by George Daley, Jr.
I haven’t played Star Trek Online in several years now, not because I’m not a fan of Trek, or certainly the idea of Trek as an MMO. Indeed, if there were any franchises out there that were ripe to make the leap into the MMO space, it’d be Star Trek.
With some five decades of lore to draw from it’s already a galactic sandbox of sorts that begs to be explored. The reason I quit playing was simply because I’ve been a console gamer for as long as I’ve been a gamer.
I find playing anything other than strategy games (ideally, turn-based) on a PC awkward and counter-intuitive, so I was excited at the prospect of picking it up again with the announcement that Star Trek Online was going to make the leap to the console space. I can say, after being privileged to take the closed beta for a spin these past few days, I’m looking forward to playing much more this fall.
There are, of course, some differences between the console version and the PC version. There are no “maximum settings” to be selected when it comes to a console, of course, so Cryptic has to find a balance that builds a universe that runs smoothly while not being such a step down from what’s possible on PC that it feels inferior, and I think they found that balance well. When in space and not, textures look a little extra smooth and lacking in fine detail, such as with asteroids and ship interiors, but that was somewhere I expected graphical sacrifices to be made.
Overall, everything looks like it should and the environments capture the feel of Star Trek. In fact, my first ship, a Miranda-class I chose to name the USS Franklin – in honor or the latest film – has a larger than life feel that the series have never matched. Where it seemed like, in the series, crew could barely walk two abreast sometimes, the game corridors have a sense that you could drive your car through them and the bridge of a starship has the size and grandeur that I, as a fan, always thought it should. Maybe it’s a little too big, all things considered, but it does help give the player the sense that they are but a small part of a big universe. So, in that sense, it very much works.
Pauses to load new environments happen when you’d expect it to and load times aren’t oppressive. Occasionally, textures can take a moment to load, but, for the most part, things run smoothly. That said, did encounter a time in one of my early tutorial missions that pits your ship against the Borg where I lost all control of the ship. I literally couldn’t move or fire weapons, which left me to be pummeled by the Borg ship until I quit and reloaded.
I didn’t get any error messages to point to and no other symptoms beyond the fact that nothing worked even though my controller didn’t lose contact with the console. Fortunately, the game tracks progress well and I didn’t lose any. If I had lost progress or it happened frequently, both would be marks against the game, but I didn’t lose my way and I try to be tolerant of beta runs.
The other problem Cryptic faced when adapting the game to console is how to manage the control schemes from a keyboard, where you have almost infinite options when it comes to slaving complex functions to keys, to a console controller with far more limited options. Their answer is wheels. Wheels everywhere; wheels to select both equipment and abilities, and they work effectively. I could cycle through all my options with a button press and a flick of the controller stick.
A keyboard is still faster, but this game isn’t so fast-paced that you’re ever in danger of your character or ship dying because of the difference. Inventory management and equipping the right tool for the right job is definitely as easy as it should be. Star Trek Online, unlike some other games, seems to make sure you have no shortage of space.
When playing, your ship – depending on its class – and the consoles (internal mods) installed, it carries with it special abilities like channeling emergency power to shields or a tachyon beam that eats at an enemy’s shields. These abilities are enhanced by officers at the helm when you have put skill points into those officer’s abilities. Press their corresponding button, skim the wheel to the desired effect and it happens. These abilities change-up the battle or mission considerably, so there’s always a reason to take a moment to think of who might offer the best advantages in any given situation.
A console feels more intuitive to me simply because that’s how I’ve gamed, so I took to the Star Trek Online experience pretty quickly, and Cryptic does a good job of hand-holding you through the first missions. I expect there will be a bit of an adjustment if you’ve played this on PC and are making the transition, but, by the time you’re more on your own, you’ll be an old hand at the new controls.
At the end of the day, I can say that this is still Star Trek Online. Features aren’t pared down and hasn’t been ‘dumbed down’ for console play. I quite enjoy space battles on my large living room as opposed to a smaller screen. As for the play itself, after a ‘graduation day’ tutorial, you’re assigned to your first ship. Rushing to a distress call leads to a Klingon ambush – and once you repel the boarders, a twist of fate leaves you ship’s captain.
No time to rest or celebrate though, as you are immediately thrust into a quest with the other Federation ships in the area to battle the Borg to save a nearby colony. You fight your way through to the planet, and then work to save the colonists. The paths are pretty linear and there’s no being left to wonder where to go or what to do, which I appreciate. Nothing kills a play experience faster for me than to be left aimless.
Saving what colonists you can puts you back on your ship, as you’re left on your own to fight off another wave of Borg vessels before the Federation ships you left behind return to lend a hand. From there, it’s back to Earth and your starbase hub that has everything from patrol and item recovery missions for additional rewards, to places to be social. I didn’t get into the social aspects so much, as I consider myself a solitary gamer, and, in this case, I simply wanted to focus om looking at the core mechanics.
I was very likely to dive in when the console version was first announced, and, after some days with it, it’s now a must gaming experience for my fall and winter. The missions feel episodic, and I feel connected to my crew due to pretty good voice acting, though I have yet to encounter a Vulcan that doesn’t sound robotic.
I’ll have years worth of content to explore with the console expansion for Star Trek Online, minor quibbles aside, with it now free-to-play and easy to pick up for hours at a time – I look forward to boldly going.