Since Star Trek Online went free to play last week, I thought I’d give it a go and see what it was like. I’ve been a fan of Star Trek for a long time. I watched The Next Generation when it was first broadcast, and I still rate Deep Space Nine as one of my favourite TV shows of all time. As such, this was a game that I really wanted to like.
Unfortunately, things started to go sour from as early on as character creation. Many of the classic Star Trek races were available: humans, Vulcans, Andorians, Bajorans, Trill, and so on. I chose to play as a female Ferengi science officer called Queeg (virtual cookies to anyone who gets the reference). In many respects, character creation was pretty standard. I got to choose how tall my character was, and what design of uniform she wore, for instance. Some of the other character creation decisions were truly baffling, though.
I didn’t have any options for changing my basic facial features, for instance. All female Ferengi apparently have exactly the same eyes, nose, mouth and ears, excepting only lipstick or tattoos across the nose. This lack is made all the more conspicuous by some of the things that I could customise. For instance, I was free to change the size of my breasts, which could vary from “fairly small” to “disproportionately huge for the slim frame carrying them and guaranteed to cause back problems”. Quite how a franchise that brought us an inter-racial kiss in 1968 and a lesbian kiss in 1995 has descended to the point where breast size is considered a more important customisation than facial features, I do not know.
After character creation, I was flung straight into the thick of things, with a confrontation with the Borg. They had captured another Starfleet ship, and we weren’t able to contact any of the crew. And so, I was ordered to beam over to the ship and see what I could do.
Now, I was a five foot tall Ferengi science officer with a specialisation in astrophysics and warp theory. I had no combat expertise, no history with the Borg, and as an ensign, there were many other officers on the ship with more experience than I. And yet, I was still sent off to single-handedly fight the Borg. (For anyone who isn’t a Star Trek fan, the Borg are probably the single most dangerous and implacable enemy in the whole Star Trek universe.)
Similarly straining credulity was the fact that immediately upon returning from this mission, I was given a field-promotion from ensign to acting captain. This was later followed by a full promotion to the rank of lieutenant, yet I was allowed to keep my own command anyway.
These are not necessarily bad things, but they do indicate from the off exactly how the game is going to go. Immersion and story continuity were taking a back-seat to action and excitement. Science, diplomacy, and exploration were taking a back-seat to combat.
I’m OK with this decision. While it isn’t really in keeping with the spirit of Star Trek, it’s a lot easier and a lot safer to make a game that’s based on killing things and shooting things than it is to make a game based on science and diplomacy. Personally, I’d love to see a big-budget mainstream MMO that wasn’t based around combat, of one sort or another, but I can see why game studios might be reluctant to take that risk, especially with a major franchise like Star Trek. And besides, I do enjoy combat-based games.
So the question then becomes, “is the combat any good?” The answer to this question, unfortunately, is “no”. For my first mission against the Borg, combat was successfully completed by pointing my mouse cursor in the general direction of the enemy, and then holding down the mouse button to shoot. Of course, this was just a tutorial mission, so I kept on waiting for things to get better on this front, but they never did. I did learn a few more abilities, like using a medical tricorder, but I never needed them. Through all the time I played, simply pointing and shooting was enough.
I will freely admit that since I only played for about 5 or 10 hours, it’s possible that things may improve later on. However, I’m firmly of the opinion that nobody should ever have to slog through hours of tedium in order to get to the good parts of a game. If you disagree with me on that one and are looking for information about the late game, this isn’t the review for you.
Ship based combat was better than ground combat. Here, the idea was to try to turn your ship so that you’re pointing as many of your weapons as possible at the enemy, while at the same time ensuring that you don’t let them target an area of your ship where you’re shields are weak. This seemed like a good system that was simple to understand but had the potential for hidden depths of strategy.
Unfortunately, this too suffered from poor balance and a lack of difficult. With only two exceptions, I completely outmatched every ship I faced. Even when fighting several ships at once, all I had to do was repeatedly mash on the “fire all weapons” button while occasionally turning my ship around slightly so that no single section’s shields took too much of a beating. The only times when my ship was in any sort of danger were when I was one of a fleet of ships facing a single, powerful enemy vessel (once with AI ships, and once with other people). On both occasions, my ship was destroyed, but I was able to quickly respawn and rejoin the fight with no penalty.
Overall, the game was just too slow-paced to be any fun. It felt a lot like the sort of old-school MMO design that was meant to keep me playing as long as possible to drain as much money from me in subscription fees as possible. Of course, now that it’s a free to play game, that no longer applies, but that origin was still very obvious, and came across as very dated compared to modern MMOs.
As an example, on one mission, I had beamed over to a transport freighter that had suffered an engine malfunction, and one of my objectives was to rescue injured survivors. To do this I had to interact with them once which (after a couple of seconds wait) would tell me what their medical condition was. Then I had to click on them again to treat this medical condition (again, with a couple of seconds delay). Finally, I had to talk to them to tell them to go to the transporter room so they could be beamed out. All of this served no useful purpose except to slow me down and frustrate me.
Travel times, too, were burdensome. Missions were short, and the following missions were often a long way away, necessitating a tedious journey through well-explored and friendly (read: nothing interesting happened) space.
I don’t want to imply that the game was all bad, though. There were some parts of it that I liked. My inner Trekkie was certainly pleased by the many references to parts of the universe that I knew from the TV shows. Early missions included a trip to the monastery of P’Jem (Enterprise) and an encounter with a member of species 8472 (Voyager), for instance.
I also liked the different starship design and customisation features. The ships were modular, so I could choose from a selection of saucers, a selection of nacelles, and so on. I also got to choose my own colours, so I ended up with a sleek little off-black ship with pink highlights. Fabulous.
Overall, though, the positive aspects were far outweighed by the plodding and uninspiring gameplay, which ensured I won’t be coming back for more. There may be an interesting game hidden underneath all of this, somewhere, but unless you’re willing to put in tens of hours to try to find it, I wouldn’t bother with this.