Down to Earth or Another Planet - A Star Trek Online Ground Combat Q&A with Dan Stahl

This week's Q&A session with Cryptic Studios took place with Daniel Stahl, Producer of Star Trek Online. We've talked about space combat with the team a couple of weeks ago, and this week, we wanted to delve in a bit more into ground combat. How does the game play feel and differ when on ground? How does ranged combat work? How often will we be on ground? All of these questions, and more, were answered by our guest, who was more than happy to explain Star Trek Online ground combat to us.
Questions by Benjamin J. de la Durantaye, Executive Editor, Ten Ton Hammer
Answers by Daniel Stahl, Producer, Star Trek Online (Cryptic Studios)

This week's Q&A session with Cryptic Studios took place with Dan Stahl, Producer of Star Trek Online. We've talked about space combat with the team a couple of weeks ago, and this week, we wanted to delve in a bit more into ground combat. How does the game play feel and differ when on ground? How does ranged combat work? How often will we be on ground? All of these questions, and more, were answered by our guest, who was more than happy to explain Star Trek Online ground combat to us.

Ten Ton Hammer: How frequently will players be involved in ground combat?

Dan Stahl: Let’s take the Klingon Federation Front as an example. It’s the first hub in the game. Within that hub, you have a number of episodes. Each episode is a five act instance. Within those five acts, one to three are ground maps. Just like a tv show, one episode may be to fly to a system, take some readings, maybe go onto a ship, where you might get a clue where they beamed down to the planet, so you beam down, and then maybe you’ll have to chase them back up into space. So, within those five acts, you have a couple of space maps, and a couple of ground maps – one interior, one exterior. So, that’s one episode, and there is a certain amount of episodes in every hub.

Then, in addition, you have patrol missions. For patrol missions, I’d say they’re about 75 to ninety percent space. We do, however, have a few that do contain ground. On top of that, there are star clusters, which is pure exploration, and I think the balance there is closer to 50/50.

But, in general, there’s always going to be more space content than ground, simply because we never have you go from the overhead map directly to the ground. You always have to go through a system map to get to a ground map. So, by default, there will always be more system maps.

Ten Ton Hammer: So it wouldn’t be possible then, for a player to choose to simply do only ground missions.

Dan: Episodes are always going to involve, for the most part, some sort of combat in both arenas. Patrol missions are mostly space combat.

Star clusters are a little bit different, and this is where we try to balance things out. In exploration, there are space maps that have zero combat in them whatsoever, where it’s just to go look for scientific anomalies. Then there may be a clue to send you to a planet to find out what’s going on. So there certainly is content that has no combat in it whatsoever.

In addition to that, there are fleet actions, and these are our 20-man open missions where we try to get a bunch of players on the map and have them work together to complete objectives. There are both space and ground versions of those. For example, in the Klingon Front, you may go to the Gorn mine field, or Star Base 24 if you really like space combat, or you may choose to go to the Ice Mining Rig, which is just a huge, giant ground map.

Ten Ton Hammer: Would you consider ground combat more tactical, or action based?

Dan: Where we’ve slowed down space combat to make it more tactical, I think the fun on the ground is definitely more action. Less Gears of War, more Halo. With that said, we have been adding more tactical features just so you have class differentiation. Science officers can do certain tricks on the ground, as can Engineers and Tactical officers, and then on top of that, your bridge officers have a whole bunch of fun things.

Early on in the game, it’s hard to get an overall view of that. Just like any MMO, for the first ten levels, you’re not going to get a really good representation of class benefits.

We’ve been recently playing some content in the later hubs, and it’s really impressive to see how different the encounters play. For example, when you’re fighting Romulans, you may know that Romulans like to do things a certain way, so you adjust your tactics to suit that. So we do have some tactics in there, but we’re trying to keep it fun and fast. It’s not a turn-based combat system.

Ten Ton Hammer: How does ranged combat work? Is there a targeting reticule?

Dan: You select an enemy as a target. You don’t have to aim, so it is a little bit RPG style.
We do calculate things like flanking, whether or not the person has shields, if they have buffs, what kind of weapon is being used, so there’s a lot of RPG number crunching going on in the background. All of that stuff is taken into account in terms of how much damage you’re going to do to your opponent.

Ten Ton Hammer: Can you take cover in the game?

