Star Trek Online – Ten Ton Hammer’s Hands-On Beta Impressions

The closed beta for Star Trek Online came to a close this week, but rather than a time of sadness, it marks a new testing phase for the game.

The closed beta for Star Trek Online came to a close this week, but rather than a time of sadness, it marks a new testing phase for the game. Open beta begins on January 12th and fans around the world can't wait. Over the course of the last four decades, there have been numerous Star Trek television series that have arguably been awesome. There has also been a number of good, if not great, movies as well. Unfortunately, the same can't be said when discussing video games based on the iconic Star Trek IP. While there have been some that were far better than their predecessors (Bridge Commander), none have managed to truly capture that Star Trek feeling... until now.

Before I explain why I think Star Trek Online might finally live up to my Star Trek expectations, keep in mind that at the time of this writing, it was still in closed beta.

The first thing any player, reviewer, or Star Trek fanatic has to admit is that once again, Cryptic has proven why they are the undisputed character creation masters. Starting with City of Heroes, and then further expanded upon with 2009’s Champions Online, the team has continued their relentless pursuit of allowing players to create the character of their dreams with Star Trek Online. The uniform choices may not be quite as extravagant as in the previous titles I mentioned, but character heads, bodies, and faces get the full Cryptic treatment we've come to love and expect.

The first time I had an hour to play the game I managed to make a character and talk to the first NPC in the game's tutorial. As seems to be a repeating pattern when creating a character in one of Cryptic's games, I lost track of time as I tweaked and altered my character until it was just right. The true beauty of the character creation system is that you can make a character in under a minute or take over an hour. The team has recognized how important a feature like this is for so many gamers while not punishing those that couldn't care less about how their character looks. Once again, Cryptic fails to disappoint in this category.

After deciding which officer track to follow (Tactical, Engineering, Science), choosing a race (such as Vulcan, Andorian, Ferengi, or other), and fiddling with my uniform far longer than any self-respecting male should, I was ready to hop into a nice relaxing tutorial. That lasted for all of about two minutes as I wandered through what looked like Ten Forward on the Enterprise-D before being thrown into the heart of a crisis. You may be nothing but a newb Ensign, the starting rank in the game, but you're going to test your mettle against the Borg, so buck up soldier and get to it.

Throughout the battle with the Borg, you'll fight in the hallways of the ship, transport wounded personnel to a science vessel, take on Borg spheres, infiltrate a Borg ground camp, disable a shield generator, and take on a Borg cube with the help of some other Federation ships. Gone are the days of boring tutorials and I say good riddance. I honestly can't remember the last time I not only paid attention to what was going on in a tutorial, but also actually cared. Fascinating.

During the tutorial and your beginning missions, you'll quickly realize that the space and ground combat scenarios are almost completely different games, even though they both take place in the same universe. If my own experiences and the chatter of those in the beta test are any indication, each player will have their own preference. I've been a space combat junkie since I played Wing Commander back in the early 90's so naturally, the space portion of Star Trek Online has been my favorite so far.

Fighting against one ship by yourself is pretty fun. Fighting against multiple ships by yourself is even cooler. Taking on a small squadron of enemy ships with another player or two is awesome. None of that compares to the space battle you'll enjoy during an early mission where you need to protect a Starbase though. Imagine fighting along side approximately 15 other players and taking on what seems to be a full Klingon fleet. You're tasked with destroying 50 enemy ships and 20 Battlecruisers. The fight that ensues is nothing short of pure epic awesomeness! And by the way, this happened when I was level 4. That's right, I said 4. Not 40, not 50, not at the end-game. This took place after approximately three hours of game play. These are the things that will set Star Trek Online apart from the slew of MMOGs currently on the market.

The ground game can be just as intense. At this point, I can't say whether the ground system needs some tweaking, or if I just suck at it. If I were being honest, I'd have to say the latter. You have no idea how many First Person Shooter games I’ve played where I can barely get past the third mission before being completely road blocked from any further progression. Yeah, I'm that bad. Although you’re not actually aiming at your targets as you would in an FPS, my lack of skills seems to have carried over.

Fortunately for me (and possibly for you), the AI of your ground team is pretty damned good. The away team will function in similar ways to the heroes you can opt to adventure with in Guild Wars, only taken to the next level in nearly every regard. They keep themselves (and you) healed up nicely. They take cover. They use their abilities to force the enemies into bad positions so you all can take advantage of the flanking bonus damage. All in all, your bridge officers and security teams are rock solid. Be sure to keep them equipped with anything that you can't use as an upgrade yourself. Not only will it help keep them alive, but that in turn will help keep *you* alive.

While there are random battles you can get yourself into, the majority of the game (and your progress in it) takes place through missions, or episodes. Episodes are just what they sound like - a string of missions put together that could make up a television show. They generally have all the elements we know and love from the shows: space combat, ground combat, diplomacy, and exploration. They do a great job with keeping you interested and swapping between various aspects of the game. All in all, they've been a lot of fun so far. There are times when they feel too long, but the development team has stated they'll continue to adjust this as necessary throughout the beta.

Once you know what you're doing in the game, it doesn't take long to unlock the Klingon side of the game at all. I know some people are upset about the announcement that Klingons will be primarily PvP, but players still owe it to themselves to check them out once unlocked. The Klingons are a brutal and honorable people. Your "tutorial" for them is the same way. I'll save myself further embarrassment and not tell you exactly how many times I died during the tutorial. Yes, Spiffy, I said tutorial. Don't judge me!

The game certainly has its good points along with some others that still need some work. I think the space combat is absolutely spot on and can't wait to see more of it as time goes on, especially once I begin to acquire other ships. The ground game (and my skills with it) needs some improvement though. Ground combat doesn’t feel as responsive as that in space. Reactions feel delayed and I don’t just mean mine. The enemy ground troops are not as viciously efficient as their space counterparts. Rather than seeing this as a sign of mercy from the gaming gods for those of us who suck, I actually think it’s something the team is working on.

One of the most unique things I’ve discovered about the game so far, but is *so* totally Star Trek is the Captain's Log. At any time, you can open your journal and make an entry. It will populate it with both our date and time, and the correct star date as well. You can add, edit, or delete these as you see fit. Sure, some players won't care, but by adding something that's so integral to the Star Trek experience, it shows that Cryptic "gets it" and is trying to make a game that all fans can enjoy. The role-players out there should go nuts over this feature. And given Cryptic’s social networking integration in Champions Online, there are a lot of potential ways that the Captain’s Log could be utilized in a similar manner. Imagine the tales that could be told by players while the details of the adventure was fresh in their mind? The possibilities are not only nearly endless, but also incredibly cool.

There's plenty of work to be done on the game and the development team has certainly been busy. Patches have been frequent during beta and things have been adjusted and altered on a regular basis based on player feedback. Is the game perfect? No. Is the game fun? Absolutely. The best thing I can say about Star Trek Online is that it *feels* like Star Trek. I feel genuine excitement when I'm on a mission and the combat is truly intense. The game may not be perfect (yet?), but it is hands down the best Star Trek title we've seen to date and that's something we can all be thankful for.

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