Star Trek Online: Ten Years Old, Still Fun
And with the finest visuals 2010 had to offer
In my head, Star Trek Online is still only a few years old. I distinctly remember buying my retail PC disc copy when it launched. I remember when it went free-to-play. I remember when it added Mass Effect-style shooting in a bid to capture action game fans. I named my first ship The Sea of Dreams because I was excited for the then-upcoming BioShock 2. I built my crew, and I set off to beat many of its quests, loving that they were bundled into “episodes” just like a Star Trek TV show.
And then, in spite of enjoying many hours with the game…I stopped playing it.
I thought about getting back into it when it launched on consoles, but I heard it started a little rough there, and then it got buried in the back of my mind under whatever else I was playing at the time.
It’s a new year, and 2020 feels like a momentous one thanks to all the sci-fi I consumed as a kid. So it was time to throw away adult notions like “not caring about backlogs” and download the Xbox version of Star Trek Online. The game is also free on PC and PS4.
On loading it up, I was startled by two things: the graphics, and the fact that the game is still receiving active updates. When it first came out, Star Trek Online stood proudly alongside other games, visually. That’s far from the case now, even with improvements over the years. The current state of the presentation was the first thing to pop my mind bubble about the game still being “somewhat recent,” but on the plus side the aesthetic style of Star Trek is strong enough that the many technical shortcomings fade into the background.
More fascinating is the pile of content centered around the current CBS All Access show, Star Trek Discovery. During character creation, you can select several different eras of Star Trek, and the latest content is dedicated to the current show complete with voice acting from its cast.
I was instantly impressed that the game is still receiving updates, and at the obvious level of care that went into rendering the new show’s cast and settings with the now-outdated technology. I considered playing through that content, and I will someday soon, but I haven’t watched Discovery yet. So I plunged into the Original Series era and played through its opening quests.
The “episode” structure is the smartest thing about Star Trek Online’s design. Many MMO’s, particularly of the era, were endless grinds through a massive pile of quests. The episodic structure of STO allows you to take a break every so often while still feeling like you got somewhere, and allows the narrative to jump around a bit just like a TV show.
This sort of design is more common in online games now, and I think short- session gameplay has been instrumental to the success of things like Warframe. But at the time it was cool, and a smart way to make the game feel more like its source material.
Sadly, the core gameplay doesn’t completely hold up against more modern action-based MMO’s even though I’m still having fun with it. While you do technically aim and shoot in real-time, the actual results are still math-based in the background. It frequently feels clunky, and like characters are waiting to take shots at each other like they’re in some kind of elaborate LARP session together. But it’s workable on a controller, and immediately intuitive.
The writing is fun, and I appreciate that the quest objectives are changed up based on the character class you select…but combat is still the answer to more than half the problems you’ll face in the game, which makes sense from a gameplay perspective but gets a little goofy from a Star Trek point of view.
Presentation-wise, the game is a bit of a weird mess, especially on the Xbox. Performance isn’t too much of an issue, but at times the whole thing feels like it’s going to shake itself apart. Characters wiggle around and twitch, like they aren’t quite lining up with where the server expects them to be. Certain lines of dialogue get cut off. And the environments, while reasonably detailed up-close in terms of texture artwork, are fairly sparse and basic as far as geometry or level design.
Still, once I got over the aged nature of the graphics and the realization that the game was ten years old, I discovered how much fun was still buried in this game. As a semi-canonical piece of Star Trek, it’s fun to see how the writing integrates into the source material, and I’ll never tire of hearing Leonard Nimoy tell me that I gained a level. The ship combat sections have held up a bit better than the land stuff, as there’s still not much like them in the MMO space. And it’s impressive how much voiced dialogue the game has in an era where clicking past endless text scrolls was the norm.
I’ll probably keep going with Star Trek Online even though it’s not the most amazing game in the world. There’s a ton of content here for free, and the monetization model doesn’t feel super aggressive, at least in my short re-visit. The game’s subreddit is full of folks who are tired of the game because they’ve blasted through all the content, but as someone who has only seen about 1/6th of the quests currently in the game, I’m eager to check out more.
Further, there are rumblings from the game’s developers that a big update is afoot for the tenth anniversary. Maybe it’ll get some kind of fun new missions…or maybe it’ll be a rehash of older stuff where everyone will get a token free pack of consumables. It’s hard to say with this sort of thing, and I doubt many marketing dollars will go into the update at this point. Still, even though there hasn’t been an official player count released in a while, the fact that the game is still getting updates means something has to be working, right?
I love the concept of space-based MMO’s, and Star Trek Online still rekindles memories of my personal weird quirky genre favorite, Earth and Beyond. That game was cut down before its time thanks in part to EA’s acquisition of Westwood, and I missed out on playing its ending events because my family moved into a new apartment complex. Thanks to a bunch of weird exclusivity agreements, we lost our DSL for a dial-up connection for a few months. That wasn’t quite fast enough to play the game well, and then it died a sad early death.
Star Trek Online is a great space MMO to try out if Eve seems like it’ll be too hardcore or you want some ground-based shooting action. It doesn’t quite have the presentation splendor of Bioware’s also-ongoing The Old Republic, but it has enough of the Star Trek vibe to please me as a casual fan of the franchise.
I feel like the IP is still strong enough that it’s worth further future game development. I’ll happily play any new Star Trek games, and I can easily envision newer more graphically-capable RPGs and adventures set in its world. Although not all the shows and movies have been amazing, I like the scope and scale of its storytelling potential, and its uniquely optimistic heart. That positive vibe manages to break through the dated graphics and the clunky shooting missions in Star Trek Online, even ten years after its release.