You'll have to excuse me for going off topic for the second time in a year, but just like it was the case with Neverwinter back in May, I found myself trying out another MMO recently and would like to talk about the experience a bit. I certainly wasn't looking for another game to suck up my time, as I know from experience that I don't do well trying to play more than one MMO at once, but my pet tank kept nudging me to try out Star Trek Online, as he had been playing it lately and found it quite fun. Since I apparently value friendship more than my sanity, I eventually gave in, installed the game and created a Trill science officer with a random name. (Won't get too attached to a character with a random name, right?)
My first play session was pretty bad. I found the gameplay clunky and it soon drove me up the wall. I whined and moaned endlessly about the clearly mutual dislike between the game and me... but I kept playing nonetheless, and somewhat to my own surprise, my dear friend eventually managed to drag me all the way to the game's level cap. Since then, it has actually managed to grow on me in some ways despite of my initial bad experiences.
One of the first things that struck me was that STO is a lot more combat-heavy than any of the Star Trek TV shows generally tended to be. It's kind of the reverse of SWTOR really, which has more random dialogue and moral dilemmas than the Star Wars films are typically known for. That said, Star Trek Online still manages to hit the spot pretty well when it comes to its source material. The story missions usually engage you in the kind of scenario you would expect to see on TV too, ranging from diplomatic entanglements and conspiracies to alien abductions that eventually end in pit fights à la Captain Kirk in the original series.
Graphics & Sound
One of my first thoughts the first time I moved my character was: "she walks funny". However, I'm noticing that this is something that I tend to think pretty much every time I try out a new game, and I got used to it over time. The interior environments look and sound like you would expect Star Trek to look and sound: whooshing doors and pretty bland backgrounds (because they are not the point). Space doesn't look particularly exciting either, though I quite like the music that wells up during space combat. Some of the environments you explore during your away missions look quite funky as well. All in all, it's nothing to write home about, but it gets the job done and won't be an affront to your eyeballs (or ears).
Star Trek Online basically consists of two parts: space combat (where you "are" your ship) and ground combat, which is more like what you'd typically expect from an MMO, with your character running around and shooting things. At first I honestly found this overwhelming, trying to essentially learn how to play two different games at once, and it didn't help that I didn't take to the space combat portion of the game at all. I could appreciate its uniqueness alright, but it just didn't "click" for me and I found it incredibly tedious. However, it seems that at least part of this was due to the starter ship being extremely weak and slow, so things got a bit better once I was able to upgrade. Now that I've overcome these initial difficulties, I do have to give the game credit for achieving a good split between making you identify with your ship and making you identify with your character, which is very much in line with the Star Trek franchise and how captains and their ships were pretty much equally iconic for each series.
There are also some mini games, most notably the duty officer system, which basically allows you to collect starship crew members with different skills which you can then send out on missions for various rewards. I have to admit that I instantly fell in love with this one. It's actually kind of interesting to hunt down different missions in different areas and to collect the right officers for each particular job. Not to mention that the results of said missions can be unintentionally hilarious: my favourite so far was when Pet Tank sent a large part of his crew on an innocuous mission to perform Hamlet on the holodeck, but due to someone deactivating the security protocols it ended in disaster, with three dead and another three injured. (Didn't expect that, huh?)
What's My Role?
I've never seen Star Trek Online advertised as a game without the classic holy trinity (after all that was supposed to be Guild Wars 2's big thing, right), but from what I've seen so far, roles in STO are pretty fluid. Maybe it's different for hardcore players at endgame, but as far as I can tell the three types of captains (tactical, engineer and science) are only very vaguely specialised, anyone can fly any type of ship, and in any group content that I've seen things mostly seem to come down to everybody blasting away at the enemy and keeping themselves up as well as they can. Occasionally a big zerg can be fun (for example in a Red Alert mission versus the Borg), but in the long run I can't say that I find this kind of gameplay particularly engaging. I've been trying to specialise my own science officer and ship for support and healing, but the toolbox to achieve this seems quite limited compared to what I'm used to.
