With the NDA lifted on Cryptic Studios’ latest MMO release early this morning, a lot of fan fare and information begins to trickle through the news in regards to Star Trek Online. I got a chance to sit down and play the latest build of the beta for two hours before the servers crashed, and after a whopping 8 GB download, followed by a 2.5 GB patch, there I was, faced with character selection. For those that do not know, the guys over at Cryptic are the brains behind the original superhero MMO, City of Heroes. Likewise, Cryptic’s latest release, Champions Online, also boasts an amazing character creation system that really allows for any look imaginable. If you are the type of person that likes to fine tune everything from the size of your feet to the width of your jawbone, Cryptic’s games are second to none in this area.

I was a bit overwhelmed with the number of options for character creation, so I just hit randomize a dozen or so times until I settled on some freakazoid-looking alien as my Federation representative. You get an option of choosing from the more popular races in the Federation, each with their own innate abilities, or you can select to create your own alien race with up to four of the innate abilities for your new member of the Federation. This really seems the way to go since the pre-canned templates all appear to only have one or two abilities included.

For anyone who has played Champions Online, throughout character creation, one can’t help but notice the striking similiarties between Cryptic’s two games. Clearly the graphics engine and user interface are a modification of the one used in Champions. On the highest of video settings, the game looks pretty good. The character models seem awkward and a bit dull in appearance, but the space scenes look amazing, if not for the planets that look like someone wrapped a cheap 2D texture around them. The lighting and shadows are very GPU intensive, and with my GTX275, I still had to turn these advanced features down to make the gameplay smooth at a 1920×1200 resolution.

The game begins in the Mess Hall of a starship on the edge of battle. Through the large viewing windows a number of Federation ships are engaged in combat with a Borg cube. Thus your training begins. You are an Ensign of the lowest rank, but still an officer on the Starship. The captain calls all hands to their battle stations, and you are to report to the Bridge immediately. Traveling to the Bridge is as simple as entering the turbo lift. You receive your orders to beam aboard a starship being overrun by Borg to assist with helping the captives and survivors. This is where you get your first tastes of combat.

Armed with a hand phaser, the narrator instructs you on fighting the Borg. Just like on the big screen, the Borg are slow moving enemies with little regard for you unless you reveal yourself a threat. This gives you more than enough time to learn how to fire and stun enemies with your phaser. While it is pretty easy to fire while moving around, if you are able to remain stationary, and crouch down, the game rewards you with bonus to damage for “focus firing”. Likewise, additional damage bonuses are granted for flanking an enemy and attacking from the backside.

With your mission a success, you beam back over to your Starship. Upon returning onboard, you learn that the Borg have eliminated all of the officers, which leaves you in charge. But there is no time to ponder your quick and convenient rise in the ranks as a hail is received from the USS Seacole seeking emergency assistance. Now comes your first taste in Starship piloting but not before picking your first officer. You have your choice of an Engineering, Science, or Tactical Officer, which are described by the narrator before you are forced to make a selection. I took a Science Officer because it mentioned the word healing in the description.

With Warp Engines offline, you engage at Full Impulse towards the Starship in distress. The controls for the Starship are pretty intuitive. You use the basic WASD to move around, and mouse-look to control the ship along the z-axis. The Q and E keys, which are normally used as strafe keys, instead control your impulse engines. Your Starship moves really slowly, which at first is a huge blessing since you are still trying to figure out how to work the bloody machine. The user interface gives you options to focus power to your shields, engines and/or weapons in what amounts to as ‘battle stances’ in other games. For example, if you swap to ‘attack mode’, power is diverted from your engines to your phaser and photon torpedoes.

Your Starship starts out with its standard selection of weapons. You have forward and rear phasers, as well as the aforementioned photon torpedoes. There are some tactics to space combat that the game teaches you early on, which is to fly by the enemy to allow both banks of phasers to focus fire. Once the shields drop, lob in your photon torpedoes for some serious damage. Just like flying, space combat starts very slowly, but the concept has a lot of potential and depth depending upon crew officers and weapons.

After you finish with your flight tutorial, you are instructed to rendezvous with the USS Renown by a Vulcun that instructs you to strip their disabled ship for spare parts. After all, it is the only logical thing to do. The Renown is almost destroyed, and you need the warp engines to get out of here. A pretty little cut-scene is shown as you warp away to the Vega Colony to engage the Borg on the front-lines. The game tutorial continues as you alternate between space battles and away missions on the surface of the planet.

Both forms of combat seem very familiar and it is quite easy to jump right in. In space combat, the focus is micromanaging your spaceship, everything from the shields to the officers. On the ground, you are a part of a 4-man party that explores and scouts, as well as engages in combat. There is a type of talent tree for each member of your party that lets you specialize your character and his influence on your ship. These choices seem to make a pretty big difference when out in the field. Personally I spent a lot of points in making my Captain a better Captain, since it directly affected my flight speed in space. I still fly slowly, but it is still a tad faster than the other new players around me. This helps a lot when competing for the same kills and resources.

The beginner’s tutorial ends on the front-lines in an epic battle against a Borg cube and sphere. You, along with a bunch of other new players in your instanced world pretty much overwhelm the Borg and any chance they have at winning. Yes, I said “instanced world”. Just like Cryptic’s other creations, this game uses channels or shards depending on your MMO background to make sure no one area is overcrowded. When the maximum number of characters is reached, a copy of the area is created for newcomers. Let’s get back to the battle, though. I actually was forced to go away from the keyboard at the start due to real life reasons, and I returned just in time for the battle to reset and a Borg cube to appear again, seemingly out of nowhere. This mechanic is the same public quest mechanic used in Champions Online that lets you participate in a small event just by happening upon it and joining in. You can in theory just hang out in space and kill the Borg cube and sphere over and over again for small amounts of experience points. Of course after a level or two, it is no longer worth it.

After your success with the Borg, you meet up with Admiral Quinn at Earth’s Spacedock. Your are promoted from acting captain to the captain of your very own Starship. I bet you didn’t see that coming! The Admiral explains how to customize the look of your ship and where to hire a few more bridge officers. He also gives you a few missions to start you on your way.

While admittedly I have only completed the beginning tutorial and the first couple of levels in the game, but that is after all why this is called a “first-look”. The game feels and plays like a console game, which is the same complaint many had about Champions Online. If you own an X-Box controller, it can be used in Star Trek Online as well. The game and storyline progresses around you in an instanced fashion that does not make you feel like you are a part of a larger universe. There are quest hubs akin to game lobbies, like the Earth Spacedock, where everyone congregates and resupplies. That being said, I see a lot of potential here for a few months of fun game play that is well-worth the price of the box although probably not worth the price of the monthly subscription. Nonetheless, there seems to be a decent Star Trek story to experience at least one time around, assuming Cryptic can address the frequent disconnects and server crashes before the February 2nd release date.