Star Trek Online is an MMO released during the height of the “let’s grab an existing IP and make it into an MMO” craze of the early 2010s. While many of that era have since come and gone, STO continues to plod along, propped up by a fanatical base that enjoys sharing starship blueprints on Reddit as much as it does arguing lore.
Figuring twelve years into the game’s life cycle that I’d successfully avoided the hype train, I recently decided to give this Cryptic game a try. I’ve never considered myself a pointy-eared cosplaying Trekker, but I have existed on the fringes of Trek since watching reruns of the original series with my dad as a young kid.
As such, I rolled a fresh original series character and was thoroughly impressed with the aesthetics and sound design of the Kirk-era environment. While the 23rd century lasts only a few missions, my character’s transporter effects and communicator/tricorder animations persisted even after she got caught up with the rest of the timeline. I have to admit that I wore a silly grin for much of the TOS starter zone.
I’m slightly conflicted about the visuals for STO. As first impressions go, some of the costumes and ship skins have aged amazingly well. On the other hand, animations are janky and some landscapes and environments feel sparse and dated. Even back when I first tried STO nine years ago, the ground combat running animation felt off, and it hasn’t improved over time. But iconic elements (Wrath of Kahn outfits, Deep Space Nine station, ships from the TV shows for example) are instantly recognizable and reason enough for any fan to shell out a few extra zen for cosmetics.
Speaking of monetization, STO is officially a free-to-play game, and by most accounts, it’s pretty good at being one. The old subscription option has been replaced by a $300 lifetime gold membership that includes some ships, unlocks, and permanent boosts, but it offers no gameplay advantage over a purely free account. Most of the gold membership unlocks can also be purchased a la carte from the cash shop.
Dare I say the current bloat isn’t too bad for a game of 12 revolutions? Much can be done with in-game acquirable dilithium and energy credits, but other systems award reputations of various flavors, salvage, and just loads and loads of tradable/craftable/usable stuff. Is that a Romulan Ale in my bag? Why yes, yes it is. Can I do something with it? Probably, but I’m not sure what. Also, pay no mind to the tribbles. They’re, uh, multiplying.
This brings me to the thing I find most challenging about being a new player in Star Trek Online. Yes, character levels are gained quickly, which is nice. And the character level cap has remained frozen at 65 for years, which is also nice.
But because all of the ancillary progression systems unlock as you level and leveling occurs so rapidly, the sheer number of systems quickly becomes overwhelming. Player skills can be unlocked through reputation projects. Bridge officer skills can be unlocked via grinding skill manuals. Duty officers can perform offline missions for experience, dilithium, and energy credits. Spaceship parts can be crafted and upgraded. If a player has multiple starships, you can even send the entire ship (or several) to perform offline missions. Endeavors are daily challenges that accrue points that can be spent on passive bonuses.
There are so many ways to customize ships and characters in STO that I honestly don’t even know what to focus on first. The initial space and ground skill trees barely seem to matter and are quickly maxed out and forgotten. I know I’ve got a long way to go because every time I run a Task Force Operation (the STO equivalent of a random dungeon), I’m carried through it by some uber ship with tons of supporting skills and bonuses. From what I’ve been able to gather, the variety of builds is a major factor in keeping longtime players interested in STO.
But as a new player, I find it’s the very thing that it the most difficult to wrap my mind around.
The good news is, as a new player you can mostly ignore any or all of those systems and simply play through the story missions for a daily dose of Trek. Sure, they’re repetitive and mostly focused on combat, but they’re as close as Trek fans can get to personally exploring strange new worlds while also running into familiar faces.
Somehow Cryptic has been able to wrangle up a cornucopia of Trek actors to voice their iconic characters throughout the game. Everybody from Leonard Nimoy to Jason Isaacs and Kate Mulgrew grace players with an appearance at various points throughout the story arcs. These characters are sprinkled throughout the game just sporadically enough to provide a nice little Easter egg just when a player might be getting into a repetitive rut. And because Star Trek has always played fast and loose with timelines, the interaction with characters of different eras is halfway believable.
While STO is a long-performing, solid game, it has to be noted that there are several areas that could use some attention. Obviously, it would be nice if the graphics and animations in some of the older sections of the game could be brought up to current standards, but that’s more of a “wish list” item than a serious request. But other obvious bugs and oversights exist that detract from the positive aspects of the game.
For example, I ran through a certain storyline a few days ago where the voice actors made a mistake, backed up, and read the line again correctly, yet the mistake was not properly edited out. This happened more than once and with different voice actors. A quick edit of that voice track would be an easy win for Cryptic.
Other things are simply not very well explained. At the moment, I’m unable to transwarp into the sector of space where Deep Space Nine exists. I have no idea why I’m unable to do this. I’ve traveled there before using the exact same steps, but as of right now, when I press the button to transwarp, nothing happens. I’m presented with no prompt and no explanation. The game just goes “nah,” and so I sit. Is it because of something I’ve done or a mission chain I’m progressing through? Maybe, but I have no idea.
Star Trek Online has a lot of things that fans of the series will love. From a Trek-like ambiance to iconic characters to a level of build tinkering and tweaking that would make Geordi La Forge proud. The pure abundance of systems and progressions should present players with challenges and options galore once initial story playthroughs are completed. A part of me wishes for just a little more polish in order to accentuate the core of the game, which seems after 12 years to be fairly solid. Not lens flare, mind you – just polish.