Star Trek OnlineThere couldn’t be a better time for releasing the first Star Trek massively multiplayer online game. The new and acclaimed movie is still fresh in the viewer’s minds, and the sequel is already in production. Experienced MMO developer Cryptic is handling the game, soon after the release of Champions Online, a competent superhero MMO.

We had the chance to play in the Closed Beta and caught a glimpse of the full potential behind Star Trek Online. Its origins are undeniable – it may look and sound somewhat like Champions Online at the beginning, but quickly it reveals its own identity, offering nearly everything fans are expecting.

The Federation and Klingons are at war again in Star Trek Online. For the player it all starts with the character creator showing that this is one of Cryptic’s strongest points. Our Federation hero can be chosen from several distinct species, and his/her aspect tweaked in detail, thanks to dozens of options, including sliders for nose, mouth and so on. Although it doesn’t offer the variety provided by Champions Online creator – obviously due to the licence – it still does a fine job of offering different possibilities. Needless to say our choices will impact on the skill alignment and capacities of our avatar.

Unlike most MMORPGs, in Star Trek Online not only we have to improve our character, but also evolve two other important aspects in the universe: the officers that usually fight alongside us, and our ship. If badly done, this could mean that we’d have two very different games melded into one – exploration and space combat. However, both deserved great attention so that the players never feel like one aspect overshadows the other. Star Trek Online manages not only to be a complex experience but at the same time incredibly easy to learn and enjoy. Most missions frequently jump from solid ground to deep space, and everything seems fluid and interesting.

That being said, there are a lot of tactical aspects to take into account. When on foot, we have to create our squad according to our needs. If we’re a tactical officer (in theory the better fighter), then our fellow soldiers should be engineers or science officers, to cover all needs. There’s even a pause button, limited to 45 seconds, to issue orders to our companions. Beware of the weapons you use and their refresh rate, and be on the lookout for new items to analyze, use or sell.

Star Trek OnlineIn deep space, things are completely different, but exciting nonetheless. We can move our ship in a complete 3D environment, travelling from system to system, helping other ships and engaging in combat. This is when we discover the tactical depth of space combat. We can reroute power to one of three channels (speed, attack or defense) and fire our weapons one by one or at the same time. Besides the skills we can use, a combat is often decided through the clever use of shields. Our ship has four shields (front, rear, left and right) and it’s imperative that we learn how to engage enemies in the right way. Shields slowly recover over time, so we need to protect the weakened sides and even evade when necessary. Our supporting officers are also important, using their specialities to improve on weapons or shield. The open instances are something to rejoice, as a player is no longer forced to fight alone – if we enter an instance and are soon followed by another player, the game joins us in the same instance.

Progression rewards us in several aspects, including material and money to customize our ship. Players can change the template, select the material and the logo (no uploads, though), colors and windows, in the initial stages of the game.

Star Trek Online is shaping up as a MMO to please gamers, fans or otherwise. At times it’s clear that the team behind Champions Online is the same here, but there are clear improvements and the scope is much bigger. It’s hard to say how it will stand up in the long run, but what we’ve seen sure is promising. The exciting space combat and the intriguing planet exploration are two very different points that manage to meld into an ambitious game and, most importantly, one that manages to stay true to its memorable source material.