When it first launched on PC six years ago, I played a little Star Trek Online. It was clearly made by people who love the show, but not so clearly made by people that knew what they were doing. In short, it was promising, but very rough around the edges.
This review will go on for a bit, so if you’re one of those 70% of people who never make it to the bottom of internet articles, the skinny is that it’s quite badly made in some places, really good fun in others, and there’s a very good amount of Trekkie stuff to check out for a free game and a 16 gig download.
This year when it was announced that the game would be coming to consoles, I picked up my character and decided to have another play to see what had changed. Immediately I was overwhelmed by the most complex interface and gaming system this side of EVE Online. Why were there at least five separate currencies used in the game? Why did I have to press 2 to fire torpedoes on one ship, CTRL+1 on another, and ALT+7 to do it on a third? Were the numerous graphical glitches a result of me playing on a not particularly impressive laptop, or were they symptomatic of continuing problems on the developer’s side? Spoilers for later: it was the latter.
Entirely flummoxed by a system that threw more data at me than a Brent Spiner fan collective, I started a new character hoping that tutorials would help ease me into the game again. And this is where that story largely becomes indistinguishable from my experience on console.
If you follow 90% of players and start off as a Federation character, you’re met with a surprisingly in-depth and decent character creation screen. Sex, build, and even race are up for grabs; if you don’t like any established aliens from the show, feel free to create your own. Thereafter you’re whisked off to the instantly familiar Starfleet Academy where, as a final year cadet, you’re awaiting your fleet posting. The game introduces you to the basics of the ground-based gameplay, including combat because apparently you can spend four years training as a security officer and never fire a phaser, before you’re taken on your first space tour, as acting first officer of a starship.
What follows is contrived, but since you’ll be commanding your own ship almost from the get go, some explanation as to how a group of snot-nosed cadets end up gallivanting about on the front lines absent direct oversight was required. Better origins are provided in the Romulan and Klingon storylines where you’re already an established officer, and since you’ll be promoted through the ranks quickly enough, you’ll soon forget about your entire bridge crew being the same age as Justin Bieber.
The Final Frontier, again
The interface is mercifully simpler on console, as indeed, it needed to be. In place of ALT and CTRL you have power wheels mapped to half the controller buttons, R2 for phasers, and R1 for torpedoes. Complicated and numerous buffs that soon mount up can be automated so you’re not trying to remember whether Engineering Team II repairs hull or shield strength in the middle of a firefight, and generally speaking, space combat is a joy.
Starting off in a Miranda-class frigate (that’s the Reliant from Wrath of Kahn, if you weren’t sure), you are weak, slow, but maneuverable enough with your phaser and torpedo systems roughly equivalent to a high powered flashlight and some conkers. Quickly you’ll be given the chance to upgrade and can choose from giant cruisers that are practically invincible but have a larger turning circle than Africa (think Picard’s Enterprise), more tech-minded vessels which strike a middle ground between power and speed (Voyager) and small, extremely quick ships that pack more punch than either (Defiant), but go down quicker than CM Punk in an octagon when it comes to a straight fight.
There’s a real sense of difference between the three, and picking a different class every ten levels will drastically affect your play style. There’s a certain arrogant thrill to be had from watching small fighters buzz around your vessel while your phasers lazily zap them away on autofire, but it’s genuinely fun to twist, dive (and, thanks to some graphical glitches, handbrake turn) your way around the battle field as a small craft, just waiting to finally lock on to someone your own size, or unload a barrage of pain on a capital ship’s rear end.
This is to say nothing of the fact that, though this wasn’t the prettiest game around even in 2010, Star Trek fans have never had such a good opportunity to play with the ships they’ve seen onscreen, and whether your favourite be Excelsior, Ambassador, Constitution, little known designs like Olympic or Saber, guest stars such as Nova or Prometheus, they’re all there to say hello to. Most are customiseable too and it can be great fun sat in orbit of Earth watching the different configurations come and go. The original design derivations which dominated marketing for the PC launch (or, “fucking arcade bastardisations”, if you prefer) are largely awful, but the classics are all there and there are some new gems hidden throughout.
