. BioWare is busy creating a solid-looking story-based MMO with Star Wars: The Old Republic. EVE Online has shown that a space-based MMO doesn't have to be all about fighting. And just about every MMO under the sun includes guild structure tools that let multiple players team up and follow orders, provide unique roles in situations and contribute to a greater end result in different and meaningful ways. Are you honestly telling me that we couldn't have had ships made up of multiple bridge positions, with the guild leader sitting in the Captain's role and not have had a meaningful Star Trek experience?
That's what comes across most when you play STO: the sheer level of laziness in the development. Of course it looks lovely, yes all the words are correct, the nods to content from the rich Trek history is all there - from pet tribbles to the Guardian of Time, from raktajino to the Crystalline Entity - you literally can't move for fanboy-sating references. But none of it feels as though it's being used in any sort of meaningful way. It's all just being thrown at you as if to say "See! See! It's Star Trek! Lap it up!" regardless of whether any of it makes narrative or logical sense.
So that's why this really doesn't cut the mustard in terms of being a decent Star Trek property. What of its actual gaming credentials? Does it at least have the saving grace of being fun to play, regardless of narrative accuracy? No, it most assuredly does not.
Using the term 'game' to describe Star Trek Online is really pushing the definition of that word to its outer limits. Most games have some sense of challenge to them, some potential for failure in order to keep things interesting. Even MMOs, with their lax attitude towards character death, usually at least try to make the content engaging, varied and difficult enough to disguise the grind at work behind the scenes.
STO has none of that. For all the pretty colours and fancy ship models on display, there is no challenge on offer. The much-vaunted tactical ship combat very quickly becomes a basic case of flying in circles pressing 'fire all' when the countdown timers run down, and since there's no death penalty worth a damn, there's simply no reason to worry if you get blown up as you'll just re-spawn 10 seconds later and jump back into the fray at full strength again.
This is attrition gaming at its worst. You never fail to progress, it might just take a few re-spawns to get there (although even that miniscule threat is practically eliminated when you're in a team), but any progression you make isn't going to come about through any displays of gaming skill or tactical nous, you just hang on long enough, pushing the same two buttons when they light up and eventually you'll be an Admiral.
It's not even as if the enemies offer any threat. When they're not getting themselves stuck inside scenery (a very common bug), they just go through their one party trick (throwing out mines, cloaking for 10 seconds, whatever) while turning around in circles around you, waiting to explode.
On the ground it's no better. In fact, it's far, far worse. For all its flaws, ship combat at least somehow manages to offer a smidge of interest with the four-sided shield system (although don't be fooled into thinking this is a 3-D game - that's yet another illusion. Like Khan, STO displays very two-dimensional thinking).
When you're planetside, STO manages to capture all of the worst aspects of MMO gaming from the last five years - tiny zones, limited variety, the same three or four character models being used over and over again, little in the way of effective communication tools, overly confusing on-screen cues, no strategic gameplay and again, nothing in the way of meaningful challenge.
Ground missions do make some attempt to capture the flavour of the various TV shows, but again, only by referencing Star Trek touchstones. The gameplay boils down to either shooting your way past loads of enemies in order to press the action key on a particular mission goal, or just running around empty landscapes, pressing 'scan' five times when you're told to. No challenge, no thought, pure grind.
I can't say this enough, with sufficient stress or in any more effective a font: Star Trek Online is not a game. Not by any measurable yardstick. Neither is it an effective online social space (the other vital component for any decent MMO title), as it offers little in the way of communication tools, player meeting spaces or guild functionality.
There are occasional flashes of inspiration - I genuinely like the auto teaming aspect when you enter a mission area for instance; this addresses a typical MMO bugbear of pick-up grouping - but there aren't enough of these touches to warrant setting up a monthly drain on your bank account.
So, with all that having been said, there is left one niggling question - why, for all the many, many, many faults on display here, do I keep wanting to return to the thing?
Star Trek Online does one thing well - just one thing, but I've found that for many people, that one thing is enough: it provides enough fanboy service to help the diehard Star Trek fans look past the fact that the game is beyond terrible.
The basic fact is that if this was the exact same game but without any of the Trek trappings, no one would give it the time of day. As it is, Trek fans have been wanting an online universe to lose themselves in for years now and as flawed as this is, it's all they've got and by God, they're going to take it.
Annoyingly, this means that the online game that Trek really deserves isn't likely to ever get made any time soon. Still, Star Wars has survived the mess that was Galaxies and looks like being given decent service by The Old Republic. So there's still hope something similar will happen to Trek.
Right now, Star Trek Online is a mess of a title with little to recommend beyond the novelty of flying around in a replica of the Enterprise. As soon as that novelty wears off (ideally within the 30-day trial period), this will be one universe badly in need of a reboot.