To say that I had “played” Cryptic Studios’ first MMO City of Heroes would be an understatement. “Obsessed over and devoted an embarrassingly large portion of my late teens/early twenties to” would in fact be a far more accurate description. For just over four years, the perfect storm of the superhero genre, near total character customization, and a wonderful group of fellow players kept me glued to my computer monitor for hours, days, months, playing City of Heroes, when I should have instead been doing pretty much anything else. Still, I loved that game, and it was only after exhausting nearly every gameplay possibility available, followed by continuing to play the game for another six months on top of that, did I finally decide I was finished with City of Heroes, and by extension, MMOs entirely. I had spent far too much time in Paragon City, and clearly there was something wrong with my personality which allowed me to be held in thrall to this genre, and I decided it would be safer simply to forgo them entirely. World of WarCraft could not entice me, and I was even able to hold CoH’s spiritual successor Champions Online at bay. Then, I started reading about Cryptic’s new project, Star Trek Online. Captain your own starship, it promised me. Customize every aspect, from the ship’s name and hull, its weapon output, and even your entire crew of bridge officers, all the way down to their species, gender, name, uniform and features. Why, that’s almost like creating your own “Star Trek” cast, and I sure do like character customization. Cryptic had me sold, and gainst my better judgment, I picked up STO, always fearing in the back of my mind that this would mean yet another four years of my life wasted. After having played the game long enough to reach its middle levels, I find that it turns out I never had anything to fear, because Cryptic’s Star Trek Online is a massive pile of shit.
Which, to ditch the personal melodrama for a moment, is really unfortunate, because the potential for a good game is here, it’s just that Cryptic seems to have simply not cared enough to bother making one. All that customization and personalization that I mentioned, the ship, the bridge officers, is there, but seems to serve no purpose other than to merely exist. Yes, I have ten unique bridge officers of my own design, each with their own unique name, appearance, and if I so wished, backstory, but most of them don’t do anything. The game is divided up between space and ground based segments, and for most of your Starfleet career you can only use up to four at a time in either mode. Even if I decide to specialize all my officers in either bridge or ground duties, that still leaves me with two officers just sort of floating around useless and jobless in my inventory; and I’m not even at the maximum number of officers yet! I could switch officers around more often, and invest skill points into all of them, but then each would be individually less effective, thus making my own character weaker. I like customization in games as much as the next guy, probably more than him even, but if it’s all to no end, even I don’t see the point.
Not that all the customization in the world would make STO’s mission designs any better. I’m well aware that MMOs are held to a much lower standard when it comes to this sort of thing, with “Kill X Amount of Enemies” and “Collect Y Amount of Arbitrary Doodads” being the norm when it comes to MMO quest design, but somehow, Cryptic sinks below those already incredibly low standards. Star Trek Online’s missions manage to combine the unbelievable tedium of your standard MMO’s quest objectives, with what seems to be a sadistic desire to torment the player at every turn. It is not uncommon to beam down to a planet, pumped and ready for a thrilling battle against the Klingons or the Romulans (though typically you will have to settle for also-rans such as the Gorn or the Hirogen), only to receive a message from one of your bridge officers, informing you that they are receiving unusual readings from some nearby object, and that Starfleet would appreciate it if you would scan said object for them. Ever the obedient Federation officer, you approach the nearby glowing rock, or computer screen, or giant carnivorous mushroom, or what have you, and press the F key so that you can watch a loading bar fill up while your character sort of floats his tricorder over the object. “Amazing!” your bridge officer will inform you once the bar fills, “Starfleet has never seen anything like this! You should scan another.” Alright, well, you suppose new discoveries could prove valuable to the war effort against the Klingons. You wander aimlessly around the planet a bit longer, finally stumbling across another glowing whatever, and press the F key. Your little bar fills up, and you receive another message from your officer. “Unprecedented!” they exclaim, “We really have never seen anything like this. You should find three more of them.” A bit annoyed, you nonetheless continue to traipse around the planet’s surface, noting that for a world with so much never-before-seen crap, there sure do seem to be an awful lot of futuristic houses around, and that the crewmen who make up your away team seem to have trouble navigating the surface’s many hills, or around anything larger than a shrub. Still, after much aimless wandering, you breathe a sigh of relief as you press the F key once again, and your third, final, little bar fills up. “Amazing! Wonderful!” your officer shouts in delight, “Now find one more.”
