Best call it a shakedown cruise
In the interests of full disclosure, I’ll tell you right now: I’m really into Star Trek Online, and have been for the six-plus years of its life so far. By Steam’s count I’ve logged nearly three thousand hours in the Cryptic-developed free-to-play MMO, and that’s not even counting the many hours I spent with the game before it actually debuted on Steam. I own a “lifetime” subscription to it, and have spent more time with Star Trek Online than any other single title. I doubt any opinion I have on it could ever be considered truly unbiased, after all this.
But that was all on PC, though. The game I’ve given so much time to has just recently debuted on PS4 and Xbox One, and I’ve had the chance to give it yet more time, though now in pretty much the same situation as any new player, and to take stock of how this old bird flies through fresh eyes.
Star Trek Online (PC, PS4 [reviewed], Xbox One)
Developer: Cryptic Studios
Publisher: Perfect World Entertainment
Released: February 2, 2010 (PC), September 5, 2016 (PS4/Xbox One)
If nothing else, it’d be hard to fault Star Trek Online for lack of content. What was a relative drip feed for players in the early years is now a lengthy progression consisting of dozens of bespoke, story-driven “episodes” arranged into multiple intertwining plotlines. Each of the three available factions also gets a smaller selection of unique missions covering the first few legs of the leveling process.
For example, Federation players start out as a fresh Starfleet cadet, awarded command of their first starship (a chunky Miranda-class vessel plucked wholesale from The Wrath of Khan) thanks to a series of unfortunate circumstances — and a clever reenactment of a scene from The Undiscovered Country. Klingon players, meanwhile, rise to their position in the traditional Klingon fashion, murdering their commanding officer in a duel of honor. Romulan players begin in more typical RPG environs, living out a bucolic existence as colonists and eventually joining up with the game-original Romulan Republic, a bald-faced “these are the good ones” spinoff of the otherwise sinister Romulan Star Empire.
The game bends over backward to incorporate key points and callbacks from decades of Star Trek canon, both established and unofficial, and there’s nary a moment that doesn’t have some kind of canny reference to an old episode tucked in somewhere. It also mines the canon for even the most obscure material to populate its stories, proffering answers to questions that none but the most hardcore nerds would bother to ask, like what really happened to the McGuffin Captain Picard destroyed during his beach holiday, who the weird subspace aliens that kidnapped Riker and Worf in their sleep are, the fate of the hyper-evolved dinosaurs that the crew of Voyager met in a thinly-veiled parable about the creationist debate, and how all of that ties in to Enterprise’s weird “Temporal Cold War.”
Perhaps more concerning than the game’s fan-fiction leanings is its penchant for violence, though. Fans raised on the placid utopianism of Star Trek: The Next Generation may revolt at the heavily combat-centric nature of the mission design, as even relatively benign diplomatic assignments can rack up a bodycount. Star Trek Online’s vision of the 25th century is shaped in the mold of Deep Space Nine and the darker episodes of Voyager, where galactic peace is more fragile, and realpolitik more present. The Federation starts the game at war with a resurgent Klingon Empire, while the Romulans reel from the destruction of their home planet in the event that set up the J.J. Abrams-led reboot (now called the “Kelvin Timeline”). Threats both new and old also pop up to anchor various story arcs, including the Borg, Species 8472 (now called the “Undine”), and more.
All of this can be explored by players without charge (and without PlayStation Plus, if done on the PS4 version), guaranteeing roughly thirty to forty hours of fairly engaging solo play for anyone with a reasonably reliable internet connection. And there’s more to be had for people willing to make characters of different factions since their respective unique storylines have their own tone and flavor outside of the differences in ship selection and play style. Without spoiling the proceedings, let’s just say that players who’ve always wanted to invade Klingon hell to kill Klingon Satan might want to roll with the ridge-heads, for at least a few hours.
Of course, enjoying all of this delicious Trek fan service is contingent on being able to effectively engage with Star Trek Online’s gameplay. The mission design makes some honest attempts to justify and even alleviate the violent focus of the mechanics, but as mentioned earlier, the game just isn’t built to do much with a more diplomatic path, the same way the average point-and-click adventure title isn’t really “built for” blistering action scenes. Then again, there’s no other Trek-themed game on the market that features most of the canonical races, costumes, and a goodly amount of original content to boot, not to mention one that allows players to create a squad of “Bridge Officers” to accompany them on Away missions, using an obscenely detailed character creator.
That’s all dressing on top of a combat system that lives up to the missions’ many battles. Ground based combat is also present, but is more of a chaotic scrum than anything genuinely refined, though that can be fun, if taken on its own terms. Expectations of the systems should also be managed accordingly. After, all, it’s a system initially built for mouse-and-keyboard control on a PC in 2010, rather than a truly contemporary piece of design or platform-adapted philosophy. For what it’s worth, Cryptic has done an admirable job constructing a bespoke “controller-native” interface for Star Trek Online. Taking advantage of radial menus and a set of Dragon Age-like conditional variables for using powers automatically, the game translates STO’s famously “clicky” style, prioritizing directly controlling ships and selecting targets over the more remote piloting done on PC.
