Star Trek Online: Part 1 - Open Beta

bastun_ie returns with further coverage of Star Trek Online.

My fears about having a Closed Beta client proved groundless, and as Open Beta rolled around, I was able to seamlessly patch up to the Open Beta and log in. As expected, STO character generation is indeed a highlight - something Cryptic do very well. After choosing race (either a default Federation race as listed previously, or a customised one) and skills, you get to use some very detailed customisation options to design exactly the avatar you want. A good variety of base uniforms are also available, which allow customisation too. Enter a name, optional biography, and a name for your starship, and it's time to boldly go where every MMO has gone before - the tutorial...

Tutorial, and the basics
Warning - here be spoilers!

Your newly-created Ensign avatar first appears on a Federation starship that, as the tutorial opens, has just been ordered to make all haste to the scene of an incursion by the Borg. In at the deep end! And first query answered - no, the characters don't look like the comic-book superheroes of Champions. Obviously there are similarities in the graphics - it's the same game engine, after all - but it does appear to have been fine tuned to look more realistic.

Controls and GUI are pretty much as you'd expect (WASD or mouse for movement, I for inventory, etc.), and popups appear to explain new controls or parts of the interface, as needed. Summoned to the bridge, your captain gives you a couple of minor quests (here, "missions") designed to show you how to interact with items, and then gives you a proper mission. Arriving some distance from the ongoing battle against the Borg, you have to beam over to another Starfleet ship which is in distress, and provide assistance. There are crew lifesigns detected - and also Borg.

You materialise in the distressed ship's sickbay, where the Emergency Medical Hologram program is busy at work. Nice touch - he's voiced by Zachary Quinto (Spock in the recent Star Trek movie reboot). After assisting him, it's time for your introduction to ground combat. First, though, you get some help, in the form of your first "Bridge Officer". These are a key part of STO. Your bridge officers act as NPCs on Away Missions, or, if you're grouped with another player or two, they can be used to fill out your party to the five required. Bridge Officers can be from the Tactical, Engineering, or Science branches, and will have appropriate skills either from those branches (e.g., a Science officer may be able to heal using a medical tricorder, while an Engineer could repair personal shields or set up a temporary phaser turret) or due to their race.

Then it's off to fight the Borg. Ground combat is reasonably well handled. You're equipped at start with a phaser for ranged attacks, and most ranged weapons also have a slower, secondary effect, which can include more damage, a stun, or a knockback, for example. There is a melee attack for close-combat. You will also have a ground combat skill, and each player (not Bridge Officer) can get another by equipping a "kit" appropriate to their branch. My Tactical Officer, for example, has a Grenades kit, which allows her to throw a stun-AoE grenade. Positioning is very important. The scenery works as cover, and attacks from any direction but the front counts as flanking damage, which is higher than normal. Characters are also equipped with personal shields, and once these are drained, attacks remove health. Shields recharge if you're not taking damage, and can also be repaired using consumables or Bridge Officer abilities. Dodging out of the way of attacks becomes important, therefore, and handily, a double-tap of a movement key causes you to do a "Kirk roll" out of the way.

Combat can be intense, as you issue commands to your crew (such as attack/heal my target, enter passive mode, rendezvous at a set waypoint, etc.), dodge out of danger, pop out of cover, try to avoid being flanked, and also try to flank your enemies. Once nice touch that I noticed later (not sure if it's present in the tutorial or not) is the ability to pause. Yes, in an MMO. It's only there on Away Missions, but it is present even when grouped. You have a time-bank of 45 seconds, which counts down when you pause. The pause can be used to issue individual commands to bridge officers, switch equipment around, etc. Or, perhaps, answer the front door...

Encountering the Borg, it's time to start shooting. Luckily, there is something odd about these particular Borg, and they don't automatically assimilate you into the Collective if they get into melee range!