Not all is well on the visual front in space though. The camera has three zoom levels, and each is based upon the assumption that you’re flying something the size of the Burj Khalifa. This is great when you’re in one of the big boys such as a Romulan Scimitar which is 1350m wide, but fly a twenty metre shuttlecraft about the place (yes, you can do that whever you want), and you’ll barely be able to see it. One mission is entirely taken up by a small craft dogfight in the skies above an under siege city which should be great fun, but the fact that even with your nose to the screen, you’ll barely be able to see your craft negates any fun that might have come from it.
Space presentation is split into two types. On the galaxy map you’ll be able to warp between familiar systems like Vulcan and Risa, occasionally running across a trade freighter or multiplayer shoot-em-up, and it typically strikes a decent mix of calm between storms allowing you time to install newly acquired updates & make some bad jokes on chat, and the crushing boredom of watching some pixels move across the screen for an age as you wait for something to happen a la EVE Online. Within systems, you can explore the ship graveyard of Wolf 359, disrupt your sensors in some very pretty nebulae, check out space stations and spend an inordinate amount of time posing your vessel in front of a star to see the different lighting effects on your hull. It’s a real shame that there’s no option to hide the HUD for screenshots because on occasion the results really are very pretty.
One thing that lacks is the sense of scale. Park your starting ship next to a top tier behemoth and you’ll notice the difference, but not quite as much as you should. Space stations that are identified as being over three miles tall never seem quite that big when you’re drifting by in a two-hundred metre garbage scow. Commands can fix these camera issues on PC, but on console (ironically) you’re stuck with how it is.
All I ask is a tall ship… and giants to crew it
These scaling issues continue to the ground levels where they are hugely exacerbated. Everything in Star Trek Online is too big on the ground. The relatively small bridge sets seen on the show are transformed into cavernous, empty , negative space deadzones, and racing to keep up, the furniture looks like it was built for the BFG. Characters almost never sit properly on their enormous chairs, instead perching on the edges, or just as often sitting on the floor in front of their consoles. Plonk a 5’9” female character in the Captain’s chair and she’ll look like a hobbit extra from Lord of the Rings. This will continue when you notice her sidearm; the sleek bottlenosed phasers of the show that fit as naturally in the hand as a TV remote are gone, replaced by foot-long monstrosities that belong in a geeky sex dungeon. And almost every other player you meet will seem like the descendant of Richard Osman because the default character height seems to be set at six and a half feet.
These are the voyages of the Starship MIKEYONE316
Storytelling in Star Trek Online varies in quality throughout. Some mission ideas are genuinely clever and not only take inspiration from the series and films, but actively expand upon them in new and interesting ways. An ancient race mentioned fleetingly in the series here is set up as a major villain. Characters such as Worf’s son Alexander are given more interesting roles than they ever were on the shows in occasionally touching ways and if you ever wondered what the next Enterprise would look like after Star Trek Nemesis, it’s Star Trek Online that gives you a satisfying answer.
But there’s also some dreadfully written dialogue, shoehorned references to the episodes a particular mission is drawn from as if the developers are scared you might not recognise everything they’ve put in and scream, “See! Remember this from Next Generation season 2? We got that from there! We’re fans!”
Furthermore everything is dominated by the lazy thinking that all players want to do in an MMO is fight. So the Klingons who, last we saw, were at peace with the Federation, are now at war with it. The Romulans who have been decimated by the loss of their home planet, are at war with themselves. Everyone in the Delta Quadrant is ready to shoot at Starfleet because of the seven years of hell they endured at the hands of Janeway (understandable that one, really), a splinter group of Dominion and Cardassian forces are trying to re-enact their lost war for no greater narrative reason than, “wasn’t Deep Space Nine awesome?”, and the Breen are doing whatever it is that Breen do, and trying to invade Federation space. This is to say nothing of the Tholians, Gorn, Remans, Orions, Mirror Universe, and shady illuminati types in the shadows, all of whom shoot on sight.