Back when I tried out Neverwinter, I complained at length about how some of the grouping mechanics in that game were a massive pain in the rear. To be fair, that was right after launch and since the game never took off among my friends like I had hoped, I haven't been back - for all I know, all the problems I complained about could have been fixed by now. Either way, it shows that STO is made by the same people as it suffers from similar issues, even though the game is a couple of years older.
Basically, it seems that the devs have their heart in the right place when it comes to grouping and do want to encourage it - but it feels like they then don't even do the most basic quality control on their features. All my most frustrating experiences with the game so far were caused by failures of the grouping system - such as when I got separated from my group and we couldn't figure out how to reunite because the button to join another person's instance is a small grey bar with no label or tooltip! Good luck figuring that one out. Then there were all the instances where we were beamed into a confined space as a group and one group member ended up stuck in a wall... these are just such basic gameplay obstacles, I can't believe nobody has bothered to fix those. There are also a lot of conversations to click through during some missions, and in a group whoever clicks through them first makes them disappear, whether you've personally had a chance to read them or not. Imagine if in SWTOR you could miss out on entire conversations just because someone else got trigger-happy with their space bar! Not cool.
On the plus side, STO is the first MMO that I've personally played that allows you to match your level to that of your group members, and while down-levelled characters are way overpowered and up-levelled characters remain very weak, it did serve me and my max-level buddy well enough while I was levelling up. The guild or "fleet" system also seems pretty involved. I had planned to stay away from any guilds since I didn't want to get too entangled by the game, but one joke invite later and I was a member of a big coalition. Oops? I have not talked to anyone beyond my initial "hello", but I've been quite impressed by all the features you get access to in a fleet, the most notable one being a personalised star base.
I mostly levelled up through doing the episodic story content, which is very good. I barely got through the first three arcs before hitting max level as well, so there is quite a bit left to do after the level cap. Still, story only takes you so far, what else is there? While I haven't been around much yet, there is plenty to do in space from what I gather, from randomised solo missions to group content for various sizes. Oh, and of course Star Trek Online has its own Foundry of user-generated content as well. It strikes me as a very feature-rich game really... just missing polish in some areas.
Even though I've hit max-level now, I have no idea what endgame is like, nor am I sure that I even want to know. (I've definitely got enough on my plate with SWTOR!) I've paid one visit to the endgame daily area on New Romulus and it gave me curious flashbacks to Vanilla WoW with all the bizarre little bits and bobs that you could collect to hand in here and there with the eventual goal of earning reputation with the Romulans (think Scourgestones, Dark Iron scraps, that kind of thing).
Free To Play
With the game being free to play there was no real barrier to entry for me to give it a try. While levelling up, I found the model to be pretty generous to its free players. I was limited in my bank space, what ships I could get and stuff like that, but I never felt like I was seriously lacking anything that I could only get by paying real money.
It's interesting that the game essentially uses the same virtual currency system as Neverwinter, but I found it a lot less annoying in this game. This is kind of ironic considering that Neverwinter was built to be free to play from the ground up - but I felt that everything store-related was very in-your-face in that game, e.g. store-bought mounts being displayed on the market square, store buttons everywhere and so on and so forth. STO on the other hand was originally a subscription game that was converted, and as such seems a lot more subdued in its monetisation efforts. Yeah, you get stupid lockboxes dropping everywhere, but I soon learned to ignore them and just throw them away now. It also does have a subscription option still, and I did eventually pay up for a month, both since I was having fun with the game and to unlock a couple of subscriber perks such as extra inventory slots.
With its strange mix of space and ground combat, Star Trek Online is a slightly different sort of theme park MMO. At first there is a lot to take in, and stupid bugs can be a big turn-off if you're unlucky like me, but if you stick with it through the rough ride at the start you might find that there are quite a few things to love.