Procrastination Amplification: Punditry on MMOs and games in general.

Star Trek Online Beta Impressions – Missions and Mistakes

This is the second part of my Star Trek Online beta impressions. I’m pretty much through the content currently available in the beta, aside from PvP. That makes my impressions quite accurate for the current state of the beta, but keep in mind that things can still change until release – at least smaller issues will surely be fixed. Today I’ll write about quests (missions), instancing, and space travel. As in Friday’s installment, not everything is bad (contrary to popular belief) but quite a few things are.

Missions

There are a lot of missions (quests) in the game. So many, in fact, that my mission log keeps on growing because I get more missions than I can complete in time. What’s cool is that many of them can be acquired and completed via transmissions – meaning you don’t have to go back to a quest hub all the time to report and get new missions. Instead you just hail Starfleet and report to the responsible officer, which is cool. The missions come in two basic varieties – long, scripted ones and basic exploration ones. The scripted missions are more or less the meat of the game. One started with me scanning a few cargo ships for smuggled goods, which turned into a space fight. The intel found on these ships lead me to a nearby station owned by a Ferengi (as appropriate) who held someone captive who I was supposed to rescue. The Ferengi denied having any captives, however, and I had to start checking his bar for illegal equipment to subdue him. That turned into a brawl, after which he told me where to find the prisoner. Surprisingly, the prison cells were guarded by some Klingons I had to shoot and the important one was locked. The key was on a high ranking Klingon which I then killed. With the captive in tow we made our way out of the station only to be surprised by three de-cloaking Birds of Prey whose crew was quite angry at what I did to their captain. Ooops.

A quest in Star Trek Online.

A quest in Star Trek Online.

Exploration missions on the other hand are much simpler. You may be asked to check the mining facilities in a system while dealing with a few squadrons of Orions on the way, or to check out what happened to a probe that crash landed on an unexplored planet. The latter mission was the worst one I’ve seen in the game so far. I beamed down, found the probe and was asked to find four more pieces. The only interactive objects on the whole planet (well, the part that you get to see) were the probe pieces, and all I had to do was find them. No puzzles, no action, nothing. It still took me forever, however, because for some reason all the high tech of Starfleet isn’t able to show on my mini map where the (radioactive!) pieces of the probe lay. Instead I had to manually run around in circles until I saw the last piece buried between some rocks.

If you are a huge Star Trek nerd (Me, I’m just a huge nerd. Star Trek – not so much.), you’ll probably get a kick out of the story lines too – I even had one mission in which I travelled backwards in time and met the Enterprise. Don’t ask me which one though, I don’t really read quest text. There’s some voice over in the game and I haven’t really seen a pattern yet as to when there is some and when there isn’t. I hope this is simply a function of the game being in beta and all text will be spoken for release. There is quite a bit of text in the game for those that care for the lore. Not only do you get quest dialog,  but you can often ask additional questions to satisfy your curiosity. In a nice gesture, the guys at Cryptic have given the quest-advancing dialog options their own colour. Neat.

Instancing and Loading Screens

I’ve suggested single-server MMOs back in October, and one of the possible solutions was massive use of channels. Star Trek Online uses this philosophy to an extreme. Everything is instanced, from sectors of the galaxy, to planets, to the admiral’s office on Sol’s space station. Many people are complaining on how that makes it hard to meet up with people and breaks immersion, but that’s something that one could try to fix according to my suggestions. What really irks me is that every instance comes with a loading screen. Let’s say you’re in Vulcan space and get asked to pick up an ambassador on earth. You will need one loading screen to get to sector space, fly to the Sol system, endure a loading screen to get in, fly a few kilometres then another loading screen to get on the station, run a bit and see another loading screen to the admiral’s office, pick up the ambassador and go back through all those loading screens again.

Not only does this greatly annoy me because of all the wasted time waiting for the game to load, it also makes the game world feel very fragmented. You don’t really feel as if you’re flying through a wide open universe but instead through a neat chunk of fragments that have nothing to with each other.

Sector Space

Star Trek Online sector space.

Star Trek Online sector space.

Sector space is STO’s version of a fast travel map, only far less useful. It is easier to explain with pictures, so please have a look on the one to the right. Sector space is supposed to simulate warp flight between star systems. In true Star Trek tradition you can’t travel instantly (jump) to another point in space but only fly at high FTL speeds instead. Cryptic’s solution is to put the players into a giant (instanced) fishbowl where they can steer their planet-sized fish – err ships – through the sector. Aside from planets you can see other player’s ships in sector space as well as some “deep space encounters.” Nothing really happens in there, however, it is just a means of travelling to another place. For navigation, sector space is almost useless – as is the sector map by the way. The only decent way to navigate is to use the galaxy map (which is pretty but non-interactive) to find the sector you need to go to, fly there, and then use a drop-down list of systems in that sector to plot a course.

The whole concept of a sector space is pointless. If they can’t make a giant world with details being loaded as you approach them (as they have in World of Warcraft for example), they should have given me the option to just tell my pilot to plot a course for the nearest quest objective (or something like that) and be done with it. While travelling one could visit the bridge, see the familiar warp animation on the screen, report to Starfleet, sort out the inventory, talk to crew members or make entries into the captain’s log like a real Star Trek captain. The assets are all there – you can even visit the bridge – but they don’t interconnect right. There’s nothing to do on the bridge, the view screen is blank, and the ship even stops moving when you go to the bridge. The ship even stops moving when you hail Starfleet, taking away all possibilities to use travel time productively.  I’m sorry, Cryptic, but this implementation is bullshit. You could have implemented forced travel time that players actually enjoyed and considered authentic Star Trek – instead you gave us lousy sector space.