Star Trek Online isn’t the first or last Trek game to focus on combat more than diplomacy and with good reason, but other games have shown us that story isn’t something to be feared, and when you have a universe as vast and well-developed as that which exists for Star Trek, it’s criminal not to use that to further some gameplay which at least purports to be more than horde mode on Gears of War.
This is where Star Trek Online is at its worst. In one typical mission, you respond to a distress call from a freighter. After a brief chat with the captain where he tells you exactly what season of Voyager his people popped up in because everyone in the galaxy is as big a fan of the show as you are, it’s revealed to be an ambush and you are attacked by a ship. You destroy it and then are attacked by two more. You destroy them and… can you guess where this is going? At its laziest, the game simply throws waves of faceless drones at you, often acknowledging as much in the mission objectives list. There’s no narrative reason given for why they don’t all attack at once and blow you up, you’re encouraged to ignore the high improbability of you taking out ten larger warships than your own in one sitting, and there’s no real impetus to worry either, because if you die you’ll simply respawn as you would in an FPS and there’s nothing lost.Story and character; always more important to Star Trek than action, is forgotten.
Despite a few pretences, there are no moral choices in Star Trek Online akin to those you’ll find in Telltale or BioWare games. In the Romulan storyline, following the destruction of your homeworld some years earlier, you’re a refugee living on a colony when unnamed nasties show up and you’re left to flee with a rag-tag group of survivors. Seemingly pulled between two factions; the remnants of the military-intelligence complex and a group of rebels seeking a new home, there is no choice as to which you can join nor, despite a brief tease, any question that the rebels are good, and the Empire is bad. That sounds familiar.
With this newer expansion there was a real opportunity to break the mould of Star Trek Online and allow players to experience both a story and gameplay style that was far removed from the constraints of an upstanding Federation officer. Visually it starts off that way as your crew have no uniforms and look like a grotty group of pirates. Maybe you want to play the heroic rebel, but maybe you think that sacrificing a few forgotten colonies to restore the former glory of your people is worth it. Doesn’t matter. The game will force you into one path and away from the other.
To seek out new life and new civilisations, and blow the shit out of them
That being said, not everything you’ll do as a Starfleet officer is in keeping with characters like Picard and Data. In one mission, and not for the last time, your team is trapped in a gladitorial pit and forced to fight to survive. This has happened in almost every incarnation of the TV series so nothing seems unusual. Until you break out of the pit and proceed to slaughter absolutely everyone in the club next door. Not just the security staff, or the alien nasty who trapped you. Everyone. Bartenders, dancers, customers. People firing at you in self defence and people cowering behind tables. You kill them all. As you do, you pass by another gladiatorial slave, who bangs on the forcefield of her cell begging release. There is no option to free her amid your slaughter, and so she watches as you casually slay everythng that approaches like Stallone in the 80s, then leave her alone to watch fifty-plus corpses rot in front of her as she starves to death, alone in a cell. Starfleet protects the weak.
It’s an aberration; no other mission comes close to this level of casual murder, but it is jarring and it’s fascinating to wonder if there was any competent oversight during development. Never would such a scene have been allowed onscreen absent fallout, and though it’s the worst, it’s far from the only time Star Trek Online has spread the optimistic hope and joy of Gene Roddenberry’s future at the tip of a casually waved Gatling gun. Almost every hurdle you encounter throughout will involve you blowing up said hurdle, shooting the other runners, and nonchalantly jogging to the end of the race, only to do it all again tomorrow.
