gaming, scifi, trek March 16, 2012 Jack No comments

On Star Trek Online

I’m a huge Trek fan, if you didn’t know. I’ve watched every episode and movie. I know trivia. I have posters in my office, models, and even toys. Yep, I’m a trekkie and proud of it.

I’m also a gamer, but I’m resistant to the idea of playing an MMORPG. I played WoW back in the 2005-2006 timeframe when I had buckets of freetime in college and even then I started playing to the exclusion of all else. I was going through some tough times, what with becoming a father at 20, so I was more than happy to escape my regular existence (I feel I should note that I still managed to get middling good grades and graduate before all of my friends, but I could’ve done better). Anyway, a year or so of WoW addiction has put me off of MMORPGs because in the end I found the experience hollow, not to mention expensive.

So when Star Trek Online came out, my reluctance to give it a shot as an MMORPG vastly outweighed my desire to play a game in the Star Trek universe. I need another monthly bill like I need a hole in my head, really. Not to mention I had (and still have) a girlfriend and I had only one game-capable computer at the time. Juliette’s down with some game playing, but only if she gets equal time, or can play with me.

All of that changed. I built another desktop, and upgraded my first so they’re capable of gaming (we played Skyrim with high detail simultaneously). Then, two months ago, ST:O went free to play.

I’m still resistant. The idea of Korean MMORPG players letting their children starve to death in another room is a powerful reminder of the depth of game addiction and I definitely don’t have the time to devote to it now that I have a career and a family. But at the same time, the life of a parent can get pretty boring when you don’t have the time (or the money) to go out on a regular basis. Finding escape in media (Juliette and I have watched a large amount of Trek, as well as loads of other stuff), or at the gym is all well and good but both of those things can feel repetitive and unrewarding. Games are a good way to get around that, even if their rewards are fake. So, last night, Juliette and I installed ST:O and gave it a shot.

I can already feel the grip of it. I had trouble sleeping last night because of it. It was a lot of fun, and even though I’m only a couple of missions out of the tutorial and still only have a basic grip on the gameplay or strategy, I’m obsessing over it.

I never understood the free-to-play business model, but I do now. The reminders are all over in the game, from the people commanding massive starships, to the unlockable character customization that costs real money, to the Cardassian Lockboxes that require purchased keys to open. It would be so easy to lose track of how much real money you’ve spent. And yet, looking through the store, the items seem interesting and compelling and the prices don’t seem unreasonable when you consider what you’re getting. Most of the nitshit improvements are less than the price of a fancy coffee. Some of the smaller ships are $10-$15. The capital ships are $25 (or $50 for a pack of them, one for each class). They’re all transferrable to different characters on the account. And even though I’m wary of spending $25 on virtual property that’s only good as long as I play the game, I remember that I’m playing the entire game, legally, for free. That’s half of what I paid just to buy WoW 6-7 years ago, not even including the subscription fees. Now, clearly, this could spiral out of control. There are some things they charge for that I’d never consider, like customizing your bridge crew characters, or opening those Lockboxes, or expanding my inventory etc.. I’m not here to micropay myself into oblivion, but if I reach a high enough rank and I’ve gotten $25 of entertainment from the game (which seems likely after one night’s playing), I’ll probably be rolling in an Odyssey.

Overall, I think the game has channeled Trek fairly well. The space vs. ground event / skill set is pretty much how a Trek RPG should work I think and the style is dead on. The ships and environment look great, even two years out from launch. The ship controls take a little to get used to, but it’s managed to relate the universe well with stuff like setting the impulse level, the different attacks, and parlaying crew expertise into special techniques – all things we’ve seen on screen. It’s easy to pretend I’m Kirk or Picard at the helm of my ship with my trusty bridge crew.

That said, I’ve yet to get very far into the game and I obviously haven’t even touched the Klingon side of the universe, so I’ll have to reserve final judgment until I know how much fun I can have with it. I’m hoping that the separation between core gameplay and extra content is as well defined as it appears to me now, but I could be wrong as I get farther from basic levels.

Massive Edit

I now have a deeper understanding of the game, and have stopped playing. Some things I wanted to touch on since this is my space for reviewing things that cross my mind.

The Duty Officer dynamic (you obtain sets of duty officers like items, each one has certain attributes, you then send a number of these officers on offscreen missions that take a duration of real time to get various rewards and special XP) was really cool. It rounded out the game as a simulation of being a real captain because in the series you always see characters going to or returning from various competitions and conferences, or having special duty to optimize the warp core, or going on leave to Risa. It was a nice way for your characters to be working even while you weren’t playing the game and it was a draw to return so you could check on how your duty officers performed. It’s perverse how much I enjoyed sending my little figurine duty officers to settle trade disputes or help colonists, just like in the series. However, it could definitely use a tweak. I was disappointed that the duty officers never progress. They’re like a deck of trading cards, you can play them different ways but they never change, you have to trade up or find better ones to improve. I understand that this makes them a commodity for the player trading system (the Exchange), but I would’ve really liked it if the missions you sent them on changed their effectiveness somehow. Each task has certain requirements to even attempt and each comes with a chance of critical success, success, failure, or disaster. If the officers you assign have certain traits, you can improve your changes for any of the four. For example, if you send a Diplomat with the Telepathic trait, you increase your chance of critical success. Alternatively, if you send your crew on leave with just a bunch of stick in the mud Starfleet types you increase your chance of failure (apparently the rigid officers don’t have much fun alone – imagine a crew full of Worfs on leave). Now, that’s pretty neat alone, but I wish that some of these traits were more flexible. For example, you already gain a bonus for sending “Tactful” security officers with your Diplomats, because they don’t offend the relevant parties. It would be nice if you sent an officer without “Tactful” on the mission and, if it was a critical success (or some other criterion) he would learn something about tact and return with the trait. Of course there are some caveats, you could never gain the trait “Telepathic”, that wouldn’t make sense, and you’d have to add some chance of getting negative traits too. Overall it would shift the focus from passing around officers like trade commodities to molding an untested fresh crew into a great crew. That’s where you get your satisfaction. That’s when you’re officially role-playing Picard.

