Thursday, January 28, 2010

Star Champions Online Trek off the Starboard Bow

Originally as this entry formed in my thinking meats, I was simply going to do a counterpoint to Syps Six Reasons why he is excited for Star Trek Online. Then as I sat down earlier with a coffee in hand, I caught up on my Massively. Specifically the Kitchen Sink patch.

We’ll deal with Star Trek and come back to Champions. Syp gives his own personal points why he is excited for the game. If you are at all interested in the game or even on the fence, go over and see what he has to say. It may well swing you in the games favour and who am I to stop you? My points though… my points are negative of course.

The first deals with Syps points 4&5, the fact that STO shows marked improvement and potential. Star Trek, as a game, as an IP and as a phenomenon should be commanding attention in the online market. Eve players should be eyeing up gorgeous ships with envy. Cryptic fans should be touting the jewel in their crown. Star Trek vs Star Wars debates should be suffering a blow as STO is out the gate well in advance of TOR. Cryptic made much of the fact that they have voice work from Leonard Nimoy and Zachary Quinto. They’ve worked with the plot point presented by the latest (and for me greatest) Star Trek movie. They’ve had all the breaks, all the chances and all the support and fans they could want. The game should be shining as it comes out of beta. Not “improving”, not “showing potential”. Star Trek is so deep within popular culture now that a poor execution of the game wounds fan spirits greater than if it was a newer ip. It’s launch shouldn’t be marred by last minute controversy. In light of the goings on with Champions (the two games being practically joined at the hip) the idea of a big content update 45 days after launch, requiring you to be into the second month of paying is just a further insult.

My second reason for disliking Star Trek Online is a little more airy. Shannon and I were watching the special features disc for the movie recently and Michael Giacchino made a fantastic point that had never really filtered into my mind before he voiced it. They left the theme of Star Trek right to the very end. They had flirted with it at various points through the movie but the cast and the crew had not yet earned it. As the movie closes, Leonard Nimoy talks us through it, the music swells and the ship, the crew and the franchise leaps into warp speed and the future. Love it or loathe it, the people behind the most recent Star Trek movie loved what they did, strove to be worthy of Star Trek and earned at least my adoration. Cryptic on the other hand has never (in a visible manner) given the same effort. They delivered a game based on an engine that isn’t suited for it with complaints everywhere. They slapped something together, stuck a combadge on it and partied like it was 2399. At no point in the beta build up, the marketing campaign or the public test did they earn the right to create or run Star Trek. IPs have huge power, but slapping an IP on a game you’d already built and calling it a day is nothing less than a gross insult to the fans of the IP. Just because it has the label of Star Trek, this in no way means they earned it.

The Champions debacle is an entry on its own. However there is something that I have taken away from Cryptics pricing, tactics and my own coloured views of Star Trek. This isn’t the game we deserve, this isn’t even the game that should have been. It was thrown together hastily using whatever was handy, marketed and shoved out the door. Why? I say because of Star Wars: The Old Republic.

So much of the industry nowadays is focused on WoW-killers and the next WoW and Bioware could topple Blizzard that they panic. Farming cash from the Star Trek IP in this way says only that Cryptic as a developer and Atari as a publisher had no faith in what they created, they didn’t think it’d survive contact with a Bioware Star Wars and they didn’t even bother to make a new game. Instead of being a virtual world where humanity has grown beyond some of our worst features, instead of being the shining light of hope that Star Trek strove to be, this is an extended exercise in lining ones pockets at the expense of a fanbase. Personally, my heart is broken.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Start Trekin’

Hello everyone!

It’s been a while I know. First Shannon put out her back on Thanksgiving, then it was Christmas and then it was New Years, Shannon’s birthday, my birthday and yesterday my anniversary.

That all said, it’s a poor excuse but hey it needed saying.

Soooo! Star Trek.

I got into the Closed Beta quite some time ago, in fact shortly after I did I made sure to make a note. I will be perfectly honest and say that in the closed beta, I didn’t exactly give it the most rigorous testing of it’s life, nor did I pour obsessively over it so that I could give you the best review of your lives. Why? Well Cryptic works on PST and as a result the three or four hour beta windows were typically far too late in the evening for me. I stayed up till 3am for my first, just to see the game, but after that I couldn’t be bothered. If a window met me and if I wasn’t otherwise occupied then I played. However the painfully brief windows for testing left little opportunity for me on GMT to actually y’know.. test.

Speaking of said windows, the only time the game was up for a nice meaty chunk of time before open beta was a week before Christmas. All other times, maybe maaaaybe for a few hours with each window a week or so apart at times. If you’ve been fretting about how fast this game has been tested, there’s some more fuel for the fire. If you think Champions Online was an extended beta for Star Trek, well then surely the engine didn’t need that much testing.

On the game itself, I have a surprising revelation given how I’ve been about it. Having tootled about in my little Centaur for a bit, you know game-wise, it isn’t half bad. I’ve only gotten to Lieutenant Rank 6 so it’s not like I’ve seen all that can be seen and done.

