Star Trek Online review
So I've passed the halfway mark, level-wise, on STO, and I figure I'd write down some of my thoughts on the game so far. This makes the... 3rd? online MMO I've played (4th if you count Gaia Online's zOMG, I guess), so some comparisons with Perfect World International and Guild Wars are probably inevitable.
Also, I feel we need to note that Cryptic Studios, which makes STO, was bought by Perfect World Entertainment, which changed the business model of the game from subscription to free-to-play early this year.
And also note - while the game has PvP (mostly Fed. vs Klingons), I don't play PvP, so this review is focused exclusively on the PvE stuff. It helps that the game is designed primarily for PvE with PvP being the "afterthought"... (kinda the opposite of GW:Prophecies).
First, a rundown of how the game works overall:
STO has a level cap of 50, with several ranks made up of 10 levels each - level 0 Ensign (aka the tutorial level), lvl 1-9 Lt., lvl 10-19 Lt. Cmdr., lvl 20-29 Cmdr, lvl 30-39 Capt., lvl 40-49 Rear Admiral (Lower and Upper Half...really? Who comes up with this? o_O), and lvl 50 Vice Admiral. You command a ship, and you get to upgrade that ship, to ever bigger and buffer ones, with every rank... Of course, this also means you have a big playerbase of Admirals running around on top of the line ships, which breaks all kinds of in-universe storytelling, I'm sure. I tend to agree with some of the online forum-goers. It would make more sense to have the rank structure end with Captain and find some other ways to display/reward the last 10 levels. (In my own opinion, maybe tutorial should start with lvl 0 Cadet, and then the first 9 levels would be Ensign, and so forth...but I guess having an ensign command a ship is also kinda wierd. *shrug*)
The gameplay is a mix of space combat and ground combat. My research on the wiki, forums, and reviews beforehand gave me the impression that the split was something like 70% space and 30% ground. My actual impressions so far has been 55%-45%. But then again, I've only gone through one set of missions (out of, like, six) and I haven't done a lot of Fleet Action (multiplayer) missions, so I guess the endgame could be different. Space combat consists of your ship going around and beating the snot out of other ships, and occasionally chasing down stellar objects/anomalies and scanning them. Ground combat, similarly, is mostly going around and shooting things, and occasionally interacting with objects/NPCs. For ground combat away teams, you also have a team of officers (*cough*redshirts*cough*) tagging along - somewhere in between the hench and hero system of GW1, but with less brains for the AI. :P
Mission structure so far has been pretty impressive - not just in terms of mechanics, though that's been getting better as I get more skills to use - but in the presentation. I say this as a Trek fan. So far a lot of the stories have been pretty faithful to the universe that the game takes place in. I can pretty much agree that these stories could indeed have taken place in an episode of post-TNG/DS9/VOY/movies Star Trek, and it's pretty clear that the designers have taken a lot of care to make their storytelling authentic. It hits all of my nostalgia buttons, that's for sure.
Classes... well, there are 3 (Tactical, Engineering, Science), which is the fewest of any multiplayer game I've played. It is faithful to the franchise, however, so I can't complain. Also, while each class has a "preferred" ship-class, there's nothing to stop you from playing a ship of another class, which is nice, if non-optimal. As for the roles... from what I've been able to tell - Tactical is DPS and espionage/stealth, Engineering is tanking and support (summon drone!), Science is healing/buffing/debuffing/pulling weird crap (Deus Ex Machinas - very appropriate of Trek!) out of their sleeves.
Races... pretty much anything that's been even tangentially mentioned in the Trek universe (TV, movies, books, and other esoteric sources) is fair game. Certainly it's got the largest race selection I've seen (with various preset traits). And of course there's also the handy alien race custom creation feature that lets you make your own funny-forehead-alien of the week for your race, complete with pick your own traits.
* Storytelling goes at the very top here, I have to say. It's pretty much everything Guild Wars storytelling isn't (zOMG & PWI never had any story that I could tell), AND it's pretty faithful to the background material to satisfy one of the most rabid fanbases where it comes to continuity. That speaks pretty highly of a dev base of people who are probably Trek fans themselves, and are able to bring a passion of the genre into the game.
