Star Trek Online Exclusive Impressions: Ship Battles, Exploration, and Away Teams

We get an exclusive look at the upcoming massively multiplayer Star Trek game from the creator of City of Heroes.

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Massively multiplayer games: the final frontier, where your make-believe characters go on adventures in a persistent online world, beating rats over the head with a rusty dagger in the hopes of one day gaining an experience level, which will one day make them strong enough to fight larger rats. Or, maybe not anymore. Developer Cryptic Studios is working on a new online game that will go in a completely different direction, a game based on the Star Trek universe where you'll not only touch down onto different planets on foot to explore strange new worlds and seek out new life and new civilizations, but will also be captain of your own starship and explore the reaches of space, engaging in starship dogfights with hostile aliens and space pirates. And since we have the exclusive first look at the game, you could say we've boldly gone where no one has gone before. (Sorry, we couldn't resist.)

In Star Trek Online, you will explore the far reaches of space. And you won't have to be a Federation officer to do it.
In Star Trek Online, you will explore the far reaches of space. And you won't have to be a Federation officer to do it.

Star Trek Online is currently in development at California-based Cryptic Studios, a team of developers who are working in tandem with CBS, the current license holder of the Star Trek franchise. The game will apparently be set in the year 2409, some 30 years after the events in the motion picture Star Trek Nemesis--which means that most characters with normal human life spans probably won't be sticking around. However, you can expect to see plenty of authentic Star Trek content in the game, since the development studio is working closely with the license holder. Yes, the United Federation of Planets (better known simply as "the Federation") will be in the game. Yes, the Klingons will be in the game. Yes, you will visit planets by beaming down to them and will carry a phaser on your belt. And yes, you will travel the galaxy at warp speed and fire photon torpedoes at enemy ships.

The stage in Star Trek Online is set for intergalactic war since the Khitomer Accords--an uneasy peace agreement between the Federation and the Klingons--have been broken. As a result, you can play as either a Federation character or a cadet in the Klingon Defense Force, working your way up through the military ranks of either side. Playing as the Klingons will definitely be a different experience than playing as the Federation, though the exact details of the Klingon experience have not yet been revealed. And according to the game's overarching story, even though the war between the two factions has begun in earnest, a "dark, ancient threat" has returned to the Alpha Quadrant (the home sector of the Federation), and players from both factions will find themselves at odds with this mysterious new adversary. (Who could it possibly be, we wonder?)

Apparently, there will be a bit more to creating a new character than just choosing starting clothes and how big your character's eyebrows will be. All-new characters will be able to choose from an array of low-ranking starter ships to command and will choose a bridge officer and crew. Your bridge officer will be a computer-controlled character--not unlike a "pet" in other massively multiplayer games--and will, like your character, gain experience levels and new items over the course of your career.

When you decide to beam down, it will always be in an away team of five characters--yourself and any combination of up to four computer-controlled crew members and/or up to four other player characters. Depending on the mission, you may wish to vary your away-team composition to include officers with different specialties, such as field medicine, tactical operations, or engineering (though there's no word yet on whether computer-controlled crew members will all wear red shirts).

And for your own character, and your crew, the game will offer what executive producer Craig Zinkievich refers to as "total customization" for each character, including each one's appearance and away-team equipment. This isn't surprising coming from a studio that made a name for itself with the powerful character customization tools of City of Heroes. Among other options, you'll be able to create characters from such races as humans, Vulcans (the race of Mr. Spock's father), Bajorans (the race to which Major Kira Nerys from the Deep Space Nine TV show belonged), Klingons, and Gorn (a race of tall, lizardlike humanoids--William Shatner's Captain Kirk character grappled with one in the original Star Trek episode "Arena"). To make allowances for the fact that the universe is indeed enormous and that other, undiscovered life-forms exist somewhere out there, the game will also feature an "alien race creator" tool that will let you create your own alien species to which your character can belong.

Expect to see plenty of alien races in Star Trek Online. Don't see the one you want? Make your own.
Expect to see plenty of alien races in Star Trek Online. Don't see the one you want? Make your own.

Zinkievich suggests that at present, the game is planned to offer an "even split" between away-team exploration and interstellar starship exploration--the latter includes the game's tactical, real-time starship combat system. We actually had a chance to witness an early version of the starship combat in motion, which the executive producer likened to battle between tall ships during the Age of Sail. Just like how sea captains of that era chose different types of cannon shot to damage an enemy vessel's hull or sails, you can use different weapon types in Star Trek Online, such as a continuous and withering stream of phaser fire to eat away at energy shields, or a salvo of photon torpedoes to tear up your foe's exposed hull.

In practice, Star Trek Online's combat engine currently does seem to keep that kind of naval pace, with elements of the traditional 2D movement of a massively multiplayer game (using the W, A, S, and D keys to move) and even traces of the Super Melee mode of the classic Star Control II. Cryptic is apparently attempting to build in a strategic preparation aspect to ship combat. That is, the best way to come out ahead in battle is to prepare beforehand, ideally with some advance recon on your enemies, including what kinds of weapons they have access to. Your preparation will include choosing the proper crew, equipping the appropriate weapons, and installing the proper shields.