Dan: The kind of cover that we have is not the Gears of War cover, where you lock yourself onto a cover. We have a Halo-like shield pop where if you duck behind something, it blocks line of sight. You can’t be shot through a wall or around a corner. If you stay out of combat for a certain amount of time, your shield will regenerate.

Your shield is what takes most of the energy damage, whereas your body takes the kinetic damage. So, if someone’s shooting you, they’ll have to get through your shields before they can do damage. If someone walks up to you with a melee weapon, it just goes right through your shields and starts pounding on your body. That’s the trade-off between energy ranged weapons and melee. Hand to hand combat, for the most part, is going to ignore shields.

Ten Ton Hammer: Can your ranged weapons be put onto different settings, like set phasers to stun?

Dan: The way ranged powers work is that they’re all tied into the weapon that you’re holding. Every weapon has three attacks.  There’s the standard default attack, which is the button to do steady damage. Then, every weapon has a secondary mode. The secondary attack, can be anything from a stun, like on a type two phaser, to area of effect attacks, to other attacks. Every weapon is different. A sniper rifle, for instance, has a regular attack, and the second attack is a steady-aimed, high-crit rifle shot.

The third power is always some sort of melee attack with that weapon, whether it’s a rifle butt, or a hand strike – something to keep people away from you.

Weapons come in different flavors in the Star Trek Universe. There’s phasers, there’s disruptors, there’s tetryon beams, all the different colors of beams that you see in the show are all represented in the game. And they all do different types of damage and are effective against different critters.

Ten Ton Hammer: Is there a way to escape combat? Can you ask your ship to beam you back up in a pinch?

Dan: You always have the option to get out of there. If you can get yourself out of combat, and get to a safe spot, you can come back and do it later. Then you can beam yourself back up to the ship and the sector map.

The nice thing is that if you’re half way through an episode you can opt to finish it later. You can beam back up to your ship, and then when you come back, you can continue it from where you left off.  Each act has a progress meter.

Ten Ton Hammer: Will all characters be proficient at physical combat?

Dan: Based on the weapon that they have, everyone has at least one type of melee attack. And obviously, any species, if they have no weapons has basic punches and pushes.

Certain species have innate powers – for example, Vulcans have the nerve pinch. In addition, depending on your career path, you may have access to better melee abilities. A tactical officer will be much more proficient at close range, assault, and hand-to-hand combat. They can level up those specific abilities, such as martial arts. As they level up in different abilities, they’ll end up with different sorts of melee combos. Depending on how high you level up in those different proficiencies, you unlock abilities to do other combos, like a jab-jab-punch, or a leg sweep-kick-push. The more you advance, the more fancy you’ll move around the battlefield.

Ten Ton Hammer: Do the episodes scale to the player’s level?

Dan: Episodes are a specific level, simply because of where they exist. As you progress through the hubs, content gets harder. That’s not to say that all episodes are set that way, because we do have certain maps and systems that do scale.

Because we have open instancing in the game and we’re trying to group people together, we certainly don’t want a high-level admiral spawning impossible creatures. So you can always go back and do an episode, regardless of your level, but the difficulty of the episode will be based on the recommendation. (If you go into your mission journal, it will tell you the recommended level).

We do have a replay mechanism, so you can go back and replay episodes if you team up with other people, and then we give you a secondary mission that didn’t exist the first time you did it. This allows you, as a high level player, to assist for a secondary reward, so there is an incentive for you to do that.

Ten Ton Hammer: Is there anything else you’d like to tell us about ground combat?

Dan: The things I’m really enjoying about ground combat right now are the dynamics. Even by myself, I can outfit my away team to fill certain roles.

There’s an expose and exploit feature I like as well. This is where certain weapons will expose your enemy to critical damage, and other weapons can then take advantage of that. So, for example, one of the things I do, is I’ll give “expose weapons” to some of my away team members. What they’ll do then, is try to find weaknesses in the encounter. And indicator will pop up and tell you which characters are weakened or exposed. Then, if I have an exploit weapon, I can then do triple crit damage to that entity. It’s a fun dynamic because you can have different people trying to create openings in the combat, and others to take advantage of those openings.

Another thing that was recently added is flanking. If you have a team, you can assign someone to flank your enemy, and that person will do extra flank damage. You can become very efficient on the ground by using those mechanics.

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