* Mission rewards scale to level! As does the mission difficulty itself, apparently. There are some great rewards in the first set of missions, especially a rare ship shield array and a rare personal shield. After you level up a rank or two, however, the numbers on the gear aren't so extra special anymore, but you can always replay the mission for a level appropriate version of the reward. I don't think I've seen this mechanic in any other game I've played so far and I love it! Makes getting certain pieces of gear a tad bit easier when leveling up. (On the other hand, I do have to wonder how the fact that the mission difficulty also scales to your level works if you play with another person... but most of STO seems to be geared toward single-player play in a multiplayer setting, even more so than GW; personally I prefer to play in single-player mode, so it doesn't matter as much to me.)
* Hail Starfleet! - missions/quests can be picked up and turned in from anywhere. That's right, there's no having to look on on the wiki where each level appropriate quest giver is located, then run all the way to that location, then run all the way to somewhere else to do the quest, and then run all the way to the quest guy to turn it in. PWI is horrible at this. GW is slightly better with free instant travel to outposts and now Embark Beach, but many Prophecies and some EOTN quests are also pretty bad, and I hate having to travel to Tyria/Elona with a group of 8 b/c I can't use the ship to Lion's Arch/Kamadan without dropping some heroes. With STO, you just click a button to get a list of all the available quests for your level, check what the rewards are, acquire the quest, and when you're done, turn it in. There are a couple of things you do need to return to Earth for (eg. when you rank up and need to get a new ship, and some of the SF Academy stuff) but it does keep the unnecessary running around to a minimum.
* Ship & character customization is also pretty good. All of the ships that we've seen in the shows are available - for free! (Pics here) Ok, some of the escort type ships are kinda WTH in the design, but that's what you expect from military boats out of the Starfleet that brought us the Defiant. *rimshot* :P You can also customize each part of your ship with the various options of that ship-type (eg. Soverign-class saucer, Noble-class nacelles, Majestic-class pylon/hull, etc.) Character customization, while not having as much pretteh-ness as PWI for the humanoid races, does offer a huge variety of alien features such that you can pretty much design/replicate any of the funny-forehead/neck-aliens of Trek fame. I went with Vulcan on my char cuz...well, Vulcan. But it's nice to know the options are there when it comes to making my own Trek-style alien.
* Capt. Data of the Enterprise-E! OK, we don't actually see either him or the Enterprise anywhere in the game (I guess they couldn't afford the royalty on that), but this tidbit in the backstory of the STO universe has my personal seal of approval. Just don't mess it up by destroying the ship when the planned launch of the Odyssey-class Ent-F comes out, Cryptic! (My personal head-cannon is that they decommissioned the Ent-E, stuck it in a museum, and gave Data command of the Ent-F. :P)
The Hit and Miss:
* Player-created missions, aka the Foundry...the missions found here are in themselves hit and miss, I guess. I've played four so far, steering more toward the storytelling missions than combat oriented ones. Two were average. One was really buggy and I wasted an hour before quitting in frustration. And one could have been written into a great episode of TNG because of the way it manages generate post-mission introspection and Serious Thoughts (TM). (FYI that mission was Polmar Ree one.) On the other, other, hand, the rewards for these player-based missions are rather low for the time investment. It's just something to do in the endgame when you're not as hard up for material rewards, I guess.
* Crafting/EQ system - while definitely less grindy and complicated than PWI's, I'm not sure if it can be said to be better than GW's. While you don't need to keep track of as many different types of raw materials (thus saving on inventory slots), and it hasn't gotten grindy yet for me, I can see the potential of grind involved in the higher levels (unless you pay RL$$ to bypass it). On the other hand, you do get some decent gear from quests, so not as many items need to be grinded for... Jury is still out on this, I guess.
