STO: These are the voyages of the Black River

black1Yesterday I splurged my game time mostly on Star Trek Online.  I couldn’t help it — I was in the middle of a series of really fun missions (the Guardian of Forever one for starters) and on the verge of leveling up.  I hit commander (level 20) quickly, and not only got a new starship (the Stony Point) but the “Yesterday’s Enterprise” tie-in mission that I remember quite well from back in the day.

Despite Denise Crosby’s vocal recording of Tasha Yar sounding old and stilted, it’s still a great mission.  It’s a great call-back to the famous episode while still being its own story.  Probably my favorite moment was crawling around in the maintenance ducts and talking to an “elder tribble” while high on gas.  Plus, you end up getting to pilot the Enterprise-C for a final climactic battle, which is all kinds of awesome.

Even though I just got a new starship, this mission rewards you with an Ambassador class starship, which I instantly switched to for my main as a commander.  I’ve been plotting out what ships I’m going to be needing for upcoming ranks and I think I have it figured out:

  • Commander: My current Ambassador starship, the Black River
  • Captain: Free requisition, might try out a tactical escort for the fun of it.  Never done escorts before.
  • Rear admiral, lower half: I have a Mirror Universe ship sitting in my account bank, so I guess I’ll be using that.  My old character also had the Ambassador retrofit, but that was bound to character, not account, so I’m out of luck there.
  • Delta Rising: If I’m still playing once I get to 50, I’ll probably just buy a tier 6 ship.

black2I was all excited to take my new ship out on a test drive, so naturally the game grounded me for a long series of planetary missions on Nimbus 3 (also known as that craphole planet from Star Trek V and why oh why is this game trying to remind us that Star Trek V was a thing?).  The Nimbus missions are new to me, and while I’m not usually one for desert romps, they were sufficiently interesting.  An ex-Borg bar owner?  Huh.  There even was a dance competition in there.

The big climax of these missions involved storming a fortress, letting prisoners go free, and then being put into the middle of an arena because science fiction can’t go two days without placing heroes in a gladiator arena for some reason.  I wasn’t hating the ground combat, but I really was missing my ship after a while.  Finally, we did go space-born for a bit and I enjoyed the vastly increased killing power that the Ambassador sports.

In defense of Star Trek Online’s ground game

groundAlong with the now-broken “odd Star Trek movies suck, even ones are classic” trope, there’s the well-worn “space combat in Star Trek Online is pretty groovy, but the ground combat is the pits.”

It’s an accusation that had more credibility in the earlier days of STO, to be sure.  It wasn’t that engaging and — I recall with vivid clarity — the fights would go on and on and on as if both sides were attempting to subdue each other with vigorous slaps of wet noodles.  But somewhere along the way, the ground game improved.  Fights got shorter and more dynamic, a pseudo-FPS option was presented, and the NPCs got… well, less buggy and glitchy than before.  On top of that, I can think of six important testimonies that can be said in favor of STO’s ground game, so here we go!

1. Solo squad combat is a rarity in MMOs

Getting to command an entire NPC team into battle isn’t something that you see a lot of in MMOs.  Atlantica Online, Guild Wars 1 (with heroes), and… I’m sure there must be one or two more examples, but my point is that they aren’t terribly frequent.  And yet it’s not only fun to have a whole team at your back, but it shares a strong common link to single-player RPGs, where leading a party by yourself was usually the norm.

I like it.  It’s cool knowing that I’m packing a lot of firepower and that if I go down, there’s a good chance one of my virtual teammates could revive me.  Plus, it looks so much more exciting to be in the middle of a 5v5 battle than a 1v3 one.

2. Miniguns are teh bomb

There are a lot of cool ground weapons in STO, but for my money nothing beats the output and look of a good minigun.  It almost feels like cheating to spray the field of battle with one of these.  If only there was an episode where Captain Picard gave up his preference for those wimpy wrist phasers and brought one of these bad boys to a fight.

3. It’s great to see your avatar and your bridge crew in action

Spaceships are all well and good, but they come with some drawbacks, especially when it comes to connecting with the player.  We simply identify better with humanoid avatars than machines and vehicles.  Plus, in STO we are swapping out starships pretty regularly before the endgame.

I like seeing the guy I spent a half-hour fine-tuning during character creation and his bridge crew.  One of the little things I’ve been appreciating during the missions is how little helpful snippets of bridge crew dialogue will pop in from the left side of the screen — not obstructing anything, but a good reminder that these are supposedly real characters instead of silent meat shields.

4. It helps to give a balance to mission pacing

If Star Trek Online was 100% set in space, let’s face it, it would get boring pretty quickly.  Listen, I love the space battles, but if it was just that and little else, I would feel claustrophobic.  I really appreciate how the game breaks up missions into a somewhat predictable pattern — space section, ground section, space section.  The variety helps keep both parts feeling fresh.

5. It’s not just about combat

Plus, the ground game isn’t solely about fighting.  Star Trek Online may not be up to The Secret World investigation mission standards, but there are several surprisingly trickly and thoughtful missions that require thinking, deduction, and puzzle solving.  The other day I was doing that mission where you’re on a space station in the past, trying to get a part for Scotty.  That required me to order a specific nerve tonic for one of the NPCs, and to do that I had to grill Scotty about drinks she had ordered in the past and figure out what combination might work today.  It was a little silly but also something that woke up my brain instead of spamming “1” over and over.

