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.

Space, The Final Frontier

Space is big. Really big. Also it’s black which makes it easy to render on archaic PCs. This does make me wonder why there aren’t more sci-fi/space opera style MMOs.

Aside from EVE, which  intrigues me but has been described as a spreadsheet in space with the learning curve from hell, there is not a vast amount of choice. Fortunately for space nuts, there are games in the works to fill the gaps.

Jumpgate Evolution

NetDevil’s dog-fighting twitch based combat MMO is due to be released later this year. Jumpgate Evolution is a game that knows exactly what it wants to be. And what it wants to be sounds very like Elite, so I’m sold on it already.

Here’s the feature list. You’ll be playing a pilot and flying around in space (duh) where you can dogfight, trade, explore a huge universe and take part in what they describe as a player driven world/ economy.

They describe their unique mission generator which sounds as though it’ll be able to generate random PvE type missions for you also. Hopefully this means you’ll be able to get CoH-style missions that are scaled for the number of people in your group.

It also supports huge space battles and runs on a toaster. And just as in EVE, there aren’t really different classes for players, but there are different classes of ships that you can learn to fly. And yes you can slam your ship into other structures if you really want to.

The only niggle in the back of my mind is that they mention twitch-based gaming about seven zillion times in their FAQ. That’s something I’ll need to try for myself before I can decide.

If you’re intrigued, you can go sign up for the beta now. Although there’s no solid release date, it is due for later this year.

Star Trek Online

As well as working on Champions Online, Cryptic have a Star Trek game in the works. We don’t have any solid dates for this yet but it will be out after CO, and probably not this year.

In this game, you’ll be playing the pilot of your own starship. You will be able to pick one of several different types of ship to fly, and can choose if you want to be a member of the Federation or the Kingon Empire/ Alliance. You’ll be able to select and train your own bridge crew (that’s NPCs of course, good luck training other players) and go on a variety of space based and planet based missions. Plus PvP with the other faction.

Coming from the same team who brought us City of Heroes, it’s no surprise that they’re big on character and ship customisation. You’ll be able to design your own race, and there will be lots of options to pimp out your ship.

Space combat is described as more tactical than twitch based. You’ll have to move your shields around as needed and pay attention to your positioning. Planet side combat has been described as needing you to move around more, and being faster paced than WoW. Since WoW PvP combat can be extremely fast paced, this again is something we’ll have to wait and see for ourselves.

One of the intriguing things about the Star Trek Universe is the economy. Fans have been arguing for decades about how an economy might work in a gameworld where just about anything you want can be created in a replicator. The fanwank explanation is that some things can’t be replicated and these scarce resources drive the economy.

Cryptic comment in a recent chat with IGN Vault readers that there will be an Auction House and there will be items that you need to get for your starship (dilithium crystals, anyone?).

My other personal issue with the Federation  is that when I was an undergrad, we played a few pen and paper sessions of the RPG and my character got court martialled. I liked that character! She was from New York and since the only thing that I can say in a NY accent is ‘Get me a coffee’ she drank a lot of coffee. Comparing notes with my husband, he comments that people got court martialled a lot in his games too. It seems to have happened any time anyone did something interesting.

The Federation is obviously a repressive fascist organisation that strives to extinguish any spark of individuality or creativity in its members. It must be stopped! Also Klingons look a bit like orcs and Klingon women are well ‘ard. So that’s my faction picked :)

There’s also a great blog writeup from one of their writers on mmorpg.com who discusses how writing missions for STO is a very different proposition from writing fanfic. As a writer, I thought this was a very interesting read.

So if you’re looking to play space opera but in a less twitch based cut-throat PvP setting than Jumpgate Evolution, this is one to keep an eye on.

If you can actually name your own ship, I’m sold.

Star Wars: The Old Republic

Star Wars is Bioware’s much vaunted WoW-beater. It’s going to be big and shiny, and is described in the FAQ as  ‘a new approach to online entertainment.’

This is a game which is rather further out in development than Jumpgate or Star Trek, so we have less information about exactly what they plan to do. Bioware recently revealed one class, the Bounty Hunter, and noted that each class is faction based. So all Bounty Hunters will be Sith (although that doesn’t mean that they are all dark side). There will definitely also be Jedis. And we’ll just have to wait for more detail as and when they are ready to spin up the hype machine and tell us about it!

Bioware are very big on immersion and on story driven plotlines and are planning to have a lot of class-based storylines available. And throughout the game, you’ll be faced with choices that could send you towards either the light side or the dark side.

I think the game will be fantastic, but we just don’t know yet what kind of gameplay they are aiming for.  However, if you enjoy questing and single player RPGs, this could be the game that plans to deliver. I don’t mean that it is single player, it isn’t, but they are looking to provide lots of content for soloers.

As Syp comments, one big problem that they face is that most people associate Star Wars with the films. The Old Republic is a very different setting, and it’s not going to be everyone’s cup of tea. It simply isn’t an IP which is as widely known and recognised.

One to keep an eye out for. To be honest, as the game gets closer to release, I think it will be well nigh impossible to avoid.