Space, the Final Frontier. Hands on with STO.

Captain’s Log, Stardate 9842.1:

I was alerted at 12.00 hours by a Starfleet request that we investigate an anomaly on a planet in a nearby system. A system claimed by the Klingon Empire …

I was able to sneak a few minutes with the Star Trek Online demo at the Eurogamer Expo last week. It wasn’t really long enough to get a good feel for the game, but the demo let you fly your ship around in space, get into a dogfight with some Klingon birds of prey, and wound up with a firefight on a planet that looked suspiciously like an old quarry.

The game looked very slick on the souped up demo PCs, and all the visual clues … from the interior of the ship, to the facial shot of your comms officer relaying messages from Starfleet, to the gloriously over the top beauty of space, to the uniforms worn by the away team down on the planet surface … all of it screams Trek. The demo felt like a Star Trek episode (albeit rather a shooty one), the ship felt like a Star Trek ship, and so on.

Initially, you’re on the bridge of your ship. You can call up other stations on board to get reports from your officers, or to buy/ sell stuff at the replicator.

I did enjoy the brief burst of ship to ship combat. If only because all that time I spend playing Sid Meier’s pirates finally came good. It does feel slower paced than a typical MMO fight, and more dependent on positioning of your ship relative to the other ships.

There are shields which you can power in different directions. Your lasers have different arcs of fire. The idea is to avoid taking an undefended broadside, with the result that ships end up trying to circle each other. Or you could do what I did and spin on your axis wildly with one finger on the space key which signifies “fire all lasers” and trust the automatic targetting to do its thing. Although the lasers do lock on, you will still need to manoeuvre your ship, and from the short time I had with the space combat, I’d be keen to see more.

Planetside, the combat plays out in a more standard MMO style, although it felt very fast paced. Imagine a shooter which had tab targetting. I haven’t played Champions Online but I’ve heard that described in a similar way.

As I said, my experience with the game was very brief and I don’t have any idea what the MMO aspects are like. But I did like what I saw, I think that ship to ship combat looks good fun and I got a good Trek vibe from the game. Here’s another view from Eurogamer, about the same demo.

And one thing they have got very right is the Star Trek feel. If you are the sort of person who grins when you pull up the replicator window and sees that the first thing on the list is “Tea, Earl Grey, Hot” then maybe, just maybe, this one will be for you.

Eurogamer Expo

I went up to town (note for non brits: ‘up to town’ means ‘to London’ if you live in the Home Counties*) for the Eurogamer Expo on Friday. It was great to touch base with some bloggers and podcasters I really admire – here’s the shout out to Van Hemlock, Shuttler, and dmosbon (and please leave comments for links to anyone else, ‘fraid I was a bit foggy with whatever mild lurgy I’ve had over the last few days.)

It was also the first time in many years that I’ve been to a computer consumer exhibition. And boy have they changed! One thing that hasn’t changed is the ratio of men to women among the punters. When I arrived at the venue and joined the queue I estimated it as roughly 10000:1, later revised to about 150:1 when I was bored enough to start counting.

This particular expo was very much for gamers to come and try out new and upcoming games. The main floor of the exhibition was filled with huge widescreen monitors, several of which were assigned to each game demo. People were being quite polite about moving on after their 10-15 mins was up so there was plenty of opportunity to check the games out. Upstairs were the indie games, and booths for devs, along with cubicles where people could get advice on breaking into the industry (presumably having people pick over their portfolios). Then further up the meeting rooms where you could attend lectures.  It’s a long long way from the computer expos I remember when I was a kid, full of stalls selling anything from hardware, consumables, software, just about anything remotely interesting to geeks, or plugging fanzines or bboards.

Anyway, the layout meant that all the non flash-bang-whizzo games content was relegated to the top of the hall, where it was easy to ignore them and most people did.

What Caught My Eye

It had never occurred to me before that console games were designed so that they were fun to watch even if you weren’t the person actually playing them. It was very noticeable that the PC games just weren’t that eyecatching from a distance.

Most standout for me was God of War 3, where I (with many many others) was staring open mouthed at the ultra-crazy and over the top stunts, so it wins my whizz-bang award. Also gave me my best laugh of the show – I was watching the main character have a big fight with a centaur. At the end, the hero slashes the centaur’s stomach and all the guts spill out, gratuitously. After a moment’s pause from the crowd, I heard a plummy voice behind me comment, “Oh how absolutely awesome.”