6. The locales are more varied than most of the space zones

STO does all it can to keep its space zones looking interesting, but let’s face it: They are a lot of empty space with pretty backdrops and objects floating around.  The ground zones have a visual advantage, offering a lot more variety and visual density.  We get to visit space stations and planets and labs and abandoned tunnels and the like.  It helps to reinforce the notion that you’re actually going to very different places and exploring the wide galaxy.

STO: Deep into the black and blue

s1The only game I played during this past weekend at PAX was Star Trek Online.  It wasn’t just that I had an urge to go back to it, but that it played well with the hotel’s slow wifi and Cryptic was giving out a few free goodies over the weekend.

Instead of returning to my maxed-out carrier, I rolled up a new captain.  And instead of going for the female character that I usually pick, I created an old, craggy guy who may or may not have been influenced by Edward James Olmos from Battlestar Galactica.  Well, the concept at least.  I like thinking of him as pretty disillusioned of the shiny Starfleet philosophy, skewing more to a practical, cynical command.

While I wasn’t overly thrilled at having the basic starter ship again, I did want to work my way up to a different type of endgame vessel.  Fortunately, I guess somewhere along the line I got a couple of other starter ships, including one from Neverwinter of all places, so that made the first ten levels breeze by.

You know what’s one little thing that I really like about STO?  That the team posts player screenshots (with attribution) for loading screens.  More MMOs should do that.

For naming my ships, I decided to go with names of Revolutionary War battles.  Currently I’m piloting the Chelsea Creek.

s2It’s been a while since I went through all of these quests, and some have obviously been tweaked since Legacy of Romulus.  Last night I went through the Devidian missions, which are about as scary as STO gets (and I say that without being too sarcastic).  It’s mostly about atmosphere and a general sense of dread instead of any jump-scares.  I’m still impressed with how these missions use the dark, the encroaching blue that signals the Devidians phasing in, and the little flashlight that probably does more harm than good with my imagination.

I did get a little frustrated at one point when I got turned around on the map and my squad got completely split up.  That got me killed, but such is life.

I keep going back and forth on whether I really want to be playing.  There’s something about STO that I can’t get anywhere else, especially with the division of gameplay styles (space combat, ground combat, ground investigation).  But I keep getting flashes of “done this already,” so I might be keeping this at a very casual level.

Star Trek Online: Legacy of Shoulderpads

romulans1

Fear our shoulder pads!

Despite my best efforts to keeping my MMO gaming roster small, it’s swelled from four to five titles this past week as Star Trek Online’s first expansion rolled out.  I’ve long since parked my Federation character in storage, pending any new featured episode series, and thus had no reason to play the game until now.

With Legacy of Romulus, Cryptic hasn’t just added onto the core game, but completed the game in a way that it’s needed ever since launch.  There are three major additions: A full Klingon PvE experience, the addition of the Romulan race and ships, and a UI overhaul.  All three contribute to a finished product and make STO feel “whole.”  I know a lot of folks are sore that Romulans aren’t a full-fledged faction (instead of being a third faction, they’re a neutral one that can eventually join Klingons or Federation), but I’m okay with it.  I think Cryptic is working within its time budget here, and finishing the Klingon content was far more important.  I can only imagine the outcry if Romulans had a full PvE leveling experience and Klingons were still left broken.

So I rolled up a new Romulan and took the maiden voyage of the Manatee.  Romulans — AKA “dark space elves” — have never really fascinated me in Trek.  It’s not just my hatred of elves, but the fact that their culture felt dull and their shoulderpads were far too paddy.  Plus, they were pretty dull in Nemesis and the 2009 Star Trek.

I can’t believe that rolling a Reman — AKA “super-ugly dark space elves” — is considered a premium slice of content.  You either have to grind faction or pay for a special pack, and I just do not see the draw.  It’s like going to Pizza Hut and having them charge you a lot extra for a personal pan pizza with alfalfa sprouts and anchovies.  Maybe you’d order it just to feel different and superior, but the rest of us are going to be eating tasty stuff.

What do I think of the expansion thus far?  I’m inclined to be quite favorable toward it, actually.  STO has always been a guilty pleasure of an MMO for me.  I know it’s not as full-featured or as Trekky as some would like, but the core gameplay has always kept me entertained.  More of it was welcome, indeed.  I like little touches, such as the new Romulan theme, the way the character select screen now shows your ship and crew, and how the UI has been cleaned up significantly.

Rolling a Romulan is basically starting over, so I’m back with a basic bridge crew that everyone else has, a tier 1 warbird that everyone else has (and looks like what you’d see in the Captain Kirk era), and only a small handful of skills.  Still, I look forward to logging in and going down this path again.  I never liked the goody-goody Federation attitude, so a change of pace is welcome.  The story puts you in the shoes of a colonist who flees his/her world when it comes under attack by a sinister Romulan faction.  Over the course of a few missions, you’re tasked with scouting for a new Romulan homeworld while building up your crew.

