Captain’s Log: Tribbles drank all of my Earl Grey

Despite its rough development, back in the beginning of 2010 I really did have high hopes for Star Trek Online. Lots of customization, being able to fight the Borg, playing a Klingon, I was giddy with anticipation. Then it launched and I slapped myself for getting excited. There was a good game in there, somewhere, but it was hidden under terrible ground combat and a plethora of repetitive missions. Ship customization was also pretty dire and my dreams of creative ship designs were dashed on an asteroid belt.

But a rough launch was not enough to keep Cryptic Studios down. They diligently updated the floundering MMO, adding lots of new content including new “seasons,” which came with a series of episodic missions and special encounters. Then, early this year it made the move to free-to-play, which was probably for the best considering how it helped Cryptic’s other MMO, Champions Online.

Since I’m such a good fellow — and because I don’t really need an excuse to waste hours and hours of my life playing F2P MMOs — I’ll be taking a look at the state of the game.

Welcome to the Captain’s Log.

Captain’s Log: Stardate… I don’t know … February? March? At the very least I know it’s dawn. I have my own ship now, it’s not very good. The Borg killed all the other officers and some cowboy decided to make me Captain of this rust bucket. Not bad for an alcoholic Lieutenant. Apparently they are handing out field promotions like unwanted puppies after Christmas, all I had to do was put up with an uppity hologram and not die. I just hope they don’t expect me to save the galaxy or something absurd like that. Lieutenant Horatio “Claymore” Zentarim, Captain of the USS Indefatigable. I’ll admit, I like the sound of that.

Other than the addition of some awkward cutscenes, not much has changed with the start of the game. You make an officer from the set races like Vulcan, Human or Bolian, or you can just make your own unique alien with the very robust character creator. Some of the races have unique perks that set them apart, but there’s tons of other perks to choose from when making your own freaky alien. I actually bought the game a long time ago, so I get a few bonuses not available to free players, such as the ability to play as a Joined Trill, other players can make Borg characters too. But they look a wee bit silly in Starfleet uniforms, I must admit.

There are only three “classes,” but thanks to a variety of skill combinations, Bridge Officer abilities and ships, there’s plenty of configurations. Tactical Captains are the damage class, at their best when zipping about space mocking the slow cruisers. Engineering Captains represent the tanking class and use a variety of powers to mitigate damage while they captain iconic ships like the The Original Series’ Constitution class ship or The Next Generation‘s Galaxy class vessel. Finally, Science Captains heal and have a large number of buffs and debuffs at their disposal while using — often bizarre — science vessels.

While any ship can be captained by a player regardless of class, a cruiser doesn’t necessarily play to the strengths of a Tactical Captain. Regardless, there are plenty of builds that use these less traditional Captain/ship combos and plenty of folk favor them.

The fairly quick tutorial is unchanged, but it does a reasonable job of teaching you the basics without spending too much time boring you to death. Unfortunately you still have to put up with Zachary Quinto simply not giving a shit. I have no idea why they would get the voice of the new Spock, make him a hologram and only use him in a short tutorial. I imagine Quinto was wondering the same thing as he phoned in his lines while drinking expensive wine — perhaps a Chateau Picard — out of a solid gold goblet. Just turn down the volume. It’s over quickly.

There’s a lot of stuff going on in the galaxy and even for someone who once played the game a couple of years ago, it could get a bit overwhelming. Thankfully, Cryptic added a bunch of extra optional tutorial missions and every time a new concept is introduced it’s explained pretty clearly. It’s not that it’s a particularly complex game, it’s certainly no EVE, but there’s a lot to take in.

Captain’s Log: I still don’t know what date it is. Regardless, things are going well. I really don’t know how I do it, but Starfleet keeps promoting me. On top of that, they don’t seem to care that I’m all about work place discrimination. I mean, every single one of my Bridge Officers is a busty broad. Even Kirk didn’t get this much action. Inexplicably I keep finding myself in really odd situations, Klingon conspiracies, Romulan conspiracies, lots of time traveling and something about a part-Klingon savior. It’s all a bit much, really. It wouldn’t be so bad if it didn’t always end with everyone trying to kill me. Don’t they realize I’m just doing my job?

Levels go by in a flash, it feels like every few minutes Leonard Nimoy is congratulating me. Not that I’m complaining, I’ve always wanted Spock to tell me how proud he is of me. Leveling has been somewhat simplified as well, there’s less choice when it comes to selecting skill to pump points into, but also less room to make some terrible mistakes. Since F2P players don’t get free respecs every time they get a new rank like the Premium folks, I can see the logic. Claymore is a straight up DPS guy and it’s completely obvious where I need to assign points for that, so I barely had to think about it. Things will get a bit more complicated for raids and PvP, though.