It may sound like I’m just being petty, but try going through that obnoxious objective fulfillment cocktease two or three dozen times, and you’ll start getting pretty frustrated as well. There’s no excuse for the game not to just give you the full details of your objectives at the outset—especially considering that it isn’t as if it’d be spoiling any great narrative. As silly as they were, my examples of officer dialogue above are not far removed from reality. It would be one thing if Cryptic saw fit to give me a compelling reason to scan somewhere between one and fourteen glowing pieces of dirt, but more often than not the reason amounts to nothing more than “because it could prove interesting,” followed by, and I am not making this up or exaggerating in any way, “No wait, sorry, it was just some dirt.”
And that right there identifies Star Trek Online’s greatest flaw: at no point playing do you ever get the feeling that anyone at Cryptic gave enough of a shit to even try to make it a great game. As I mentioned earlier, there is just so much potential here for a really exciting fully-customizable Star Trek RPG, but there are so many little things that this game does wrong, I can’t see how these developers could ever actually be bothered to reach such a potential. In addition to the dull writing, the game simply doesn’t bother to telling you stuff. Important stuff. Like that you have an ability that will conveniently point you towards mission’s next objective, or that to reorganize your ability tray your have to right click and drag the icon, or even in what sector of space (STO’s equivalent of “zones”) your next quest takes place in. You could consult the in game help function, but it won’t prove very useful. Instead of providing a compendium of solutions to frequently encountered problems, the help function instead only gives you information you’ve already been given, which, ironically, does not help at all.
Furthermore, there are just so many aggravating little inconsistencies in this game, it’s as if no one in Cryptic’s offices bothered talking to each other while making it. Every single space station I’ve traveled to so far has had a different docking/undocking procedure. Some of them have you fly close enough so that a message pops up, stopping your ship, asking you if you want to beam down to the station. Others, have fly close enough for a little caption to pop up in the corner of your screen, which you have to click in order to beam down. Then, when you want to leave the station, the button to warp out of the system could be anywhere on your screen. It might be in a window in the center of your screen, on a tab in the lower left corner, or you may have to use the unlabeled and never mentioned button located in the upper right next to your mini-map.
How about that moment every time you complete a quest, when a window opens up asking if you would like to leave the instance? You always have two options, “Leave” or “Stay and Explore,” but there is no consistency to the order they are presented. Sometimes leave is the first option, sometimes it is the second. Would it have been that hard to make sure there was consistency in the menu system?
What about the fact that your friends list, as well as the looking for group list, don’t give specific player levels, but instead that player’s rank. This means that when the game tells me that my friend is a “Commander,” it is actually telling me that his level is “somewhere between 21 and 30.”
I haven’t even mentioned The Exchange, STO’s answer to World of WarCraft’s Auction House, which offers zero sorting options for your searches past level range (and again, just rank, not actual level) and rarity, ensuring that no matter what you search for, you will have to sift through hundred-plus item lists, presented in no discernable order whatsoever. I know it just seems like I’m nitpicking at this point, but STO is full of this sort of crap, all of it adds up to create a distinct sensation of monumental half-assedry on the part of the developers.
Is there anything good about STO? There must be something to it, as I’ve played it long enough to reach the rank of Commander, and compile this giant list of complaints I’ve just presented. I will say that the graphics, especially in the space sequences, are very well done. The ship models, the phaser and photon torpedo blasts, even the planets and nebulae in the distance all ring very true, and feel authentically “Star Trek.” In fact, the space combat is probably the best part of the game, which each ship equipped with unique weapon and crew load-outs which force you to approach battles tactically. Yet, even here, there are complaints. Despite the fact that all of the combat takes place in outer space, there is still apparently an “up” and “down,” with your ship unable to move 90 degrees in either direction, making getting to anything above or below you a needless chore, and sharp maneuvers in tight combat situations harder than they should be.
Overall, Star Trek Online is a massive disappointment. As a fan of one of Cryptic’s previous outings, Star Trek, and RPGs that offer extensive character customization, someone like me should have had no problem enjoying this game, but the design is so half-hearted and disjointed that I often found myself more frustrated than entertained. Theoretically, after a few rounds of patches, Cryptic could have a good game on their hands. The potential really is there, deep, deep down below all the crap, but from what I’ve seen so far, I don’t have any confidence in their ability to deliver, and I’m certainly not going to wait around and find out.