Atari's new Star Trek MMORPG recently dropped and I have a some time to play the game both in it's beta and retail release form. While I've spent more time than I care to admit playing Star Trek Online, please understand that I have only scratched the surface of this truly epic game. In the interest of full disclosure, I am an avowed Trekkie but am also a console gamer and STO is my first foray into the massively multiplayer online game world. These two facts will no doubt color my perceptions of the game.
As a Star Trek experience, Star Trek Online excels. The game is absolutely steeped in Star Trek lore and NPCs are constantly referring to events and locations that were featured in this or that TV show or movie (I just encountered the Planet Killer from the TOS episode "The Doomsday Machine" of all things). There is a lot of fan love built into the game. Star Trek Online takes place about thirty years after Star Trek Nemesis, so many or the characters that we know and love from the Next Generation era are presumably retired or deceased. The game does introduce you to some famous Star Trek descendants such as Sulu's grandson and the daughter of Tom Paris and B'Elanna Torres from Voyager but for the most part you are starting with a fairly clean slate so that players can have their own distinct adventures in the Star Trek universe. During the time of the game, the peace treaty with the Klingons has fallen apart and they are nominally the leaders of the enemy faction. Other enemies are featured in the game such as the Romulans, The Borg and Species 8472.
STO features both space and ground combat. Of the two, I like the space combat better as you have to manage your shields, weapons, and officer abilities against enemies and, as your ships gain more weapons and abilities, there is an addictive strategy component to it and it feels like a more unique gaming experience. The away missions feel a little like games that I have played before but the options for both modes increase exponentially as you progress through the game and gain items and abilities.
The game starts out with a lot of scouting and survey missions during which you are asked to patrol this system and engage these enemies or investigate this planet to recover x number or artifacts. Early on, these missions get a little repetitive especially since your character and ship are underpowered and have only a couple of abilities. As you progress in the game the "story" missions become a larger part of the gameplay and you find yourself immersed in a narrative that is actually very cool.
I recently completed a mission in which Starfleet officer Miral Paris was kidnapped by Klingons and taken to the Guardian of Forever (from the classic Original Series episode "City on the Edge of Forever") and taken back in time. You then follow her and encounter the Enterprise during the time of Kirk and discover a Klingon plot that helps to explain the perplexing difference in appearance between TOS series Klingons and their descendants. This mission highlights the episodic structure of the game, which, when it works best, feels like you are in a really good Star Trek episode.
You start out with the ability to play a Federation character but then unlock the ability to play a member of the Klingon faction later on in the game. I have been having too much fun with my Federation character to explore the Klingon side of the game but I understand it involves more player versus player content, something very lacking in the main game. In the Federation campaign I have had very little interaction with other players thus far, other than seeing their ships fly past me, passing them in star bases, and occasionally forming loose teams on a few missions. It is an experience that feels almost like playing a single player campaign in a console game (well, a very large console game).
Character customization is a big part of the game. You start out selecting from a group of Federation races (like Vulcans, Bajorans, Andorians) and can endlessly tweak your character's appearance within those races or you can create your own alien out of a large library of customizable features, from which you can make any number of familiar Star Trek aliens. This is however limited to two-legged humanoids (you won't be able to make an Edosian or Tholian).
You can outfit your characters from a large selection of 25th Century Starfleet Uniforms (or from the TNG movies, if you are old school like me) and can customize the look of your uniforms as well. Certain exclusive versions of the game even include TOS, TNG, and DS9 uniforms. If you are feeling creative you can even write your character's biography for all to read. Over the course of the game you can visit "tailors" and alter your character's appearance (although if you chose one of the given races you will not be able to change your character's basic race but if you elect to play an alien character you can drastically change its appearance).
In addition to your own character, you also have access to Bridge Officers. These officers will serve with you on away missions as well and offer special abilities both on the ground and in space. Like your avatar, these NPCs can be customized, named, skilled and even promoted. They are either Science, Tactical or Engineering officers and careful co-ordination of your Bridge Officers and your ship type adds a strategic level to space combat. If your style is offensive gameplay, an escort ship with some well trained Tactical officers will give you an edge for taking out your enemies quickly and decisively. Science officers have access to advanced technologies that allow you to disable and disrupt enemy vessels and an emphasis on Engineering assures you a ship with robust repairs and shields.
Star Trek Online features an extensive selection of starships. As you progress in rank (you start as a Lieutenant but can move all the way up to Admiral over the course of the game) you gain access to more powerful ships. You start the game in a Miranda Class Light Cruiser (like the ship Ricardo Montalban stole in Wrath of Khan) a basic little ship with a limited amount of weaponry and bridge officer slots. By the time you make your next rank, you get to chose a new ship from one of three branches, Cruisers (think the various Enterprises), Tactical Escorts (think the Defiant from DS9) or Science Vessels (think Voyager). These three distinct branches each have their own strengths and allow you to use distinct weapons and abilities and allow you to utilize your crew in different ways.
The ships are somewhat customizable as well, although this is limited so that they always retain a recognizable look for their class. Each class of ship has three alternate configurations, from which you are free to mix and match parts. For example if you are a Lieutenant and have opted for the Constitution class you can select the venerable Refit subclass as featured in the TOS Star Trek movies, the more streamlined Vesper which is the in game equivalent of the Excelsior Class, or a third modernized option. Or you can mix the saucer, nacelles and hull in whatever way you want. You can even select from different color palettes and some subdued decorative touches. As with your character, you are free to name your ship (although something appropriate would be nice. Seeing the USS Dirty Sanchez really pulls me out of the game). There are a very limited number of bridge layouts available as well, although I am disappointed the the bridge is really only a cosmetic addition to the game and you don't actually do anything there (you can't even sit in the captain's chair).
So those are my early impressions of Star Trek Online. With all of its loving references to the long and deep history of Trek, the game is a tremendous love letter to Star Trek fandom and promises lots more goodies to come (such as more of the Borg and even an appearance from Q himself). I am also happy that the game is continuing the Next Generation era, and not the more popular alternate continuity from the new movie. The issues that I had with some simple minded and repetitive gameplay seem to be diminishing now that the story is gaining momentum and the play options are growing for my more powerful character. We are only at the beginning of the game's life and it is sure to expand from here. I'm hoping to encounter some familiar faces and to have more bridge time in the future.