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Star Trek Online is the latest big-name MMO to compete for your monthly gaming dollar. Launched with incredible fanfare, including an unprecedented number of pre-order incentives and several special editions, the game's instant popularity has resulted in a mad scramble to increase server capacity over at Cryptic.
Does STO live up to the hype? Our full review breaks down all the pros and cons.
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The Story of Star Trek Online
STO takes place approximately 30 years after the events of Star Trek: Nemesis. Players exist in the Prime universe, rather than the alternate timeline introduced in Abrams' 2009 movie. Romulus has been destroyed, the Federation is once again at war with the Klingon Empire, and a resurrected Data is captain of the Enterprise-E.
The Federation faces multiple threats aside from renewed hostilities with the Klingons. The Borg have continued their advance into the alpha quadrant, Empress Sela (the half-Romulan daughter of Tasha Yar) leads what's left of the Romulan Empire, and the shapeshifting Undine have been discovered meddling in galactic politics.
Most of the characters fans of the series know and love are gone, but their descendants and influence are visible throughout the galaxy. I've battled alongside the U.S.S. Kirk and McCoy, received missions from the grandson of Hikaru Sulu, and fended off Klingon ground forces alongside Miral Paris.
I was skeptical at first of the choice to resurrect the Klingon conflict, but I came to see how it evolved organically following the destruction of Romulus and the developers have done a great job of making it a plausible way of introducing a second faction.
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A Game for Star Trek Fans
For fans of the various Star Trek film and TV series, Star Trek Online is a virtual love letter. The developers at Cryptic are either huge Trekkies or they did some very serious research into the universe's history before they made the game. Practically every class of ship ever seen or mentioned in the series appears in the game.
Numerous nods to the lore exist in the game, even tiny references only recognizable to the most rabid of Star Trek fans. Many people may recognize something as high-profile as the Briar Patch and the Riker Maneuver from Star Trek: Insurrection, but how many people remember the beverage Tranya from the Original Series episode "The Corbomite Maneuver?"
Players can do battle with The Next Generation's infamous Crystalline Entity, investigate Gorgons from the TOS episode "And the Children Shall Lead," and visit the Klingon prison planet of Rura Penthe.
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Yes, story is great and treating and existing property like Star Trek properly is important, but none of that matters if the game isn't fun as well. The combat in STO isn't wholly original, but it has enough fun aspects to make the game enjoyable, for the most part.
Space combat is truly the highlight of the game. Battles are a constant strategic fight for positioning, keeping your strongest shields toward your adversary while simultaneously aiming your weapons at his weakest is an enjoyable challenge in most cases (fans of the Star Fleet Command series or Star Trek: Legacy will feel right at home here). Ships are upgradable with different categories of loot (weapons, science consoles, engines, shields, etc...), giving the game that addictive, constantly searching for upgrades quality that keeps people coming back to games like Borderlands and WoW.
Working your way through the various ship classes is also an excellent motivation to keep leveling. Every 10 levels, players get access to a whole new tier of ships, and have their choice between three types (Science, Escort, and Cruiser), each with a unique combat role to fulfill. Some ships are instantly recognizable (Galaxy-Class Cruisers, for example), while others are new designs created specifically for the game.
Page two has more, including ground combat, instancing, and our final verdict on the game.
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Ground combat is far less compelling, unfortunately. You're fairly limited, having only a few special abilities to use yourself and one each for the members of your away team. Most fights are not terribly difficult, especially when you have four officers at your side, and while there are tactics to liven things up (get behind an enemy for a flanking bonus, for example), ground combat is generally pretty flat. Fortunately, it's only about 20% of the game.
I realize that combat is something that is necessary in an MMO, regardless of the source material, but I still find it ironic that I killed more Klingons and Gorn in the first ten levels than have died in fifty years of Star Trek movies and TV series.
You'll spend most of your time leveling up your space combat skills and buying upgrades for your ship both because the space combat is so much more fun, and because you end up fighting in space far more often.
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It's no secret that Cryptic is a fan of instancing in their games. There is no large overworld where you are likely to run into all kinds of new friends. All missions are in instanced encounters, so while you don't have to worry about randoms coming along and killing your quest mobs, you also don't have the advantage of being bailed out of a particularly tough fight by a benevolent high-level passerby.
The "open team" system is an awesome aspect, players on the same mission automatically enter your zone and team with you if you so desire, but the prevalence of instanced encounters still makes for a lonely experience compared to other MMOs. For some, this is an overwhelmingly positive thing. For others, it's a deal breaker.
There are weird inconsistencies in the instancing code that I'm hoping will change sometime soon. Instead of lumping everyone into a single zone for fleet actions, for example, it instead chooses to shuffle people off into separate zones, leaving barely enough people in each to complete the mission. It would make more sense (and be more enjoyable) to fill one before opening another.
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Customization has always been a hallmark of Cryptic's games, and STO is no exception. From the beginning, you are given a huge number of options when creating your character. You can customize a member of an existing race or create your own entirely new alien species with the game's insanely diverse creature creator.
Once you're playing, you can customize each ship to your liking, choosing from a small pool of options specific to your class of ship. You can change the name of your ship, give it a new designation, change the design of the windows, and even alter the material from which it is made. Nacelles, saucers, and hulls can be swapped out, allowing each captain to create a unique vessel that still conforms to the conventions of the Star Trek universe.
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The Bottom Line
Star Trek Online is game made by Star Trek fans for Star Trek fans. If you have always dreamed of boldly going where no one has gone before, you will find a lot to love in this game. It's not perfect, space combat shines while ground combat stumbles and instancing creates some unique challenges for social players, but there is a lot to love in this game.
It's no where near as complex as other space MMOs like Eve Online, but for a more casual player who is just looking to spend some time exploring, fighting, and customizing their ship, Star Trek Online has a lot to offer.