It's that time again--time for another licensed online role-playing game to vie for World of Warcraft's stranglehold on the US market. Developer Cryptic Studios' Star Trek Online was released earlier this week, much to the delight of Trekkies everywhere, and it doesn't seem to have a shortage of players in its first few days. We're still a week or two away from being able to deliver our final verdict in a review, but fellow editor Justin Calvert and I have spent a healthy chunk of time with the game this week, and I wanted to give you some early, top-level impressions. Our initial thoughts? Star Trek Online is underwhelming, though as any veteran role-player could tell you, 15 hours just isn't enough time to draw too many conclusions about a massively multiplayer online game.
If there's one thing that's not underwhelming, however, it's the character creation (though there's a caveat even there, which I'll get to in a moment). Cryptic is the same studio that brought us City of Heroes and Champions Online, so if you've played either of those games, it's not so surprising that the tools here are flexible and robust. You can stick to the basics, choosing a known race and skill template, and tweak your options from there, but if you want some real fun, choose the "alien" option and start from scratch. You can mix and match everything from facial ridges and beards to breast size and tattoo color. You should note, though, that you must play for the Federation when you begin, though at level five, you unlock the ability to create a Klingon character. It's wholly clear, however, that the Klingon side is simply unfinished now, useful only if you stick with just player-versus-player combat. Character and ship creation are incomplete (some dropdown lists contain only one option, for example, and ship customization is much more limited when compared to the Federation side), and player-versus-environment content just fades away after a short time.
Most of your time is spent in your ship, which you fly from sector to sector to complete missions in the various solar systems you find there. Early on, you choose either a tactical, engineering, or scientific career, and set out to boldly go where--well, you've heard this one before. And obviously, you'll be seeking out enemies to blast into smithereens. Space combat is slow and mildly tactical; your initial ship (you'll get a better one about 10 levels in) has slots for fore and aft weapons, and four shield arcs surround your ship and take local damage when hit. For now, at least, combat has been relatively simple against the majority of enemies--just blindly fire your shield-weakening phasers (you can even have the game fire some weapons for you automatically) and hull-damaging torpedoes, occasionally activating your special powers (siphon emergency power to your shields, for example) while maneuvering to keep your strongest shield arc pointed toward your enemy, or repositioning so you can fire a specific weapon.
The space combat makes for a good first impression, and large-scale battles, in which you join other players to defeat masses of Klingon Warbirds and other imposing-looking ships, look bright and colorful and feel appropriately explosive, if not quite epic. Why not epic? Because for now, combat is exceptionally easy, so I rarely feel like I am struggling against powerful battleships. And if you do die, no matter: There is absolutely no death penalty--you just respawn at a checkpoint and start from where you left off. The combination of easy combat and lack of a death penalty means that there's little tension to combat. However, even if it isn't grand and challenging, it can still be fun; there's something satisfying about defeating an enormous vessel, and the resulting explosion, even if it took patience rather than skill to make it happen. Even now, however, tedium is setting in, and I look forward to purchasing better ships and earning new skills to see if they can add a little of the oomph that battles currently lack.
Battles in space are generally more fun than those on the ground. You will requisition officers who man particular stations (again, engineering, tactical, or science), and they join you on the ground as away team members. This means you get to manage multiple paper dolls, not just those of your own character and your ship, so loot sorting has some appeal as you decide the right weapons and shield types for your various officers. You also get to customize their looks and uniforms, which lets you again play with the cool customization tools. The combat itself is much less compelling, perhaps because it's just as easy as, if not easier than, skirmishing in space. It's somewhat typical of an MMOG--you use hotkeys or click on the interface to fire weapons and perform special skills, but it's all a bit messy and dull. You can do things like sprint and tumble, and being able to do flanking damage when hitting an enemy from behind is a good idea. But right now those things feel superfluous, since you can just sort of hammer on hotkeys and make it so, while your teammates and enemies flit around without much rhyme or reason.
Having crew members fight at your side is really quite terrific at first; it's like having your own little group wherever you go. But while having them there to draw aggro is handy, the poor AI makes them a liability sometimes as well. Officers get stuck in the environment quite often; I'll be running along and suddenly notice I've left a crew member behind, so I'll go back and find him running helplessly in place because he couldn't find a way around a crate. Or perhaps I'll return to find him dead, because he stood in the middle of a fire and didn't think to move. At least crew members can be easily revived--even if their bodies have been engulfed in flames for 10 minutes.
If you're interested in the game because you're a Star Trek aficionado, you'll be glad to know that the game, more or less, feels like a Star Trek game should, making any number of clever references and rendering the various races with care and detail. The visuals aren't stellar by any stretch of the imagination, but they look appropriate and have been solid enough in spite of some noticeable annoyances, like jarring texture pop-in and slowdown during ground battles. Considering the potential for excellent storytelling here, however, it's too bad that the mission design is so cut and dry and that the NPCs have so little personality. In fact, some missions involve beaming down to a planet, activating a series of consoles, and then…beaming back up. Others don't even make a whole lot of sense: Why would a Ferengi captain decide to trust me only if I inspect for safety violations? Why would bar patrons attack a Federation officer for turning off the holodeck? Another oddity: Space, as depicted by Star Trek Online, is not vast and expansive, but rather made up of small pieces riveted together. This might make the game easily digestible, but it also makes exploration feel chunky and awkward.
At least our time has been relatively stable, though on one of the three systems I've played on, I have run into some crashes during ground missions. Most of the technical annoyances I've encountered are minor--tutorial pop-ups that never stop popping up, errors when spending skill points, and whatnot. Of course, I have a lot more time yet to spend with Star Trek Online, so consider these impressions as highly preliminary--as MMOG players know, a lot can change as you progress. Look for a full review in the next few weeks.