Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Star Trek: Online and Free 2 Play

STO is a MMO title that has been out for a couple of years now. Developed by Cryptic, the game went free to play last week. Cryptic itself is as much part of the game's story. Recently acquired by Perfect World, a Chinese based MMO developer, Cryptic owns the Star Trek IP as well as 3 super hero titles, City of Heroes, City of Villians, and Champions Online. The first 2 titles are nearly defunct and Champions Online remains essentially static with only a trickle of new content. But after playing STO the last week I can see where all the time and attention has gone.

STO is pretty good for what it has been through. Who could live up to the expectations of the Star Trek fanbase? What lunatic would put themselves in the line of fire to such a history? There are surely detractors, but for me STO captures a good flavour of the cannon and also complements the world with its new story-lines.

Every race is represented from all series'. Yet they all weave together pretty seamlessly. Not every race is playable, but all the iconic races are. Each player gets to select and customize a personal avatar which is used for "away missions". However, costume choices (for free) are severely limited. 90% of the costume options require some payment to unlock them. Each "captain" will ultimately have a 4 man away team which can also use all the customization options paid for. Each can have different gear equipped which also alters appearance (unlike Champions Online).

There are essentially only 3 ship types which correspond to the 3 character types--Science Team, Tactical Team, and Engineering Team. These match up with Research vessels, Escorts, and Cruisers respectively. These ships are given some variability based on rank with "light" ships at the bottom and "advanced" ships at the top of the 6 tiers. Ships you pay for have slight advantages over ships you are awarded for free. This roughly translates to 36 standard ship choices not counting "shuttles" and other vanity ships. 18 are free and 18 require payment.

Ship combat is nicely done. The tactics are complicated enough to give players options. No one ship or configuration will excel in all situations. Your flight tactics have a dramatic impact on combat effectiveness. One must manage speed, shields, weapons, and other special abilities. This provides a wide range of combinations and caters to a number of playing styles. Really well done by the Cryptic team.

Away team combat is a bit more automated as each team member is essentially controlled by the computer AI. It is still a lot of fun, but requires a lot less dexterity.

The crafting system is simple although it does take a large number of parts which all look very similar. There is a bank slot system, but you do have to have the parts in your "bag" in order to craft. I was disappointed at this feature as Champions Online crafting automatically uses items from your bank saving you from having to run back and forth pointlessly. But on the plus side it appears you can craft anything you can find or buy. In most MMO's I've played it seems crafting items is usually pointless as you can usually find or buy better items. I like knowing that I really can save up and build the exact part I like w/o immediately finding a better drop.

The skill system is a bit abstract. Each skill is explained and you can clearly see where you've spend ranks, but I could never spot dramatic differences in performance even after increasing ranks by +6 levels or more at once. I'm sure they are doing something, but it is hard to see.

In many cases you have more skill than you can use. Every power/ship/item is limited by your rank. For example, a Lt. Commander can't use level 5 Phaser banks until promoted to full Commander. Even though that ship weapon could be fitted to your ships. At least in my case, I had the resources, crafting skill, support skills, and the desire to use better modules/powers long before I had the rank to use them. This is a balancing hack, which I can understand, but just feels arbitrarily limiting--something game suffers from in many areas. There is no option to pay a lump sum for access to "most" of the content. So every customization confronts the player with options that have to be purchased. Purchased ships have more powerful options than free ships. I'm sure there are more examples. I suppose the upside is you can get exactly what you want without buying stuff you don't want, but it is perhaps too much reality in my fantasy game.

In the final analysis, I give STO two thumbs up. It is a great game at list price, it is a crazy good game for free!

Game On!