Like most of Cryptic’s titles, Star Trek Online is a difficult game to review – especially when you’re trying to balance out spending enough time playing to provide a decent opinion, with getting your write up out in a timely manner for people to read. Because of that, I want to take a moment to reiterate my number one guideline – this is my opinion based on my time with the game. It’s subjective to my experience, and as is the nature of MMOs, your playthrough may vary dependent on player interaction and timed events.
Cryptic, it has to be said, certainly know their way around the free to play Massively Multiplayer Online experience. Like the superb Neverwinter before it, Star Trek Online had been around for years on the PC before finally making the console leap. This is a double-edged sword, of course: We are getting the most refined, content rich variant of the game at launch, minor a couple of (at this time) PC specific features. It’s also free. The downside is that there are legions of players who’ve put hundreds of hours into this title, and who are eager to begin again on their shiny new PS4 Pro or Xbox One S. This makes it difficult to form alliances and fleets with random cadets you meet online, as these platform jumpers already have an extended knowledge of the game. Because of that, I spend most of my time – almost all of it, honestly – keeping my self to myself.
The title screen opens up with the intro bars from the original series and Next Generation, and when you start the game you get brought up to speed on the state of the quadrant by Spock, voiced by the late, great Leonard Nimoy himself. Set several decades after the events of Star Trek: Nemesis, many of the alien species are at peace. Even the Romulans, following the annihilation of their home world, have a sense of comradeship with Starfleet. This gives you plenty of choice for your starting character, as you begin by choosing to play as any alien race which has been depicted along the line, pretty much anywhere in the Star Trek mythos. Even the Gorn, the ridiculous lizard man Kirk fights during the original series, is a playable species. It appeared in one episode. Fifty years ago. And if there’s nothing you fancy between the Klingons, the blue faced alien women and reprogrammed Borg? Make your own! That’s right: Pick a head, body, uniform and looks and give it your own personality. The range of choice is stunning here, although it has to be said I was too tempted to start out in Star Fleet, so went with a humanoid race. Yep, boring I know, but who doesn’t want to train at the Star Fleet Academy on Earth?
After choosing my character, I found myself as a newly minted cadet in a stunningly realised Academy. Yes, the textures and game engine are based on a framework which is six years old, but it still looks good, albeit in that slightly stiff and rough MMO way. Heading out to my first objective, simply talking to an academy trainer, lead me through a rather boring quest of run here, talk to him, run there, talk to her, which I was routed on over about seven checkpoints. Eventually you get a hold of your first starting ship – straight from the annals of Star Trek lore, of course – and you can start making your way through the game.
The game story as a whole is split into distinct chapters, and each chapter lasts several ‘episodes’. This approach is a little weird if you’re not used to the way Cryptic run their games, but underneath the ‘It’s a show! Missions are episodes!’ novelty, it’s really no different from the Campaigns in Neverwinter. Each chapter of the overall core experience focuses on something different, and each episode within those chapters take place at locations which are, obviously, straight from the canon of a half century of Star Trek. The planets you visit, the systems you patrol; all of them have been plucked from the shows and the films.
There are two main modes of play during your time with the game, regardless of which species you pick and where you start your adventure. The first is standard RPG real-time ground work, which feels pretty much like the first Mass Effect game. Yes, that means it’s rough and ready, and there’s not a great deal of feedback from your kicks, punches and phaser blasts. But again, standard fare for MMORPGs. In space things get rather more interesting I’m pleased to say. If you’ve ever played the PC version, you may recall space combat being a rather hands off experience, as you didn’t have fine control of your ship on the fly. That’s all changed with the console release, as you now directly manoeuvre your craft with the left thumbstick. You can lock on to targets with a click of the stick, meaning you don’t have to be flying where you’re shooting if it’s inconvenient. I’ve been fortunate enough to try starting characters in both the Romulan and Klingon empires too, and they play largely the same in both the space and ground missions. It is worth noting that the different ships are recreated in detail, with accurate bridges, weapons and skins for all three of the factions (the other alien species, Ferengi for example, fall under one of three umbrellas: Starfleet, Klingon or Romulan).
I won’t spoil the various plots and subplots present across the core experience, but don’t expect any revelatory story telling – MMO plots tend to be McGuffins to get people playing together in a scenario, and despite the deep, decades old lore, STO by and large sticks to that trend. What IS worth mentioning though is the attention to detail when it comes to the canon history on display. Everywhere has it’s accurate back story, or raison d’etre. This kind of fan service will make ST geeks drool, whether your a fan of the original series, Enterprise, or any of the others in between. It’s just stunning, from the smallest ship detail, to the terrifying Borg cubes floating through space, right down to the plaques around Starfleet honouring events which came to pass during the shows fictional history. It’s these elements which elevate the game to more than a slightly wonky City of Heroes rebuild with a Star Trek veneer. It allows you to live your life as a Klingon Warrior, or (eventually) a Starfleet Admiral. For fans of the IP, this is priceless, and again I must iterate the sheer level of obsessive detail on display.
Of course, away from the Campaigns and fetch quests there are an obsessive amount of MMO staples on offer. Auction houses which act as an in-game-item eBay, the ability to purchase Zen – a premium currency paid for with real cash, or occasionally awarded through certain events. There several other currencies in the game, all used to purchase things from different markets. Dilithium Crystals, which will be familiar to any Star Trek fan, are a major form of currency for the endgame, allowing you to purchase new ships and weapons, for example. You are awarded Dilithium Ore, which you can refine into crystals (up to 8000 units per real-time day), and even have the option of exchanging them with other players for their purchased Zen. There’s a complex economy at work beneath all of this, and the way players trade these currencies will directly affect their selling and buying prices. If you want to get into the game of trading digital MMO currency, it’s catered for here wholesale, and for the hardcore players it provides every opportunity to get your hands on the rarest loot through clever currency trading.
As a free to play game, it’s worth mentioning at this point that nothing is off limits in terms of gameplay. You can level your character all the way to the maximum, experience every quest, side quest and multiplayer raid and skirmish, take part in huge PVE and PVP events, and play for as long as you wish. The paid-for items are largely optional, although they can provide an edge in progressing your character. Fans of Neverwinter will be familiar with the lockbox mechanic, which have a chance of containing rare gear, weapons and components, and you have to have keys to open these. The keys can be traded and won in events, but it’s very tempting for players with a huge bounty of lockboxes to drop real cash in a flash sale for a bunch of consumable keys to get their hands on some good loot. And that’s absolutely fair play to Cryptic: They give you EVERYTHING for free, really for free, but if you want your progression to go a little faster, or you can’t wait to get a hold of your next ship, there are options available for those willing to spend their disposable income on consumables. It’s not shoved in your face, and you’re not paywalled at all. It really is commendable of the developer to give so much content away genuinely for free, unlike the horrifically managed mobile gaming market, where you’re badgered for cash every eight seconds and limited to playing for a few minutes per day.
There’s so much to discover and experience in Star Trek Online that it’s impossible for me to cover everything. There are a few exciting elements which haven’t transitioned to console yet, such as the ability to form fleets (clans, essentially) with other players. These are on the cards for the future though, and will only enrich the experience further. If you can look past the stiff animations and bland ground combat, there’s a lot for Star Trek fans to be excited about. If you only having a passing interest in the show, well it’s not going to set your world on fire. None Trekky Sci-fi fans should definitely play Bioware’s superb Mass Effect series instead. For those who have been waiting to sign up to a detailed recreation of Starfleet and search for adventure throughout the final frontier though, this is a worthy experience and one which will not disappoint the diehards.
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