The space dust has finally settled on the Star Trek Online beta. It has been a frantic fortnight for Cryptic and players alike. About 2GB of updates have been released, the game’s appearance has drastically changed and all level caps/area restrictions have been completely removed. Unfortunately I cannot claim to have hit the level 50 cap, neither have I darted at the fringes of known space. In the 30 hours or so I ploughed into this game, I advanced to lieutenant-commander (level 18), gained access to a tier 2 science ship and had a Tribble eat most of my inventory items. I feel from this I can give a fair impression of what this frontiering MMO has to offer.
I have however realised I’ve far too much to say to cover in this one article. So, instead of a two part article, I’m planning for another two after this one (Oh christ, it’s going to turn into a saga!). Today, I will cover the basics of ship combat.
The “aerial” combat is probably the most complex and intriging aspect about STO, truly an unseen event in MMOs. Anyone who’s played a naval battle in Empire: Total War will feel instantly at home. Basically, you have weapons mounted on the fore and aft of the ship. Each one of these changeable weapons has a different firing arc, meaning you can only fire that weapon if your target is within this cone of destruction. Generally weaker weapons have a larger arc, meaning they are able to fire more often, negating their lack of DPS. Likewise the weapons that pack more of a punch have narrow arcs, meaning you must be directly facing (or running) your target ship. This is hard to explain, are you gibbering yet?
On top of this, one must consider shielding. Your (and the enemy’s) ship has one shield that is split into 4 quadrants: fore, aft, port and starboard. When a ship fires on you, your shield will sustain damage on the side facing the enemy. Your shields will recharge (quicker depending on power settings, I’ll get to that.), however you will likely sustain damage on one side faster than it is regenerating. You can direct power from one shield quandrant to the other, making the other shield weaker but reinforcing the side that is being pumelled. Your enemies are subject to the same shield model, so the most efficient way to destroy a ship is to lay massive damage to only one side of the ship, overcoming that shield quadrant and smashing into their soft hull.
As if wasn’t enough to pay attention of, during your course of becoming a captain you enlist your own bridge officers. These spunky fellows give you special abilities to use on the ground and in space. In your first ship you have one officer slot for each tactical, engineering and science. Each of their abilities are different, whenever you enlist a new officer you can see what their ship ability is and you can tailor it to your gameplay style. These abilities manifest themselves as buttons below your main taskbar, they have greatly different characteristics and cooldowns. For example, my officers on the U.S.S. Essess gave me a high yield torpedo, an enemy shield drain and emergency power to my own shields.
But wait, I nearly forgot to mention your power settings. I’m sure many fans have fantacised about turning to an obese Scotsman and shouting, “Divert all power to shields!”. Okay, maybe its just me then… Part of your ship customisation comes from the power allocation between weapons, engines, shields and auxillary stations. There are quick presets one can press in the heat of battle, or you can tinker away until satisfied. Amazingly, this adds an entire new level of strategy. Two ships could have the identical equipment and skills and one ship could come away from a scrap without a mark on it. If you have a clear mind on your strategy and stick to it (reallocating power can take up to 30seconds, leaving essential systems weak), you can walk all over ships twice your size.
To master all of these simultaneous tasks is a dark art. If you’ve read and understood all I’ve written above, you’re already halfway there. In the beginning many was the time I was overcome, my hull fizzing away until I explode like a firework. But all is not lost, if the worst should happen you will respawn. Yes you get a little countdown timer and after about 15 seconds you come back penalty free, the ships that you were attacking also have their hull/shield recharged, but you are free to go and attack them again. I know, Khan didn’t respawn, neither did Spock (no wait…), but don’t let this detract from the overall experience. In the similar veined space MMO EVE online, if your ship was destroyed, by fair means or not, it was gone! If you couldn’t afford to buy decent insurance coverage of your ship and equipment, you could lose out on a ship that took you 2 months (real time) to get. It did with me, and thats when me and EVE parted ways. I also often hark to the romanticism of realism, being able to lose everything and the things you do own have been truly earned. This idea would be appealing until you are locked in battle with a worthy foe and the server goes down. Or another player sneaks up on you and finishes you off. The core idea is romantic but the reality of that level of realism in a server full of people who’d knife their own granny isn’t worth thinking about! I don’t want to have a coffin in a torpedo tube on standby, trained on the nearest genesis planet! The advantage of the respawn system is it gets you back on your mission quickly, you can engage the same enemies with a different strategy and find out what you did wrong. You overcome the situation learning something new which will probably avoid the respawn screen again. This promotes an intimate knowledge of your ship, that massive bulk of metal develops a personality, maybe even a soul. Before long you know every nuance of your ship and tactics, I can honestly say I haven’t died since about the 10th hour (granted the update has made ship combat easier!)
In summary, I appluad Cryptic for their ship combat design, this level of depth has rarely been seen in any MMO. I can equate it to being part of a large raid group in WoW, you have to constantly observe so many different things simultaneously, and the big victories feel hard earned and satisfying. However, unlike the hundred or so hours of WoW to see this detail, it is thrust upon you in the first few hours, and in PVE comabt. When the going gets tough, there is a zen-like quality you must obtain to survive, your hands a blur on the keyboard, eyes flickering over every part of the screen, the frantic clicking and beads of sweat emrging on your furrowed brow. In a way it is exhausting, after an hour of hard battle you yearn for some respite so you can reconfigure your ship and crunch those stats. But, I’d prefer it this way rather than the usual MMO trope of approaching an enemy and hitting the same 5 buttons in sequence.