Another thing worth mentioning is the crafting system that seems to be compulsory in modern RPGs. I don’t envy the task having to somehow wedge a crafting system into a universe that’s built around mutual advancement and practically limitless energy, but the STO guys did a great job. The fundamental element of crafting in STO is exploration. To craft items you spend things like “Unknown Alloys” and “Tetryon Particles” that you gather from scanning unknown anomalies. To make a really great item you need a rare particle trace. You have Research Points that represent your skill at building these various craftables (ship weapons, ground weapons, hypos, deflectors, etc.). None of this really makes sense in the broader universe in which sharing research and effort for mutual gain is basically the cornerstone but what they accomplished is rewarding the sort of curiosity that you see in all Trek captains. Now when Kirk scans an anomaly he’s not trying to build a phaser array, but in the MMO world where no *real* exploration can exist, it’s a nice way to incentivize giving a nod to Starfleet’s scientific mandate by at least feigning curiosity. That said the whole thing is a fucking grindfest, which is basically what all crafting systems boil down to if there’s a need to farm reagents. You can certainly just do missions and scan any anomalies that you come across but that’s never going to be enough. You need 10 Radiation Samples (or other items) alone just to build the schematic for your end goal. Random chance isn’t enough to make all of the craftable items you want to make, and trading low level commodities is pretty much miserable. That means that you’re going to head to one of the unexplored sectors of the galaxy and sit around scanning anomalies for ages until you have enough of data sample XYZ and that’s flat out boring. Even getting your research points is a grind as you end up having to make items you don’t want or need just to get enough points to start making items of your class (this might be avoidable if you start crafting everything and scanning anomalies from day one).

That’s the problem I have with STO. It’s all to repetitive. I cranked up the difficulty to Elite and the ships and enemies successfully posed a threat to me, but the missions just blurred together into a paste. In the initial Klingon storyline there are some nice piece of writing – like meeting McCoy and Scotty in a past starbase that’s rendered just like TOS to defeat phase shifting beings that are exploiting a passing comet to prey on us – but the end result is that basically all the missions are [Space Combat][Ground Combat][Space Combat] with a wall of samey enemies and a linear set of objects to interact with between you and the end. It’s all phrased differently, the settings are all trivially different, but there wasn’t enough differentiation to hold my attention. Grinding mobs is where I think MMOs in general fall down, but MMOs like WoW have the advantage that if you’re going to churn through enemies they’re usually different from the last place. You move from undead to snake people to evil gnomes to ghosts to trolls etc. all in their own different setting, and all with their own skills and threats to your character. In STO, it was an interminable stream of Birds of Prey with basically the same attack, maybe a bigger one with Plasma Torpedoes or another minor variation. On the ground it was a stream of the same Klingon characters in worlds that looked too much alike. I will give STO points for the fact that combat is fun, and that it’s much more based on abilities you get from bridge officers or weapons than from your character alone (which gives you more leeway to experiment), but when I’m on the surface clearing out my hundredth group of identical Klingons, I’m looking for a little more variety.

This is especially true with the exploration quests. These are almost mandatory because you can get 1440 dilithium (which is a fair sum, not a fortune) every real-time day doing them and there aren’t that many opportunities to get dilithium (at least not at my level). The quest is easy, you go to one of the fringe places (the same places you grind for craftables) and you explore or aid three systems. The problem is that you only have to do it a couple of times before you see the pattern that exists in every one of these quests. There are the clear out missions, the missions where you replicate 10 of some commodity the planet needs, the collect 5 data samples missions, and the final and most tedious type: the away team aid mission. These away team aid missions sound like they’d be fun, they come with various different stories, like helping to investigate a murder, or dispelling a ghost story, but in the end it comes down to the same fucking thing. You land, you interact with a set of objects, possibly fighting off others in the way. Now you might think I’m being overly abstract because games are really just interacting with various things in various ways but when I say “interact with a set of objects” I mean you literally walk from one point to another scanning. Some missions that’s literally it. You walk from one giant mushroom plant to another until you’ve scanned 5. Done. Others are you walk from one monolith to another killing Klingons in between. There’s no drama. No dialogue. It’s just another theme on the same goddam template. Look, I’m not trying to say that STO has to procedurally generate actual alien worlds with civilizations and stories, but at least add some more entries to the cycle.

I’m not trying to condemn all of the writing content. I particularly enjoyed the DS9 arc (the Dominion fleet diverted in the end of the series shows up 30 years late and takes DS9), but even that was tainted but one too many step and fetch quests on Bajor to get the base running and suffered from a rather weak ending (getting a Founder out of Federation prison when – surprise – there’s a prison break). The TOS cameos were delightful as well, but that’s pretty low hanging fruit to impress a Trekkie.

In the end, I stopped playing. The thrill of space combat, the Trek references, the well done game mechanics and even the great job they did styling the game couldn’t make up for the repetitive nature of the game. Maybe there’s an explosion of good content later as the writers explored the boundaries of the engine, and maybe the PvP that I frankly couldn’t care less about redeems it for some players, but at level 21 I have lost the compulsion to continue. Perhaps MMOs really just aren’t for me in the end, and I’ve been permanently spoiled by rich single player games like Fallout and Deus Ex that are basically impossible to replicate in an MMO.

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