Star Trek Online Open Beta Hands-on

We experienced more space and hand-to-hand combat when we got a chance to play through the first few Federation missions in Star Trek Online's open beta.

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Star Trek Online is the latest massively multiplayer online role-playing game from Cryptic Studios, the team behind City of Heroes and Champions Online. The game offers players the chance to explore the galaxy as a Federation or Klingon captain, and we got a chance to join the open beta, which we engaged at maximum warp. Before reading any further, however, be warned that this preview contains minor plot spoilers from the first few Federation faction missions.

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Set in the year 2409 (circa Stardate 86645.3), Star Trek Online kicks off 30 years after the events in Star Trek Nemesis. Things aren't going so well in the 25th century: The Khitomer Accords have been broken, putting the United Federation of Planets and Klingon Empire at war. And if that's not enough, the Borg have returned to wreak havoc on the Alpha Quadrant.

Before we could seek out new life and new civilisations, we needed to create our own character. While you can play as the Federation or Klingon factions in the final game, the open beta was restricted to the Federation. We were able to choose from three character classes: engineering, science, and tactical officers. Engineers are good with weapons, improving allied performance and disabling enemy sidearms; scientists focus on healing, buffs, and debuffs; and tactical officers excel in physical strength and combat.

There are a considerable number of customisation options for each character, including species, gender, and skills, as well as physical characteristics, such as the length of your fingers. Each species features unique attributes, such as a Vulcan's increased physical strength and the logical skill that allows you to evade psionic attacks. Once we'd created a male Vulcan tactical officer with the rank of ensign and given our vessel an illustrious name befitting of a Federation starship--the USS Patriot--it was time to join the ship. From the opening moments of the game, our ship was under attack from the Borg. We were immediately instructed to see the captain on the bridge, and he gave us the special assignment of beaming across to the nearby USS Khitomer, which had suffered heavy losses at the hands of the Borg.

When we arrived on the Khitomer, we found the emergency medical hologram in charge. Fans will certainly find his prosaic and patronising bedside manner similar to that of Star Trek: Voyager's doctor. After helping the Khitomer crew repel the borders, we beamed back to discover the Borg had wiped out all of its senior officers, leaving us in command of the ship and its crew. This introduced us to the game's space combat, and despite the immediate hostilities, the galaxy looked beautiful. Its backdrop of nebulae and planetary bodies were accented with deep green and blue hues. An icon around the ship was split into four quadrants, which represented front, rear, and side shields. The quadrants displayed how weak or strong each shield was, and we could bolster a sector when taking a beating from any particular direction. We could also move energy from auxiliary systems to the weapons systems and shields. At our disposal were forward-facing photon torpedoes, as well as forward- and rear-facing phaser arrays. While the torpedo arc was only 90 degrees, the phaser arcs were much wider, and when broadsiding an enemy, we could use the front and rear arrays together for a more powerful attack.

In addition to shields and weapons, we were occupied with the ship's throttle and power levels. While you can travel at warp, Federation ships don't feel particularly zippy at impulse speed. The size and scope of the universe around you is immense, so something that looks relatively close can take a while to get to, even at maximum impulse. As you progress through the game, you will unlock multiple officers to command, but you can only order a maximum of three at any one time. You only have access to one officer at first, and our engineer had the useful skill of being able to divert emergency power to recharge our shields. After playing through a few missions that involved beaming survivors onto our ship and destroying Borg probes, we received a transmission from Admiral Quinn, who asked us to join in a final assault to drive the Borg from that sector once and for all.

In the ensuing attack, we helped destroy a damaged Borg Cube--a satisfying feat for any new Starfleet captain--with a short burst of our phasers and photon torpedoes. It wasn't long before we were hailed and thanked by Quinn, who requested us to meet him at the Earth Spacedock for another important assignment. The Spacedock serves as a hub that allows you access to a number of useful resources in addition to core and side missions. This also includes access to the shipyard and personnel office. There, you can spend points you've acquired on upgrading and tweaking your vessel, as well as requisition new bridge officers to join your crew.

There's a lot more to see and do in Star Trek Online, so for a more detailed look at space and away-mission combat, check out our previous coverage. The game should appeal to any Trekker who has wanted to take the helm of a Starfleet vessel, explore the galaxy, and engage in a range of missions. These missions include space and on-foot combat, diplomacy, and scientific research. With the game due out in early February, would-be captains won't have to wait very long to make it so.

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