McCoy: Go? Where are we going?
Kirk: [gestures at the console] Where they went.
[Saavik punches in the coordinates to the transporter console and steps onto the pad]
McCoy: What if they went nowhere?
Kirk: Then this will be your big chance to get away from it all.
--from Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan
This is an overdue post, since I'd been playing the game for well over six months now, but I thought I'd use a quote from The Original Series movies to sum up my feelings of Star Trek Online.
When you think that you've got the MMO style down pat, a game throws you for a bit of a curve. STO is definitely not the same MMO that you're used to seeing. Oh, there's a toon that is the center of your universe --whether it be Federation, Klingon, or Romulan*-- but the gameplay is a bit different than the standard theme park MMOs out there.
For starters, there's your starship. Yes, you get to captain your own starship, and judging by the plethora of starships that hang around the Sol Starbase, the starship you pilot is the e-peen of STO. to be honest, I felt pretty humbled in my tiny Centaur Class starter ship being surrounded by all of these other ships.
Unlike The Old Republic, your starship is integral to the game. In fact, you could say that's the difference between the two games in a nutshell: The Old Republic is a Space Opera about you as a character, while Star Trek Online is about you as a starship captain.
STO is set in the Next Gen universe, and the Romulans home planet of Romulus has exploded. (Sound familiar to you reboot fans?) The Klingon Empire decided it was time for a land grab** and broke its alliance with the Federation to expand its territory. Therefore, the stage was set for two factions: Federation and Klingon. STO added the Romulan faction within the past few weeks to spice things up, but I think it's too early to tell how things are going.
The Federation's intro questline starts you off with needing to beam down to a planet's surface to save some colonists from the Borg. (What, you thought they weren't going to be here?) You're introduced to movement and fighting as a leader of an away team, and then you're beamed back onto the ship where the captain didn't survive an attack. You're in charge, so you learn a bit about how your ship moves, interacts, and attacks/defends in space while teaming up with a lot of other ships to beat off the Borg.
Now, that all sounds like pretty standard MMO fare, but things begin to deviate a bit when you report in to Starfleet. You're given command of your first ship and you have your first officer as a member of your staff, but you quickly find out that quests are designed differently in STO than the traditional theme park model. The standard model is to daisy chain a series of quests together, forming a questline, but in STO a single quest may or may not spawn subquests --which are required, which is different than the Bonus quests in TOR-- and the single quest itself is in reality several quests all wrapped together. STO pretty much eliminated the quest turn-in format by going with one long quest instead.
And that's just the format.
There are several different types of STO quests: the straight ahead "talk to someone and acquire a quest" variety, the "Admiral hails you and assigns you a quest" type, the random "world boss" incursion type (like, say, the Borg popped up in a region of space and all ships available in the quadrant are summoned to fight them off), the PvP variety (which appears when you get close to a PvP area), and "explore strange new worlds" variety, which you're never sure what you're going to get.
That last quest type is a new idea, and it caters to the Star Trek universe.
As any old time trekkie will tell you, the whole point of the Enterprise being out there was to explore uncharted space. There are specific regions in the galactic map where a player can go and investigate various anomalies out in space.*** Sometimes these anomalies yield planets and other adventures, sometimes they're pretty mundane. At first I thought these areas were like the materials rich areas in Age of Conan, but I quickly learned that you can have plenty of adventures exploring. Oh, and some of those adventures can last as long as, say, a full clear of Stratholme in WoW.
A lot of quests will strictly be limited to you interacting with things on your starship, but other ones will have you beaming down as head of an away team of up to five people. Your officers will accompany you if you want them to, but any extra slots are filled with the traditional Red Shirt cannon fodder. By the way, you can equip your officers with good equipment too, much like the companions in TOR.****
Fights, encounters, and other interactions with the world will yield skill points, and you train by turning in those skill points for better skill rankings. Yes, you do have levels too, and that governs your rank and what ships you can captain (and what skills you can train), but skill training itself is vitally important. Make sure you train as much as you can.
As a starship captain, you also have to take care of your crew. While you don't have companion stories like you do in TOR --the difference in focus between the two MMOs again-- you train your crew, make sure they are properly geared, and when the time comes, you can promote them too. I presume at some point they may leave your ship, and if that happens you have other officer candidates to choose from.*****
This only scratches the surface of the game itself, because it can be as complex as you want it to be. Sure, when a fight is happening you turn into a button masher, but the rest of the game is pretty expansive.
The game is very true to the Star Trek universe, and for those trekkies who want to play around in an MMO, STO is very much built for them. Yes, I'd have preferred TOS myself, but going with Next Gen made sense because more people are used to the Next Gen universe. There's also that little matter of TOS being boxed in the timeline by both ST:E and Next Gen, so if STO wants to expand the Trek universe, it can by going with Next Gen.
The space graphics are great, and the planetary graphics are good too --on a par with TOR-- but the toon facial graphics are, well, very similar. The faces all have a similar, distinctive look, and while it's not bad per se, that sameness can get to you after a while. And I also have to admit that I expect my crew to come and talk to me from time to time, but this isn't TOR.
STO's biggest positive is that it remains true to the Trek universe but allows you inside to feel like you're really a part of your faction. The Leonard Nimoy vocal commentary is a big win too.
It's yet another F2P offering out there, and one worth a look if you want to scratch that Star Trek itch.
*Romulans are a brand new third faction to the STO MMO. I haven't made a Romulan character yet, so I can't say much more than that. However, you can't miss all the Romulan ships out and about in space.
**Or whatever you'd call it in space. Territory grab sounds so.... sanitized.
***Examining anomalies themselves is like farming mats in most other MMOs, but with a twist. You're given a set amount of time to match the waveform that pops up on screen, and if you do you get bonus materials. You can in turn use those materials to craft items. There's an entire questline associated with Memory Alpha to learn how to craft items.
****Both you and your officers can train as well, and you'd better take advantage of that opportunity as much as you can.
*****I haven't gotten that far enough in the game to find out, but for the character that I expect to leave for her own command I've already got her replacement in the pipeline. (EtA: This doesn't happen unless you dismiss your officers. See the comment below.)