Seasonal Affective MMO Playing, Part 1

It was around this time last winter that I made my brief foray into World of Warcraft, buying a two-month card and playing it deeply, 5 years after everyone else had gotten around to it. At the end of that two month period, I had too much work to do, so I never bothered to renew.

This January, I had the same urge to play something “big” again. I can pinpoint the thought process that led me there: I was enjoying Torchlight, which made me try Titan Quest and then Borderlands, and that last game was sufficiently MMO-like to reawaken the hunger. Some people will tell you that they like MMOs for the large, persistent world, or for working together with their friends to vanquish a common foe. But I know what MMO’s are really all about: the ability to pick up a limitless number of objects whose titles are rendered in green, yellow, blue, or purple text. I can never get enough of that.

And when there’s no sunshine, collecting objects with colored text is a pretty good way of waiting for winter to end.

There are two games that I’ve tried out this time around: Star Trek Online (which is in beta) and Lord of the Rings Online. For this article, I’m going to talk about the new Star Trek game.

Star Trek Online is by Cryptic, the outfit that developed City of Heroes (which I, personally, found way more addictive than World of Warcraft - possibly because it taps into the deeply-rooted comic book geek inside me.)

The conceit of the game is that all the action takes place in two separate spheres. There is starship combat, where you take on Klingons, Romulans, and others from the Star Trek mythology, and there are ground missions, where you take an “away team” onto a planet’s surface and shoot things up.

Amusingly, just before getting my beta key I had reinstalled Starfleet Command II, a single-player Windows game that simulated ship-to-ship combat in the Star Trek universe. Tightly modeled as sort of a real-time Star Fleet Battles, SC II was, at the time, considered one of the best space combat games of its type (which is to say, space combat games that loosely pattern themselves after naval combat tactics).

Star Trek OnlineThe space combat in Star Trek Online is way better than that in Starfleet Command. That’s no small accomplishment, and all the rest of my comments should be read with that in mind. If what you want is to see starships shooting phasers at each other, Star Trek Online is probably the best game to be playing at the moment. The combat is fast, furious, strategic – as in most games of this type, there’s a constant tension between keeping your weapons pointed at the enemy, and changing shield facing to absorb more damage – and beautiful to look at.

The ground combat, while not quite as polished, is workable. It feels very much like Bioware’s Mass Effect. It uses the time honored MMORPG user interface, which boils down to “press a number key to do an attack, then wait a while before you can use that attack again.”

One thing that I think is sort of brilliant is that, with a few exceptions, the space combat and the ground combat use practically the same UI. This makes switching between the two feel particularly fluid. (Internally, you can tell that they’re in fact using the exact same engine. A few times, I transported down to a planet and saw my ship’s model flying around on the planet before my captain “popped in”; likewise, a few times I got to see my captain strolling casually around deep space before the graphical engine got around to loading the right mesh.)

All is not sunny in the Federation, however. There are a few places where I think Cryptic has missed the mark, and missed the mark widely.

First, let’s talk about advancing your character. In every game of this type, as you gain experience, your character gets additional powers or gets stronger. The same is true here. At the high level, it sounds simple: gain experience points, get a ship with more guns! The devil is in the details, however. Let’s see if I can concisely explain the scheme.

As you complete missions, you gain skill points (which are distinct from “bridge officer skill points,” and also distinct from “Federation merits points”). Before you can gain a rank, you have to spend those points on skills, each of which gives you a 0.004% increase in efficiency. After spending so many points, you will gain a subrank, which gives you 0.05% increase in strength. Subranks themselves aggregate into hyperranks, hyperranks into zomflargs, and 38.4 zomflargs make a strudel. Strudels can be hyperborean, transborean, or antidiluvian (in which case they are negatory, except when transmogrified into the dimensional blahdificator, which will blah-de-blah-de-blah.) After blah blah blahing your blah until it’s completely blahed like a cheerleader at the Super Bowl after-party, you bore yourself to death and die, and re-subscribe to World of Warcraft instead.

In other words, the game is constantly, and I mean constantly, asking me to “allocate points” which, when I allocate them, accomplish approximately nothing. Just to be even more bloody minded, you earn the points one at a time, but you spend them in groups of (at least) 100. This is completely ridiculous. Don’t ask me to make a decision until the decision actually matters.

The other aspect of the game that I suspect misses the mark is the social aspect. Now I say “suspect” because I am not the best person to judge these things, because I fundamentally dislike people. Perhaps because so much of the game is spent in outer space, where other players just look like spaceships that are all extremely similar, there just seems to be no particular incentive to interact. Mind you, this meant that I was as happy as a clam, because I didn’t have to talk to anyone, but if you aren’t like me, this might bug you.

The game goes out of its way to not just “encourage” grouping, but to just make it happen. This is probably the best part of the social aspect of the game. You go off to do a mission, and if it’s a group mission, there’s no time wasted looking for a group: you just warp into the area and other players are already there or arrive shortly. It’s so uncanny, in fact, that at times I literally couldn’t tell if I was playing with human or computer players. This was profoundly unsettling.

There is no “world player vs. player” in Star Trek Online: if you don’t want to be randomly killed by other players, you can (at present) completely avoid this. If, on the other hand, you’re the sort of sociopa loser player who likes nothing more than teabagging the corpses of your enemies and calling them gay lamers who probably use a Mac, you can play as a Klingon, which, I’m told, is a mostly PvP experience. I didn’t try this because I’d rather dig latrines for the army than voluntarily do PvP in a MMORPG. It’s a pretty good bet that at some point they will roll out optional missions that allow PvP between the Feds and Klingons. For all I know, I might have played one, but given that I couldn’t tell if my allies were other players, I sure as hell couldn’t tell whether the enemies were.

As a gamer with a job, the biggest problem for me was the unpredictability of mission length. Sometimes you pop into a solar system and there’s a brief, furious combat that lasts 5 minutes. Other times, there’s a protracted series of encounters in the system that last 20 minutes to half an hour. Still other times you’ll get that plus a ground mission that can take 40 minutes to an hour. The problem here isn’t that there are missions of differing lengths, the problem is that, unless I’m missing something obvious, I can’t tell which ones are which in advance. This, more than anything, is why the thought of clicking on the Star Trek Online icon fills me with a sense of unnameable dread. And inducing that feeling isn’t really a big selling point for a videogame.

So in conclusion, Star Trek Online leaves me feeling conflicted. This feeling, I might add, has been shared by literally every person I know who has played the game. There are moments in the game, in ship to ship combat, particularly, that are absolutely gripping and beautiful. If I could purchase a space combat simulator that constructed random battles using that engine, I’d buy it today, just to get those moments. But in the product we actually have, those moments are embedded in this monthly-fee MMORPG that is littered with systems that are at best ill-conceived and at worst actively irritating.

That I’m even still considering paying for a month or two is an indication of how good the space combat parts of the game are. But it’s not a slam dunk, and it should be. And in the back of my mind, I think to myself “If they can’t deliver something that’s compelling from top to bottom with this licensed property, what hope is there for the game in the long term?” That’s the source of my conflict. Time, I suppose, will tell.