The battle we watched took place at the tail end of an exploration mission for a Federation convoy (or, to be more precise, three Cryptic employees adventuring as a group, each controlling his own ship) exploring the reaches of space, which is full of star systems, asteroid belts, beautifully colorful nebulas, and, in this case, angry alien pirates--namely Orion smugglers who were grumpy enough at being discovered that they warmed up their photon torpedo bays for us. Though space combat will clearly be a big part of what you do in Star Trek Online's outer-space zones, the game will, according to Zinkievich, also include plenty of other things to do in space that will reward exploration and following the game's overarching story. The reaches of space will offer both procedurally generated spaces as well as hand-built, story-specific areas that are built around quests.

Will you seek out new life and new civilizations? Or will you work to wipe the Federation off the face of the galaxy?
Will you seek out new life and new civilizations? Or will you work to wipe the Federation off the face of the galaxy?

In combat, your ships can pitch to port or starboard while you hit the throttle to move in different directions, though once you sight the enemy, it will also be important to carefully manage your ship's power supply. You can route power to your ships' engines, weapons, or shields, the latter of which are currently represented as transparent, colored arcs surrounding your ship's bow, stern, and two sides. In the current version of the game, shields appear green when at full power and undamaged, and when you begin to take fire to your shields, they'll change color to yellow, then red, and then will finally give way to nothing and your ship will begin taking direct damage to its hull. Space combat so far, at least with the ship classes we've seen in action, seems to be a matter of jousting with enemy ships, making daring strafing runs in range of your foes while tossing out salvos of torpedos and phaser blasts, carefully keeping an eye on your own shields to ensure your own ship doesn't get incinerated, and rerouting power to specific shields if you happen to be taking heavy fire from a certain quarter, though if you aren't currently taking fire, your ship will automatically recover from hull damage at a rate that depends on your character's and crew's race, experience levels, and engineering levels.

The early version of the game we watched had a rudimentary interface that showed the ship's current hull and ship strength and throttle levels, as well as a bank of hotkeys to trigger special abilities. These will include things like a crew repair skill to address severe damage, maneuvering boosts that temporarily increase your ship's speed or enhance your turning radius, and even tractor beams to drag in your enemies for the kill. Presumably, your captain will be able to acquire various technical goodies, as well as character- and crew-based skills that can be set to hotkeyed abilities in space. Oh, and one other thing about space combat: When you destroy an enemy in space, think twice about that triumphant flyby, since the final explosion will bake your ship with additional splash damage if you get too close.

While we weren't able to see on-foot gameplay in action, we did get some additional details on Star Trek Online's world and how the game experience will change as players become more accomplished officers. Like City of Heroes, Star Trek Online will offer many ways for you to find and get into the action. As a Federation officer, you may receive standard quests from the Federation, or you can call into Federation radio space for additional missions if your plate is clear, and you'll also be able to find new missions while exploring space, such as responding to distress signals. You may also decide to spend some time harvesting resources, and for the true explorers, Cryptic apparently even has plans to include some sort of achievement badge system to reward those who truly set out on a mission of discovery.

However, there will be a much more important sign of your characters' progress: the size of their fleets. And as you gain more experience and more prestige as a military officer, you'll be able to amass a hangar of different ships of varying sizes and classes to perform different roles, such as heavier combat escort ships that can quickly deal heavy damage, or science ships for exploration and analysis. We're told you'll also see appearances from canonical spacecraft, including Miranda-class ships like the USS Reliant from Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, and we assume the game will also have Constitution-class ships like the most famous Star Trek ship of all, the Enterprise.

And fortunately, though the universe will be divided into individual sectors, you'll be able to travel the vast reaches of space through some form of quick travel by using a star map. Because it will be such a big place, it will have various types of currency that may include replicator credits, transporter credits, and the prized currency of the greedy Ferengi race, gold-pressed latinum. At later stages, it will also offer high-end "raid" content for advanced players--Zinkievich suggests that you may be tasked with thwarting a large-scale Borg invasion, for instance. (Yes, the Borg will be in the game, as will the Romulans.) More-competitive players will also eventually get to butt heads, and phasers, in high-end player-versus-player faction battles that will let high-ranking Federation and Klingon players vie for control of contested star systems, for sector-specific bonuses. In the meantime, Cryptic expects to implement the sort of social options you'd expect from a massively multiplayer game, such as "fleets," which are long-standing associations of players that act the way player guilds do in other games. The developer also plans to implement some form of "sidekicking," the game mechanic it developed for City of Heroes, which lets players of different experience levels play with one another by temporarily evening out the level difference.

We've waited a long time to see Star Trek Online with our own eyes, and what we've seen so far looks promising indeed. However, there's still a lot more that we have yet to see and experience ourselves, such as on-foot content and higher-end player-versus-player stuff, but since the game is already in an internal beta state at Cryptic's offices, hopefully this won't be too far away. In the meantime, anyone with any interest in Star Trek or just looking for a fresh new take on massively multiplayer games should keep an eye out for more updates on the game as they appear on GameSpot.

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