Procrastination Amplification: Punditry on MMOs and games in general.

Star Trek Online Beta Impressions – Combat

A constant topic in the gaming media seems to be that of reviewers not actually playing a game enough before writing a review. What’s even worse is reviewing betas and putting that out there as a full review. That’s why any review you see out there for Star Trek Online must be taken with a chunk of salt. This post is not a review, it’s merely a collection of impressions I’ve been getting so far. I will give my opinion on whether or not the game is worth buying before it launches in February – but not yet. Today, I’ll talk about combat in STO – more post will follow.

Space Combat

Space combat is a lot of fun. Every ship has shields in four directions and usually two types of weapons – beam weapons (phasers, disruptors, etc) and torpedoes. Torpedoes do a lot of damage when compared to phasers, but can’t hit through shields. In order to blow up an enemy ship you therefore need to completely remove a section of its shields and then get some torpedoes in there. Likewise, to avoid destruction you need to make sure to never give your enemy such an opening. You can do that by boosting shields in a certain direction, rerouting power from others, or by turning your ship so that the enemy can’t hit your weak spot anymore.

Star Trek Online space combat

Star Trek Online space combat

Generally, directions play a big role in space combat. Weapons have firing arcs out of which they are unable to do anything. Right now, for example, I have the ability to exchange all my phasers for heavy disruptor cannons – but those only have a 45 degree firing arc. In order to fire my front-mounted cannon I’d need to pretty much fly directly towards the enemy. That way I can’t do shield-protecting maneuvers  while still keeping the enemy under pressure. I’ll also be unable to use my aft and front weapons at the same time because their firing arcs don’t overlap. Using 250 degree weapons instead, I can fly alongside an enemy ship and use a full broadside on them. I’ll also have at least one weapon available no matter which way I’m turning.

Enemy positioning is equally important. If they have the afore mentioned front-mounted cannons you’d better try not to get into their cross hairs. In order to achieve that you can reroute power to the engines and auxiliary systems to give you a speed and agility advantage over the other ship. You can even have your science officer use a tractor beam to keep the enemy ship slowed while you maneuver around it and get some torpedoes into  a weak spot.

You can move in three dimensions, as is appropriate for space, but you can’t really use the third dimension. Shields are two-dimensional and ships can’t actually do rolls or loops. That makes the whole shebang play out rather like a naval battle instead of a space one – but then, Star Trek battles have always been mostly two-dimensional. What you can use the third dimension for is to quickly turn another side to the enemy ship or to access another of its sides. Your front shield taking a heavy beating? Just put the pedal to the metal , fly right above the enemy and give them a good look at your rear.

Bugs are fun!

Aside from directions, distance is also quite important. In your garden variety MMO, distance is a binary function – either you are in range to use an ability or not. Not so in STO. While there is a maximum range on weapons, distance also influences other variables. Beam weapons do less damage the further away your target is, and torpedoes have a longer travelling time. One interesting strategy on a ship with heavy frontal weapons is to fire a torpedo from far away while flying straight at the enemy and firing all beam weapons, then firing another torpedo when you get closer (and the cooldown is over) so that both hit exactly when your disruptors have eliminated the enemy shields. Firing torpedoes at the right moment in time so that they hit a hole in the enemy shields is a fun skill to master.

I’ve seen a lot of people complain about how slow space combat is, but I am actually quite fine with the speed. Things happen slow enough for you to make rational decisions, yet you still get a sense of urgency, Also, the general slowness of ships makes things like putting full power to engines and auxiliary systems or even ordering evasive maneuvers much more fun.

It will be interesting to see how much more complicated space combat becomes when you gain levels (excuse me, rank.) I hope it changes quite a bit, since I can see this form becoming stale eventually. That said, I’ve yet to play an MMO  with combat as engaging as STO’s space combat. The way positioning and timing of abilities are interwoven, as well as the energy-distribution feature make it stand out. If you play in a group, it’s even more interesting. All groups I’ve been in so far were with randoms and we had no coordination. Still I already got the feeling of a massive space battle. Imagine doing that with voice chat and people that know what hey are doing.

Ground Combat

Star Trek Online ground combat

Star Trek Online ground combat

Alas, ground combat is pretty much the opposite of space combat. You get your standard MMO ability bar but with far fewer abilities to use. There is no resource limiting your ability use, except for cooldowns, and the abilities are quite boring. Then there’s your team.  You usually have four members of your crew with you on away missions that follow you around and will shoot stuff. In theory you can give them some limited orders, but you really can’t. If you are in a group, these NPCs will be replaced by your group members. What’s so terrible about ground combat is that is essentially just a huge clusterfuck. You regularly go up against groups of more than five enemies and I have yet to see any structuring mechanics. There is some sort of aggro but there don’t seem to be tanks and your group members do what they want anyway. I’ve resolved to just kneel down and shoot stuff, relying on my engineering officer to keep up my shields and my science officer to keep up my health. There’s no tactical element, no challenge, I just stay there pressing 1 and 2 until a Klingon gets close in which I press 3 to knock her back.

Ground combat also runs terribly on my machine for some reason – it’s not that beautiful and I could run Aion on full settings after all. Since you can’t have separate video settings for ground and space, the whole game is quite ugly for me now, running at low settings. I hear the same problem exists in Champions Online which uses the same engine. Just license the CryEngine  already and be fine.

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