To compliment your own abilities, you are assigned Bridge Officers. BO’s can be gained through missions, leveling or purchased from a vendor. Your ship has a set number of BO seats with escorts offering more tactical officer positions, cruisers have more engineering openings and science vessels are all filled with Beverly Crushers. As you gain more ranks you can promote them, which gives them access to other abilities for both space and ground combat. You can also use them to train other BOs. There’s a lot of room for experimentation, however I made an effort to not take any new BOs unless they were beautiful women, because that’s the kind of ship I run. The decision didn’t cripple me, though, thanks to being able to train them in new abilities. 

Additionally, players now get a whole bunch of extra crew members to abuse. Duty Officers are one of the newer features. The Duty Officer mechanic is a wee bit like a CCG. There are over thirty thousand unique crew members, each with their own positive and negative traits, careers and ranks. They can be assigned to work on board your ship, augmenting your space and ground abilities or sent on assignments where they might bring back items, buffs, commendation and dilithium. Every sector of space has a long list of missions and there are generic assignments which can be performed on the ship itself. It’s an easy way to get more rewards and it goes a long way to making you feel like a Starfleet Captain.

The episodic content is what makes up the meat of the enjoyable parts of STO. They are missions centered around classic Star Trek tropes like time travel, war with the Klingons and Romulans being shifty. Each season brings loads of new missions, launched each weekend. While individual episodes can sometimes be a bit hit or miss, the seasons themselves usually end up being pretty damn good. At the end of a season your inventory will be full of unique rewards like an homage to the proton pack from Ghostbusters or weapons from The Original Series. Cryptic have tried to inject a bit of cinematic magic to these adventures, but atrocious animation and abysmal voice acting mars their effort. However, they are generally lots of fun and a much better motivator to continue playing than “exploration missions,” a travesty I’ll be looking at later.

Captain’s Log: Stardate… I DON’T CARE, TRIBBLES HAVE DEVOURED EVERYTHING! After a trying week of harassing Klingon Birds of Prey and stalking Romulans in the Neutral Zone, I thought I’d do something nice for my lovely Bridge Crew and buy them all murkins. At least, I thought they were murkins. It turns out they were actually tribbles, they ate all my food and drank all my tea and proceeded to multiply. They do make good pets though, at least that’s what the ladies tell me. I’m far too busy for such things though, I’ve blown up thousands of enemy ships and stopped the Federation from being destroyed ten times over. They are bloody adorable though…okay, I’ll keep two.

Tribbles are weird. They squeak, multiply rapidly and star in one of my favorite silly episodes from The Original Series. Cryptic have a bit of a thing for tribbles and they feature quite prominently in STO. You can collect and breed the furry wee buggers. A good tribble breeder keeps an eye on what they are feeding the creatures so they can create rare, more powerful tribbles. Yes, tribbles aren’t just odd looking furballs, they also confer buffs and heals to squad members during ground combat. I usually scoff at such things, but I confess that I’ve gotten quite into tribble breeding. I’m not proud of myself. I’ll just pretend I’m being practical and only breed them for the combat benefits.

Talking of combat, I’m a bit split on the matter. Space combat is exactly what one would hope for with a Star Trek game, it’s all firing arcs and turning really slowly. That’s not a complaint, I bloody love it. The USS Indefatigable is an escort vessel though, so it’s able to run rings around the slower cruisers, but it’s a bit of a glass cannon. While there’s not much aesthetic customization to be had with the ships, there’s a huge number of weapons and components that really allow you to have a very specific set up. Battles can frequently end up taking quite a while, especially if you are in a cruiser, but it feels just right. Space itself is surprisingly busy, with lots of enemies, asteroid belts, planets, moons and space stations. Unfortunately there’s not a vast amount of variety and the slow pace of space battles can start to become a bit frustrating.

Ground combat is a different matter entirely. While some away missions have you solving puzzles and doing some actual roleplaying, most of them come down to shooting lasers at some really stupid guys. That’s not to say it hasn’t improved, it most certainly has. For instance, your squad actually bother using their abilities and they don’t appear to be suicidal anymore. Enemies will very occasionally patrol, not that it makes a difference considering how close you can be to them before they actually notice you. Generally they are just stationary cannon fodder. There’s just nothing about ground combat that’s remotely interesting. I find myself cursing out loud the moment I realize that the away mission is combat focused. The locations in which you fight are often rather alien looking, and most of them look like sets from the show and films, which can be good or bad depending on how much of a fan you are. Unfortunately they tend to be barren of content and rarely inspire exploration. Buildings tend to be even more stark, and assets are reused with alarming frequency.

Captain’s Log: Stardate… promotion time! Another day, another rank. They tell me I’m a Commander now, which means I need to grow a beard and put more effort into my flirting. No complaints. I also have to approach chairs by putting one leg over them in a nonchalant manner. With my slick new ship the galaxy is my oyster, time to explore new star systems and chat up a bevy of green women.

On the next Captain’s Log I get in some PvP scraps, learn how to be a proper Klingon, get down and dirty with dilithium and tackle dreaded “diplomacy.” Live long and … yeah, I’m not going to do that.

Fraser Brown