Going Picard in Star Trek Online

Captain Winky of the USS Close Shave

Trekkies are eagerly awaiting the release of Cryptic’s Star Trek Online next month, the new MMORPG that hopes to be the Star Fleet version of World of Warcraft. The open beta starts tomorrow, whilst the closed beta has been going for the last month. I’ve had a brief chance to dip my toes in the beta, and see what hope Star Trek Online has in the crowded MMO scene.

Developer’s Cryptic Studios have a history of reasonable online games. Their flagship title City of Heroes was solid, but like almost every other MMO it was overshadowed by World of Warcraft. Their more recent Champions Online has had a mixed reception – originally intended to be Marvel Universe Online, it was reshaped and turned into a seemingly rather average superhero MMO.

The Star Trek license is a bit of a mixed blessing for an MMORPG. Originally, Perpetual Entertainment were developing Star Trek Online, until going bankrupt in 2008 and handing over the license and art assets (but not the code) to Cryptic. Then there’s the whole issue of everyone wanting to be Kirk, Spock or Riker (probably not Picard or Janeway though).

So, now that it’s all finished (or as finished as a constantly-in-development MMO can be), does it do the name proud?

Well, erm. The game is split in two, between ship-based space sections and on-foot ground sections, making it a game of two halfs. Unfortunately, the on-foot sections could be accurately described as a load of pish, playing much like any other MMO (with phasers replacing fireballs), but with terrible animation, clunky movement, and a general sense of despair. On the bright side, you do get to create your own character (choosing from 10 races or creating your own race) and give them a pointless backstory. The on-foot sections also serve to move the story forward, which would be nice if it wasn’t for the dull, static text presentation. For a license that’s all about story and intergalactic diplomatic relations, Star Trek Online only really manages to convey the boredom of reading through a convection oven manual, which in a sense is at least in keeping with Star Fleet protocol.

Star Trek OnlineIt’s not a total cock-up though. The ship sections are a completely different game. You get to steer your own U.S.S. Enterprise-alike through the vast emptiness of space, coming into contact with enemy ships such as the Borg and cheekily firing your phasers at them. It all plays quite nicely, although it could quite frankly be played as a single player game without losing much…

Now admittedly, I haven’t spent a great deal of time with Star Trek Online yet, so my opinions may change over the coming weeks if I can bare to stick with it, but aside from the clunkiness of the characters, the thing that struck me was the entire lack of “MMO”. At no point do you really feel part of a large online game, chatting with friends and discovering a vast unfolding online world. The space sections feel a bit disconnected, a lot of time is spent interacting with AI characters, and at times it feels like clicking through a series of events rather than truly being in control of your character and their progress.

It’s all a little bit disappointing. I can even admit to being a fan of both the MMO genre and Star Trek, having spent way too many years playing games such as World of Warcraft and having a bit of a thing for DS9. There’s so much potential in a license such as Star Trek, that to see if fall short is painful. Worse still, Star Trek Online has actually fallen quite far short, lacking even half the polish of a five year old game such as World of Warcraft.

Whether Cryptic will substantially improve Star Trek Online after release remains to be seen. They certainly have a willing audience of fans who’d happily support them if they put in the effort. With Bioware’s Star Wars: The Old Republic MMO just over the horizon though, and already looking very impressive, Star Trek Online may just be a brief sidenote in MMO history. Bit of a shame, that.