* Duty Officer system - while the default set you start with offer some pretty decent rewards for lower level, especially for crafting purposes...at about the level you hit Captain, I'm not sure the rewards they give mean much in the larger picture of things. Or maybe I just haven't figured out what they're used for from a metagame perspective, I guess. *shrugs*
* Online resources - specifically the STO wiki, unless there's some other better supplemental resource for the game that I'm not aware of. Now, I'm aware that the game is fairly young compared to GW/PWI, and there have been a few overhauls or whatnot. But there are parts of the wiki that's woefully out of date or incomplete. And what stuff there is gives woefully little explanation of the actual features and mainly just parrots what's said in the game. Maybe I'm just spoiled by the GW wikis, which has an entry for pretty much everything plus strategy suggestions and statistical analysis...but honestly, I expected better out of the ST fandom. If I have to supplement my research with google search on the STO forums, you're doing it wrong! ......On the other hand, it is certainly more helpful to have than not having it at all. And it's a good reference for basic crafting needs, floorplans of major bases/outposts, and so forth... so it's not totally useless.
* Henchmen Away team AI... I don't know if they're idiots or idiot savants. On the one hand they seem to leap past obstacles that I keep getting stuck behind. On the other hand, they sometimes get stuck running down a straight corridor and out a door. They certainly provide much better DPS that I can aim and shoot with, but they're kinda brainless at using consumable gear. I dunno. They get me by the missions and in the end that's all I really need, I guess.
* Cash shop prices - I guess cash shops prices are pretty jacked up in any MMO. GW and PWI aren't necessarily any better at this. The $$ you're expected to shell out for a special ship model is pretty out there. The only bright side is, I think, the purchased ships are unlocked per account (more like GW costumes than all PWI stuff). But then you only get 2-3 character slots unless you buy more (with RL $$) so...yeah.
* Rear Admiral, Lower Half. I mean, really? I'm not sure if this is supposed to be a joke or some kind of motivation to get through the last 10 levels, or something...
* Bugs & glitches - Probably the most annoying thing about the game. Of everything I've played so far, this is the only one I've actually come across glitches that have interrupted gameplay. Sometimes I've been able to limp on despite the bug; many times I've had to restart from the last save point; and quite a few times I've had to just drop the mission entirely because it was unsalvagable. I've come across these bugs on the frequency of maybe 3-5 times so far, and that's still 3-5 times too many for a game that's over a year old by now and used to be a subscription game. Sure, other games had its bugs, but most are not usually evident from casual play (eg. skill mechanics doing wrong # damage, prices being mislabeled, etc.)...and always they're fixed pretty quickly after they're found (at least for GW, haven't really followed PWI on the forums to tell there). Hell, MUD usually fixes actual game-breaking bugs faster than that... =/
* NPC "performances" in cut-scenes... Not a big thing, overall, but it's something that pops into mind immediately due to how much it stands out. Whoever choreographed the cutscenes did a pretty bad job, because all the NPCs in it are gesticulating all over the damn place, and often at complete odds with the vocal tones/cues. It looks like these people are having fits all the time. Also, there's no way to skip cut-scenes, so you're kinda stuck there watching the puppets flail around. It might be hilarious the first time, and then it gets old, really fast. It's unfortunate, because it can seriously jar you out of a great story otherwise.
* "Hidden" features - there are some stuff that takes not just wiki search but also a google search of the forums, and is still difficult to figure how. How to visit your ship's bridge for one. How to sit down in a damn chair, for another. (Also, how to make the emotes that the wiki claims is there work, since I've not found the elusive "emote panel" so far and none of the /emote commands have worked for me.)
* Downtimes - STO has downtimes more often than anything I've played so far...like almost every other day. And why do they like to start at midnight PST? Who goes to bed at midnight?! *grr*
* Empress Sela of the Romulan Empire....??!! Die! Die! Kill it with Fire!! ...Not sure if I should be blaming STO for this bit of background or if the blame should fall on Paramount or whatever. I hated Sela as a villain on TNG and I hate her even more now. Also, not a fan of the Remans, but that unfortunate bit of canon should be laid at the feet of ST:Nemesis and not the game.
In Summary: Great big authenticity stamp with regards to the franchise. Wonderful storytelling and promising RP potential. Some unique mechanics and stuff. Not much of a multiplayer game, but that's not a big issue for people like me who prefer to play in single-player mode. Still a little rough around the edges, but I'm giving it the benefit of the doubt due to its relatively "young" age.