MMOs: the final frontier. These are the voyages of Starfleet officer Hunter. His continuing free to play mission: to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where many other subscribers have gone before.
Star Trek Online (STO) is an online MMO game centered on the Star Trek universe and set years after the events in the movie Star Trek: Nemesis. At this point the Klingons are once again our enemies, applications to Starfleet have been opened to “annex” races (races not fully fledged members of the United Federation of Planets, but who are within the UFP’s sphere of influence) and the spaceways are once again rife with raiders, political powder kegs, and danger.
STO launched as a standard monthly subscription MMO in February of 2010. Almost two years later, to the day, STO has gone “free to play”. This means that many old timers will be returning to Starfleet as well as many first time players, curious to see what all the fuss is about. I was in the STO beta and played quite a lot for the first few months. However, I generally only keep one MMO subscription up at a time and World of Warcraft is my default. I loved the gameplay, the universe and especially my bridge crew who I hand-picked and personalized. There were a few things that didn’t quite work for me and the game had an overall feeling that it wasn’t quite as polished as it could have been. But the fun factor was there and many subscribers have been adventuring across the universe for two years now. Seeing as how “free” fits into my monthly MMO budget, it was time to revisit the game, get my starship out of spacedock and get my crew back into action.
The first thing I noticed was that my skill points had been reset. That and there were a few new items in the UI as well as new missions suggested pertaining to PVP and PVE scenarios that counted as tutorials. What was new compared to when I played last? Well I can now leave the bridge of my ship and wander around inside! Yep, I can go to engineering, sickbay, my own personal quarters, etc. It’s a nice change of pace from when your entire shipboard experience was confined to the bridge. You can also visit Starfleet Academy on Earth as you orbit Earth’s spacedock. There are a few things that have been rearranged in spacedock and one I particularly liked was going up to the ship requisition office and seeing a Galaxy class cruiser just outside the window as I looked into the interior of spacedock. Very cool.
My other favorite new feature is the duty officer system. This allows you to crew up your ship with more than just your core bridge crew. You can have astrometrics experts, bartenders, security personnel, medical staff, counselors, etc. Up to 100 (more if you buy more slots with Cryptic points) and you can assign these crew members to do various tasks while you are away from your computer. Tasks can take anywhere from 20 hours to 30 minutes and can cover running level 5 weapon diagnostics, entertaining visiting diplomats, reinforcing troops on a remote outpost or even just sending some crew to Risa for some R&R. You can injure or even loose crew on more dangerous missions that fail or even get rare and valuable items for missions that succeed in a big way. I really enjoy hopping on every now and then to assigning my crew duties and to reap the rewards of successfully completed missions. And since experience and skill points are regular rewards, I am able to level up my character at a good pace just from keeping my crew busy.
Since the game is now free to play, Cryptic is banking on microtransactions to covers the costs of the game and they have quite a few insidious little ways to get the equivalent of your monthly subscription … and then some. You can buy extra duty officer slots as well as more bridge crew. Obviously bigger and better ships are a big draw but the real hook to me seems to be duty officer packs. These are packs of seven duty officers that work very much like trading card game packs. In a pack you are guaranteed five common officers and two uncommon or better officers. That being said, you can successfully level up to the maximum level in the game without paying one red cent and without really being at a distinct disadvantage. I feel Cryptic has found a good balance between buyable “nice to haves” and “need to haves” with much of the buyable content not being something that is super-duper, game killer content. Extra officers, ships with slightly better stats, costume options, etc. all make for a more enhanced gaming experience but doesn’t tip the scales in favor of those with deep pockets.
Space and ground combat missions (long regarded as rather static and repetitive) seem to have gotten an overhaul as well. Of the few missions I’ve run since taking the captain’s seat again I’ve enjoyed combat MUCH more with my tactical escort (think ranged DPS) as opposed to my cruiser (tank). I’ve even had a mission that was more detective work than a run and gun. A welcome change. There are even customer created missions available (which I have not tried yet) which seem to alleviate the cookie cutter nature of game created missions and allows you to pick and choose. Courtroom drama, full bore assault, traitor in your midst, contact and escort a defector are just a sample of the user generated missions that await you.
With the addition of more areas to explore (Starfleet Academy, your own ship, etc.), reasonably priced and fun buyable extras, more enemies, duty officer system, better missions and overall more polished gameplay STO is a game well worth a second (or even first) look for the Star Trek or MMO fan.