For me, Star Trek has always remained an afterthought when it comes to well-known franchises in the sci-fi space. But, ever the opportunist, it’s taken a free-to-play online role-playing game for me to dive into the world of Star Trek, and to see how uncovering uncharted planets and battling through intense space battles could translate into a large-scale video game.
As a complete beginner to the Star Trek universe, there is a lot of lore to digest. But Star Trek Online’s overbearing use of the license makes it far too difficult for a newcomer like me to keep up with and process landmark events, race alliances and other information of interest. I would’ve loved a small introductory description of where Star Trek Online falls within the series’ timeline as well as mentioning any potential powerbrokers within the galaxy – instead of jumping in with a raft of unanswered questions.
Star Trek Online begins with your race selection, and an impressively extensive character creator. The Klingon Empire, United Federation (represented by Starfleet) and Romulan Republic are your factions of choice – each with their own set of passive benefits – along with a roster of alien and human races within those factions. The character customisation system is packed with sliders for virtually every facet of your facial features and muscle definition. Players can also pen their own biography, that can be viewed by every player you encounter throughout the game, which is a nice touch.
Character creation ultimately decides your starting location in the Star Trek universe as well as the corresponding story within the game. There are around 12 story Arcs in Star Trek Online and deal with planetary exploration, combat and racial negotiation revolving around your race of choice. My character began his Starfleet career quite abruptly, and rose from a mere Cadet to Acting Lieutenant through scripted and extremely fortuitous circumstances. While this took a lot of satisfaction away from genuinely progressing through these early stages, it did an admirable job of presenting the necessary tutorials to help me make the most of my character’s time at the helm.
Star Trek Online blends both space and ground combat, with one gameplay option possessing more problems than the other. One of its joys is seeing your ship in flight and, against the odds, dispatching enemy vessels. Amongst gigantic purple nebulas, massive gas planets and multi-coloured explosions, with beams of light tailing your ship, Star Trek Online makes for quite a beautiful game; this is where it shines. Whilst in space combat, players can manage their chosen weapons systems and shield abilities through in-game radial menus – similar to something like Mass Effect. A larger ship equals heavier steering and manoeuvring, while dodging enemy fire comes with stress – thanks to a HUD diagram showing overall shield loss and remaining hull integrity on all four sides.
A huge free-roam area exists within Star Trek Online and connects all four Quadrants of its universe. This might seem epic, and unlock your inner-explorer, but navigating this massive map is painfully slow and turns into an awkward exercise. Players can manually fly to an objective or plot a course for an autopilot to take effect. It takes several minutes to travel from Point A to Point B in the same quadrant – which isn’t a problem at first – but the main issue is the sheer lack of activity within the universe between the two points. Apart from the odd Space Encounters that unlock at Level 10, where a group of players take on an AI fleet, you casually cruise to a your target with nothing noteworthy to speak of. In this instance, players should either fear free-roam sections, or Cryptic should implement a quicker mode of travel; more AI random events or a more inter-connected warp system needs to happen. Especially the latter, as I’ve only unlocked one fast travel station leading to the Sol system – the location of Earth – and it takes the buzz out of beaming down to a new planet.
Unfortunately, Star Trek Online is at its worst when it comes to ground combat. These sections conclude most story missions and are packed with bugs and glitches that quickly diminish your enjoyment. As a complete package, the third-person shooting and running animations are satisfactory at best: pressing the left trigger auto-aims to a target but locks the reticle in place – making the right stick redundant; the combat roll triggers after getting struck by objects, like large boulders; mission objectives occasionally fail to update. I could not find an option on console to customise my squad commands – placing them in groups of two or ordering them behind cover, for instance – which is a fundamental part of squad-based combat. The list could go on, but I think you get it – stuff needs to be fixed.
It isn’t helped by the one-dimensional nature of a large proportion of quests, either. I spent a lot of time being glued to the Story Arcs because side quests were simply non-existent or very hard to come by; there were no quest terminals to speak of. This makes Star Trek Online seem like more of a grind-fest than anything else, and the lack of variation puts a definite dampener on the gameplay.
Throughout your travels in Star Trek Online, you’ll soon realise that success revolves around building the right team and outfitting your ship to match it. You’ll gain a Space point every level, a Ground point every five levels, two news Traits every tenth level, and are rewarded with a new ship every tenth level until you reach 40 – so there are lots of carrots along the way to keep you playing. Your character can either major in Engineering, Science or Tactical knowledge with Trait and Skill trees to complement their chosen proficiency. Along with these are the Space and Ground perks for your chosen crew members – referred to as ‘Bridge Officers’. All perks are available in a three-tiered system and can be unlocked the more you use a particular Bridge Officer. Or, alternatively, they can be purchased via Training Manuals from a Requisitions Training Officer at Earth’s Spacedock. These perks, with seemingly minute bonuses, all add up when it comes increasing things like shield regeneration or torpedo damage.
It’s also important to promote your active Bridge Officers every chance you get. All combat items are awarded a Roman numerical rank and every promotion your character or Bridge Officers earn unlocks a more advanced tier of weapons and personal shields. Also, Bridge Officers will unlock rank-specific perks the more frequently they’re stationed on your ship or used for ground assaults (also called the “Away Team”).
Early on, I found it quite difficult to upgrade my team skillsets and ship loadouts using the immediate in-game currency, Energy Credits. A small but steady stream of Credits are obtained after each mission that slowly adds up in spite of new warp cores or that new twin beam array being just out of reach; everything seemed insanely expensive and gave me no confidence about properly outfitting my team. It’s a surprisingly hard slog and, when the time came, choosing an item became key, as it immediately loses half its value once purchased. Saving your credits and immediately selling items you and your team don’t need is all part of building a rock-solid vessel and assault team, but don’t be surprised long it takes to reach a five-figure balance.
There’s also a sought after mineral, Dimeritium Ore, and microtransaction currency, called Zen, at play within Star Trek Online. Players can collect a set amount of Dilithium per day – one of the rewards given from story missions – and adds another dimension to purchasing upgrades and even other ships. I found that Zen mostly unlocks cosmetic items like armour sets and non-essential ship customisation options – so it isn’t a necessary investment.
At first, I found most aspects of Star Trek Online’s micro-management to be super-intimidating. Figuring out which weapons did kinetic damage, what phasers actually were, as well as what skills to choose were initially hard choices. The lack of an in-game help guide – something as simple as a glossary – confirms that Star Trek Online refuses to hold your hand when it comes to looking after newcomers like myself. Having just reached Level 20, some of the technical lingo still eludes me.
An important footnote is the content missing from the PC version of the game, which has held its own since 2010. Absent content includes the ability to appoint Duty Officers to send on diplomatic missions, for instance; the Reputation System, unlocked at Level 50 and allows players to gain favour with particular factions within the Star Trek universe; an Admiralty System that substitutes your Duty Officers for Ships.
Star Trek Online is a long way from perfect but, among the sub-par ground combat and mundane use of extended flight voyages, there is also something captivating about it. In spite of its scale, the graphics do an okay job of pulling you through each adventure with a little bit more enthusiasm than when you started – which is hard for an MMO to accomplish. The game has an extensive list of issues that still need to be ironed out, but it’s free price point makes it worth a shot – for both Star Trek veterans and newcomers alike.
Star Trek Online is in need of several technical patches and content boosts, but does what it sets out to do.