After killing some Borg, rescuing prisoners, and destroying Borg technology, the ship is safe, and after a farewell from the EMH, it's time to beam back to your own ship. Unfortunately, though, it has since been in combat too. And, oh dear - it appears all the ranking officers have been killed. That serves - handily enough - to make you the acting captain.

This is your first view of the space controls, and they too are quite well implemented. Again, it's WASD or mouse-movement, with the E and Q keys controlling speed. There is an auto-fire, though it's hard to find intuitively (right-click on a weapon enables the mode, but it won't start until you manually fire once at each new target). Bridge Officers again play their part - they each have trainable abilities for both ground and space combat. In addition, starships have Consoles - basically a slottable equipment area which can provide a bonus or skill to one of the Tactical, Engineering, or Science areas. Examining the ship's paperdoll, you get all the vital statistics. Your starting ship, a light cruiser, has default equipment fitted. This includes basic shields and weaponry - in the case of light cruisers, meaning two forward-facing weapons (phasers and a photon torpedo launcher), and one rear-facing phaser. An important concept is firing arc - individual weapons will be capable of a 45, 90, (180?) or 270 degree arc of fire. This means that with your basic phaser banks, one front and one rear, the most efficient way of taking on an enemy ship is to get positioned sideways to it, so both phaser banks can hit it simultaneously. Energy weapons are best at reducing an opponent's shields, while photon torpedos do better damage to the hull itself. The opponent is, of course, returning fire, meaning your own shields are taking damage. Each ship has four shields - forward, rear, port and starboard. You can also redirect power to reinforce a particular shield.

Starship combat is very tactical, especially when multiple ships are involved. You need to maneuvre so that ideally you're inflicting maximum damage on an opponent's shields (so you're broadside on), then swing about so you can bring your photon torpedoes into the firing arc, all while also maneuvring to protect your own shields - and keep the opponent's damaged shield side in your weapon arcs. Throw in complications such as tractor beams (which slow), tachyon pulses (which bring shields offline temporarily), opponents that drop mines in their wake... and you've got a really good space combat system.

Not without it's flaws, though. While you have controls to manage your ship's energy across four systems (weapons, shields, engine and auxillary systems), it takes a while for the energy to be correctly distributed after you order a change to use a different pre-set. This is a problem especially after you've engaged top speed (Full Impulse) to travel quickly towards an objective - in this mode, all available power is transferred to engines - and if you mistime dropping down from Full Impulse, you find youself in combat with no energy to power your shields. The biggest flaw, though, is in maneuvring. While not allowing a ship to fly "upside down" is faithful to the TV series (OK,I'm pretty sure the Defiant could do it, but the Defiant was an exception to lots of rules) and therefore excusable, the main flaw is that there is a maximum pitch angle of 45 degrees in place. You therefore cannot aim your ship straight "up" or "down" at an enemy if it's at a different "altitude" - you need to slowly spiral your way towards it's level.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. The initial encounter, with the Borg, is quite straightforward, as is proper for a tutorial. It serves as an introduction to the controls and GUI, and covers the most important concepts, such as firing arcs and maneuvring. And then you get to participate in blowing up a Borg cube. Word of warning - you do not want your ship to be in close proximity to any ship that's about to explode...

Speaking of explosions, by the way - they're rendered really well, as is the vast majority of what I've seen in space mode.

With the sector now safe, you're hailed by a Starfleet admiral, who thanks you for all your efforts, and informs you that you may maintain your new command. And to report to Spacedock (in Earth orbit) for new orders.

As tutorials go, this one covers all the bases. All the important elements of the controls, GUI and concepts get covered, and it's all wrapped up in a decent enough storyline. In fact, it's essentially the same storyline as Cryptic used in Champions Online - iconic villain of the IP in question threatens our way of life - except that unlike last time, it meant a lot more to me this time round.

The next part of this series will cover first impressions of the game outside of the tutorial experience, and inital play, based on *cough* approximately 30 hours of open beta play so far. And it has Klingons.

Posted by Drew Shiel at January 19, 2010 10:17 PM

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