I chose a Tactical officer this time around, and I’m more than eager to ditch the basic warbird for something better.  I guess the big draw for Romulan/Klingon ships is the ability to cloak, although it doesn’t seem that thrilling to me — you have to stop firing just to reposition and get a brief buff to weapons when you de-cloak.  No thanks, I’d rather keep firing if it’s all the same.

We’ll see how it goes.  I’ll be joining the KDF side when I get the choice, mostly because I don’t want to do the same Federation missions all over again.  Also, forget those guys.  Their shoulder pads are puny and limp, while ours are large enough to launch small aircraft from.

shoulder2

Star Trek Online: Enter the Romulans

romulusIt’s not like the signs weren’t there.  Players have been asking for a Romulan faction ever since the game launched, Denise Crosby recently came in to record voiceovers, and the last major update was all about building New Romulus.  Still, the announcement of STO’s first expansion, Legacy of Romulus, is pretty exciting for the Trek faithful.

It remains to be seen how fleshed-out the Romulan content is.  Players have been dubious of a Romulan faction because the Klingon PvE content has never been up to snuff yet.  But now it looks as though you’ll be able to roll a Klingon from level 1, so I guess Cryptic’s figured out a way to give enough missions to each side.

I’m almost done with the Federation story missions, so I like the idea of rolling a Romulan (or perhaps a Klingon) to try out a different side of the game.  I’m not a die-hard Romulan fan, but I do like their aesthetic more than the Klingons.  Really, it comes down to whether you like green or red.  The Borg aren’t happy that they have to share green with the Romulans, but I’ve always thought that the Collective would be better suited with, say, hot pink.  “Resistance is fabulous!”

The improved UI, oddly enough, is the other thing that’s grabbed my attention.  I’m all about making games look and handle better.  STO’s UI isn’t horrible, but it can be cluttered and sometimes not as user friendly as it should be.

So good on STO for breaking the warp-expansion barrier.  It’s a nice sign of a healthy game, and it’s definitely rekindled my interest in playing it.

Star Trek Online: Alternate history

tashaFor someone who left Star Trek 23 episodes into the first season of The Next Generation, Denise Crosby has been clinging onto her Star Trek connection like nobody else I’ve seen.  She came back for a few episodes of TNG, did the Trekkies film series, and has been milking any Star Trek appearance she could get after that.  So I guess it makes sense that she would pop up in Star Trek Online at some point.

I’m not complaining, mind you.  Cryptic threw together a really cool third anniversary mission for players that enlisted Crosby to reprise Yar’s character, harkened to the classic TNG episode Yesterday’s Enterprise, gave us some awesome time travel, and delivered a brand-new ship to the game: the Ambassador-class starship (best known as the Enterprise-C).

I had a chance to log in last night to STO in the first time in a couple weeks, and really enjoyed myself.  Even though the actual featured episode is somewhat short, it’s packed with goodness, interesting from start to finish, and gives out great rewards.

Spoilers from here on out!

So you begin by (of course) investigating some anomalies where starships of various types are popping in and out of existence.  Then something weird happens when you see the Enterprise-C appear: Your starship transforms into a grubby freighter, and you’re suddenly a solo captain who’s working for the Tholian overlords.  Yup, the time stream has been altered and not for the better.

The bulk of the mission takes place on the Tholian space station where you find out from a few people that the Enterprise’s return to the past went a little screwy and messed things up even worse than before.  You see characters, such as the formerly new captain of the Enterprise-F, as slaves in an oppressive society with only a vague notion that something’s gone wrong.  And eventually you bump into Tasha Yar and Castillo from Yesterday’s Enterprise, who want your help gaining access to the captive Enterprise-C before the Tholians dismantle it.

To do so, you need to convince someone to be a distraction to the guards, then you sneak into some tech tunnels to get to the ship.  The mission throws you a loop by taking away the radar, and instead forcing you to rely on a hand map for a simple maze.  I did get a chuckle when I discovered a corpse and got the achievement “He’s Dead, Jiim.”

Past that, getting onto the ship is pretty easy.  It’s an incredible view, however, as you go from the control room through the docking arm and see this starship up close and very personal.  Following that is a fight between you and a bunch of Tholians.  That was more difficult, as the game just threw icons all willy-nilly on my hotbars and forced me to just slam them all over and over in the hopes that I’d win.  I wouldn’t have, if a temporal Starfleet vessel didn’t show up to lend a hand.

Once things are set right, you go back to Earth Stardock and get your rewards: a new uniform and TWO Ambassador ships.  One of the ships is a standard commander-level reward, and one is a limited-time admiral-level retrofit.  I won’t be trading in my kitty carrier any time soon, but it’s nice to have these ships in the bank in case I want to start an alt some day.  And two ships for one little mission?  That’s an incredible deal, especially as Cryptic usually charges a lot for these admiral retrofits.  Definitely worth doing even if you don’t play STO regularly.

So hats off to Cryptic and Denise Crosby for a fun time, and I’m most definitely looking forward to the big content coming this spring (Romulan faction?  Maybe…).