Bullet points! This would be the pro-list.

  • Fleet Actions or as you know them, Warhammer Public Quests
  • Diplomatic Missions (I did one, simple chat and remember)
  • Trans-Warp to Starbase (A hearthstone by any other name, but graphically appealing)
  • Phasers and Photons sound like they should.
  • Open instance auto teaming.
  • Space combat is engaging.
  • Alternative crafting methods.

And my con list.

  • Cryptics level of customization.
  • Micro-transactions.
  • Lifetime Sub price.
  • Poor mob AI.
  • Immersion.
  • The fact that it’s Star Champions Online Trek.

Because I’m a miserable sod, we’ll deal the the cons first. Micro-transactions as a complaint have been beaten to death previously and by better than me. The lifetime subscription price has also been worked over something rotten.

Let’s complain about Cryptics level of customization. Odd I know, that’s generally where they get the most praise and usually rightly so. Cryptic set the bar with the City of Heroes creator, worked themselves harder for Champions and when Shannon saw the creator for Star Trek where you could create your own race she fell in love. You can change every little thing and there’s even (fluffwise) leeway given to alternative gender options. After that, Starbase offers you the chance to tailor again, offers you a choice of ship configurations and bridge layouts. You can have your scratch built race, personally modified ship and favourite bridge set up. Why I count this against them is simple. Cryptic, make a game where yes you have a fantastic creator but where people actually want to play the creations. It’s all well and good that you can tweak a custom race to such a degree and then do it to your ship as well, but shouldn’t that level of attention be given to the game proper? I’m not saying that it hasn’t been, that’d be for people who have tested it harder than I to decide.

Mob AI is idiotic on the ground. You get bonuses for flanking attacks in ground combat so if you have your away team, you want to try take the other guys by surprise or otherwise get around them to get the extra damage. Best way? Wait till they shoot at someone and then walk past them. Many times I would finish killing a Klingon only to realise there was a line of them directly behind me and not one of them paying me the slighest bit of attention. It isn’t honourable, but I shot each of them in the back. My brother who also tested has said that he has found that many people give their away teams Wide area phasers so they generate all the threat while he goes around the back and finishes the job. Will crews be twinked to soak all the aggro? Oh you bet.

The other two cons come hand in hand. Star Champions Online Trek and Immersion. I know a bunch of people who have nothing but praise for CO, but it’s not for me. However STO is Champions with another skin and some space bits. You still loot, you still look funny, you still only play in instances with a handful of people and have the same damn chat system. I didn’t like Champions and if I played Star Trek, I’d be forced to endure parts of Champions that I still don’t like but in what should be a completely different game. I can understand trying to cover your costs by reusing the engine, hell it makes perfect technical and financial sense. On the other hand, if people didn’t like your other game, they’ll be able to find fault with this.

Immersion is also a problem. Star Fleet is by very definition a uniform military organisation. It has codes of conduct, acceptable behaviours, a prime directive and an image to uphold. I don’t think an institution like Star Fleet can be done properly outside of single player games. Everyone in this MMO starts as an Ensign who gets given a ship. Apparently everyone down the chain of command on a ship you don’t even start on gets killed real dead and as a result you have to take command. You were led by your nose through the entire tutorial and told what to do and how, but they trust you with a Starship for keeps. After a few months of live time, Sol System will have more Rear Admirals than you can shake a Romulan Ale at. Everyone is also their own Captain. On an away team solo, you’re the boss and you have your bridge crew you can pick from to accompany you. On a team away team, the leader picks who gets to fill the dead spots with their npcs. You can invite people to your bridge which is nice, but is essentially pointless. I’m sure people will claim that the roleplay community will be fantastic and I do wish them my best but I don’t see how the immersion will work and to be honest, Star Trek fans are all but unpleasable. Everyone’s a Captain and the leader will be the one with the rare blue Klingon Disruptors.

Going back a second in my incoherent ranting, looting in Star Trek makes no sense. Buying black market from Ferengi, yes. Requisitioning in Starbase, yes. Coming across the bits and pieces of a long dead civilisation? Yes. Hot swapping phaser banks for the newly looted Romulan disruptor cannons… no. Refitting the offensive potential of a Starship should not be a drag and drop in between combats affair. Neither should Star Fleet personnel be picking over the hulks of destroyed ships like so many Pakleds.

I will give the pros a review of their own after work but I’ll say this. Despite my complaints, most of which can be laid at the feet of Cryptic or the trouble in adapting certain IPs to current MMO models, the game itself isn’t terribly bad. I happily flew around and fired my phasers. It didn’t breach Shannons warp core, she got bored the moment she was put in a ship in the tutorial, but I was distracted decently enough. However I’d not buy it. It’s an okay game but I wouldn’t give up my current games and give them money for “okay”. Cryptic can work on it, as people think they will using the lifetime cashgrab, and when it is stellar (pun intended) they can call me.