Fire at Will. Yes, that Will
Things aren’t helped by the enormous amount of bugs throughout. More than once you’ll see a character’s eyes bulge out of their forehead if the camera gets too close, making Vulcan mind melds seem much more dangerous than they ever did in the show. Missions objectives often fail to be acknowledged leaving you with no option but to start again, it’s easy to become stuck in environments, and to top it all off, combat on the ground just isn’t much fun. Holding L2 will lock you on to one enemy and, theoretically at least, swiping left or right on the right analog stick will change targets. This almost never works however, and the system is much more likely to target an enemy so far away they’re out of range rather than the Klingon charging you down with a giant sword. Worse yet, it makes no distinction between friend or foe, meaning that when an enemy dies and it automatically switches to the next target, you’re just as likely to throw a grenade into the back of your first’s officer’s skull as you are the group of enemies twenty metres away.
You can attempt to sidestep this by forgetting about L2 and firing away in freemode, but the camera never helps you with this (you also lose an attack bonus) and so you’ll eventually blast through ground segments as quickly as possible, hoping desperately that sometime soon you’ll be asked to beam up to your ship and destroy something larger.
The Vacuum of Space
At launch, there are a host of features, ships, and episodic content missing from the console version. Minigames that function like Extra Ops in Metal Gear Solid or contracts in Assassins Creed Brotherhood are entirely absent. An entire temporal war story thread (and The Original Series introductory levels that go with it) is notable by its absence. The ability to explore your ship and see engineering, sickbay et al is non-functional for most players, one particularly important story mission is so bugged it causes the entire game to crash for most players, and there are a number of mission giving NPCs from PC that on console simply standing around looking like badly drawn bouncers at a particularly jerky nightclub.
Doubtless much will be added in the coming months and there’s more than enough content to get you started, but PC players will find that this is a smaller, simpler game than the one they’re used to.
Of particular note is the lack of multiplayer at the time of writing. It’s almost an entirely solitary experience, bar passing other players in silence. That should change though as more players progress and unlock the higher level multiplayer scenarios and playing fields. Thus far my few fleet actions have been good fun; one particular highlight coming as a Sovereign-class cruiser upped their aggression levels and soaked up damage from a Borg cube (oh, yeah. They’re at war with the Federation too. Also Species 8742), only for me to fly out from beneath their hull in my Defiant and unleash a devastating volley of phaser cannon and quantum torpedoes the moment the enemy’s shields dropped.
I then got caught in the resulting explosion and died, but we don’t talk about that.
Once you have their money, you never give it back
Much has been made elsewhere of the not-so-microtransactions in the game. Buying a top tier starship will set you back twenty bucks and a uniform set such as that seen in Enterprise isn’t any cheaper which seems extortionate, but by the time you get to the level where you can fly such a thing, you’ll already have had tens of hours of game play for free and dropping the developer a monetary thank you doesn’t seem like the worst thing in the world. It is theoretically possible to gain currency for this without spending a penny, but to get enough will take serious grinding. You might be able to gain 30-40 free credits a day absent forking out then try to play the market, but that top level ship will set you back 3000. I was able to increase my cash by about 5% over the course of a day, so starting from scratch as opposed to paying £7.99 for 1000 really is taking the long way round.
Star Trek Online is a deeply, deeply flawed game. The joy of space flight and combat is matched by the boredom and monotony of ground play, and even the former can get trying in the game’s less inspired levels. It’s kept me coming back though, and there is a certain addictive quality. Is it because I’m starved for Trek and also decent space-based fun on console? Almost certainly, but it’s not just that. There are moments in both gameplay and script that are genuinely funny, some are touching, and others are impressive. It can’t be compared to Mass Effect or HALO, and probably not Infinite Warfare when that launches soon, but compared to other MMOs it keeps pace, if not exactly leading the pack.
And almost none of its competitors are on console. This is probably the best free game on PlayStation and while that is admittedly faint praise, it’s not nothing. You don’t need a PS+ membership to play it either, which is hearteningly surprising.
Trek fans should have no questions about whether or not to check it out. They’ll almost certainly have at least a few hours fun with it, and where else nowadays does that come without a price tag on console? Third person action fans will find nothing to love in the ground sections, but if you’re convinced that Star Trek Invasion was the last game of note based on this IP on console, the space combat should do you just fine.