But when I’d blinked the virtual gore and explosions away from my eyes, it was Uncharted 2 that held my attention for the longest. Even when I wasn’t the person playing the game, I thought it was absolutely spellbinding. I’ve not seen a game that made me think so much of actually playing through a Bond movie. The other thing I noticed, just from watching, is how brilliant the storytelling is in that game. I saw a segment (from near the beginning, I think), where our hero has been in a train where the front two coaches have gone over a cliff and he has to climb up them onto solid ground. I don’t know how hard that was to play (it looked vaguely platformish, with some running, jumping, and swinging) but the game made it feel like a very exciting cliffhanger action scene. My heart was in my mouth as I watched the carriages lurch as the character swung in through a carriage window.

It was also clear, even without sound, that the story was being told through flashbacks. I was just thoroughly impressed.

Also a sidenote to Army of Two because they gave me a free T-Shirt of swag+1.

PC Games of Note

I snuck a few minutes alone with the Star Trek Online demo and I’ll be writing up my impressions of that later this week. Dragon Age was also being displayed on both PC and PS3, and it looked very sleek indeed. I guessed immediately which screen showed Dragon Age because all the characters were covered in a fine speckle of blood.

The indie games were fun and weird and different and cool, which is pretty much what you want to see. They were also much more likely to have some of the dev team turn up to chat to players about the game and where they were going with it.

Particularly eye catching for me were:

(*Geek Aside: Looking at that map of the Home Counties, I’m reminded of the Golden Circle of shadows closest to Amber.)

Is Champions Online on the ropes?

Eric@Elder Game reckons that CO has about a month to determine whether or not it will be able to survive for a couple of years or not. (It’s worth reading his post partly because he’s an insightful writer with some industry inside perspective but also because this one has a funny story about a profanity filter.)

I’m not a great fan of superheroes but even so, I had noticed that I’ve heard very little about CO in the blogosphere recently. There was an upsurge of interest when the game launched, with quite a few people picking up lifetime subscriptions and explaining what they enjoyed about the game. But I haven’t heard much recently. I’d assumed that the people who played were settling down quietly to do just that, but Eric has a different view.

We know that CO was not a huge hit. We also knew that Cryptic were planning to launch a second AAA MMO within a few months – Star Trek Online, which is a much much bigger IP. Eric wonders if this will put more pressure on the CO team within the company.

This is very bad news for Champions players. Champions has been relegated to the role of red-headed stepchild… it’s that crappy failure of a game that keeps stealing resources from Star Trek Online, which is the game that’s going to save the company.

But here’s the thing. There are certainly publishers who run several successful MMOs at once — mostly free to play type games like Aeria Games, or social games like Zynga (creators of Farmville, Mafia Wars, etc). But these are much less demanding games (in terms of artwork, music, coding support) than the lush top of the line subscription MMOs that Cryptic is producing.

Will they be able to sustain both CO and STO without one game losing out in the long run? Because if one does lose, it won’t be Star Trek. How many people who took out lifetime subs for CO are still happy with their purchase, I wonder.

Captain’s Log, Stardate Whatever

Added to the list of reasons to want to play Star Trek Online when it comes out, is that they’re going to implement some kind of captain’s log. Fans discuss what sort of functionality they’d like in a thread in official forums. Some of the suggestions include:

  • Automatic links to quests, NPCs, planets and achievements (if there are any)
  • Being able to dictate a log via voice chat
  • Being able to share the log with other people
  • Starmap showing the ship’s course over the past period of time
  • Ability to add custom personal notes
  • Listing when crew members join, increase in skill, and leave the ship
  • Send to friends via internal (or external) mail
  • Accessible via the web (ie. outside the game)

This is pie in the sky thinking but I’m excited about the sheer possibilities of an in game log. The fact that people are already saying that they want to share their content, to write their own notes, to attach them to some kind of in game database of quests, planets, species etc is pointing to a fully fledged social network.

What I actually expect to see is some kind of in game blog. But how exciting would it be to tag entries to make them searchable, let players vote on each other’s entries to encourage useful and entertaining logs, and build up a player generated, player searchable database in the game?

So imagine something like wowhead (a WoW database where you can look up quests and see comments that people have added giving hints or locations), but where you search in game for a quest name and can see all the relevant log entries, sorted in terms of which had higher scores.

Imagine players feeling encouraged to write in character log entries — this alone would get me to play Klingon. Imagine being able to browse the log entries from a web page even when you aren’t playing.

I have no idea what Cryptic plan to do with the Captain’s Log, but I’m excited about what it could be and where future MMOs could go with a similar idea. I’ve been talking about improved roleplaying via social networking over the last few weeks … but I don’t know if I expected it to happen so soon.

Also, if the game actually reads out the line “Captain’s Log, Stardate ((insert date))” when you access your own log, even I won’t be able to suppress a minor fangirl squee.