If space is the final frontier, then Star Trek Online may represent an opportunity to boldly go where no nerd has gone before. The online game from Champions Online and City of Heroes creator Cryptic Studios will let you play as an officer with either the Federation or the Klingon Defense Force. It will let your virtual space cadet pilot a starship and also lead an away team on foot.
Our tour of duty this time around was a different--but definitely not the first mission in the game--and mostly self-contained task that required us to respond to a distress call in a distant sector. From the in-game "astrometrics" star map, which abstracts the humongous distances between star systems in space, we charted our course and hit full impulse power, carefully avoiding any encounters with enemy starship squadrons that appeared on our map.
Once we arrived, we found the space station under attack by Orion pirates, who appeared in small, varied squadrons. Though there will be several different ship classes for your character to control in the game, there will also be different classes of enemy ships. These include larger cruisers and carriers, as well as much-smaller, faster fighters. Depending on what sort of ship you're using (and the ships of any teammates you've brought with you), you'll likely want to focus your fire on specific targets. Taking out any fighters first seems like it's usually a sound plan because these ships are faster and nimbler than any capital ship--plus, they go down quite easy. Unfortunately, cruisers and some other enemy ships will compensate for their slower speeds with additional tricks. These include heavier shields and heavy-hitting photon torpedoes, as well as painful space mines, which certain enemies can drop in abundance.
Getting caught in a minefield while being strafed by enemy fighters zipping past you and having larger warships dump photon torpedoes on your head seems like a more intense experience from what we'd seen in our previous, easier tutorial missions, but even though there's definitely a lot more going on, Star Trek Online's space combat still isn't a hectic game of clicking wildly. Combat is still paced like a naval battle--larger ships take time to come about and each of your ship's four shields (fore, aft, starboard, port) are usually pretty good at holding out long enough for you to either divert energy to the chewed-up shield area or activate an engineering special ability if you have an engineering officer that can instantly repair your shields to full.
Actually conquering your enemies in a space battle really seems to be a matter of carefully timing and lining up your shots just right--kind of like what you'd expect from a system inspired by the traditional broadside-based combat of the Age of Sail. Most of the time, you'll be at the helm of a ship equipped with both phasers (the laserlike beam weapons that deliver continuous bursts of damage while in play) and hard-hitting photon torpedoes, which aren't very effective against shields but deal huge amounts of damage to an exposed hull. And as it happens, if you have a good science officer onboard, you may have the ability to fire a special tachyon beam that will cut through a shield like a hot knife through butter. So, bringing down an enemy capital ship is all about keeping your foes within firing range while tearing up your target's shields, dropping them with tachyon fire when available and following up with a well-timed torpedo salvo that will hit home after you've dropped your enemy's shields but before those shields have had a chance to regenerate. However, you still can't afford to keep your enemies too close because aside from abilities, like the aforementioned mines, destroyed enemy ships still go up in a fiery explosion that deals heavy damage to any nearby ships or targets. This explosion can be even more dangerous in the middle of a minefield if nearby mines sustain enough damage to go off themselves.
After fighting off the first wave of pirates, we zipped about the quadrant picking up clusters of dilithium crystals floating in space to help repair the space station by simply flying within range and pressing the "F" key to "interact" with it (to collect it, in this case), which was similar to Champions Online. After dropping off the crystals at the station, we hightailed it to another quadrant where various strange anomalies had been sighted. While these particular anomalies were tied to the second leg of our quest--specifically, we were tasked with approaching each one, then scanning it--other anomalies can exist elsewhere in the universe and occasionally yield treasure caches of minerals. There are also other objects if you take the time to explore and find these hidden goodies. Unfortunately, each anomaly was guarded by Klingon forces, who, as it happened, were laying siege to another space station embedded in an asteroid.
We beamed aboard the station itself in an away team that consisted of ourselves, a Cryptic staffer, and three computer-controlled officers. As in our last session, our characters were set to be on a much higher character level than our foes (to make sure we didn't keep dying). Star Trek Online's hand-to-hand combat remains a pretty dynamic experience that, as we've explained in our previous coverage, gives you access to two different weapon loadouts, each with three different combat skills that recharge fairly quickly. Our character was equipped with a hand phaser with one loadout and a phaser sniper rifle with another. By using the powerful sniper shot ability on our rifle, we were able to take down those dirty Klingons at a distance while our teammates rushed in and used melee attacks. This particular mission was fairly straightforward and required us to simply clear out a few Klingon details guarding the control room. Then, we took the control room and guarded it from a few waves of Klingon invaders looking to take back the station, though they didn't last long against our powered-up party of the Federation's finest.
That ended our latest session of the game, but it left us intrigued to try out more combat, particularly with some of the higher-end starships that will have more options to mount additional weapons and more crew slots to access officer abilities. Star Trek Online seems like it will offer a colorful and highly authentic Star Trek experience in a streamlined, accessible package. The game will launch in early 2010.