Being able to move a ship around using the left stick and focus on targets with the right, while using the triggers to handle weapons, feels plainly more enjoyable than doing the same with a keyboard, even if it’s technically less “efficient.” Further, the difference between various ship types is more apparent when trying to control them via a gamepad. Lumbering cruisers really feel weighty while nimble escorts zip and zoom about. The need to actually point the camera at a target in order to shoot it on the default settings also makes the combat feel more present and personal, even in space.
As for higher-level play, particularly in PVP, this more roundabout approach to control imposes a more stately pace to the space combat, where timing the activation of abilities and keeping a high “uptime” on beneficial effects can make a major difference in obtaining advantage. Knowledge of this actually gave me the upper hand in matches against opponents who were of a higher level and had presumably better gear.
If there’s one upside to the way Star Trek Online’s console versions aren’t allowing veteran PC players to take anything across the platforms, it’s that the level playing field has resulted in the nuance of the space combat being able to shine through more clearly. Six years of “power creep” and premium items on PC have invariably tilted the “meta” in favor of players with the most time to grind out the most min-maxed build possible, thoroughly annihilating players without similar levels of time to spend optimizing their builds. It remains to be seen how this will affect the console versions in the long-term, though, but rediscovering PVP play here prompts me to hope Cryptic can find a way to keep the playing field more level for more people this time around.
The interface also works well in distilling the PC version’s HUD into something that works for gamepads, though it never feels quite as smooth or “snappy” as a truly console-native game. The in-game text is also still too small, and barely readable by players sitting farther from their TVs. It’s not as convenient as the PC version’s, but it works better than many other PC-to-console port jobs I’ve played, and serves as a good base for further refinement. One oddity, though, is the absence of effective voice chat. Text chat options in the game are robust, but very, very slow, unless players opt to hook up a keyboard, or perhaps use the PlayStation mobile app as a form of text entry.
While there’s plenty of content available for prospective captains, I can’t help but see Star Trek Online on console as in something approximating beta state at the moment. This is because a few key components of the game’s economy and progression have not yet crossed the gap. Things like player-owned Fleet Starbases, gear crafting, the Duty Officer and Admiralty systems, and some other features are yet to be added to the live version of the console edition. These omissions are already on the way, according to Cryptic, but their current absence is significant for long-term players, as these systems hold access to most of the game’s best gear, ships, and economic avenues, enabling players to acquire even the expensive premium ships by spending time rather than money.
I’ve mentioned things that are missing from the console versions that are present on the PC, but if there’s one thing I wish hadn’t made it over, it’s the bugs. As far as technical states go, Star Trek Online was always more like the Galactica than the Enterprise, robust-but-creaky rather than smooth-running, and it’s disappointing to see the jank make its way over to tarnish the game in the eyes of impressionable young console users. I guess there’s only so much one can expect of a port, but I would’ve hoped some of the rough edges would be smoothed over for this edition.
And then there’s money. Like its PC version, Star Trek Online on console is a free-to-play game, supported by microtransactions. All of the missions, story content, activities, and core progress are all playable gratis. Thankfully, they’re also balanced in favor of even the cheapest misers outfitted in basic drops and mission rewards. But the good stuff — the fancy ships, the show-accurate costumes, and more options for character and ability setups — are locked behind a considerable paywall. A high-level “Tier 6” ship can cost up to $30 worth of the game’s premium “Zen” currency, and the rarest ships are hidden in random-drop lockboxes, opened with keys that cost just past a dollar each. If you’re the type of person to see any sort of monetary system as a betrayal of Federation values, then Star Trek Online is a traitor of the highest order.
The bright side of this is that it’s all theoretically available without a direct purchase. Almost everything obtainable from the lockboxes can be sold on the Auction House for in-game “Energy Credits.” Further, players can buy Zen and sell that on a special exchange for another in-game currency, “Dilithium.” Dilithium can be earned in-game through quest completion, and is used in gear crafting and upgrading, buying unique set items from the game’s reputation system, and for investing in Fleet Starbases. As with MMOs like EVE and even World of Warcraft, players that are skilled at playing the markets or farming in-game resources can make enough to pay for ships and items that would otherwise be acquired with real-world cash.
Of course, that all takes time, and with inflation, won’t be a very realistic option for all but the most dedicated grinders. Fortunately, none of that is strictly required to see all the game has to offer, and the decision to pay into Star Trek Online is really only one that will be made by players who’ve already decided to commit heavily to the game, or for super-fans of a particular ship. My personal advice is not to pay for anything until one’s reached the maximum level, at which point the story missions should be over with and the decision to really jump into Star Trek Online is made.
There’s a lot to like about Star Trek Online, even for players who aren’t hardcore Star Trek fans or crazy people like me, but it does ask to be put up with to a certain extent. As for the console versions, it’s also not all there yet, almost literally. At the same time, it’s hard to name a more overtly generous free-to-play MMO on the current market, and it’s worth a shot, for both Trek devotees and the merely Warp-curious.
[This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]