Star Trek Online and the Kobayashi Maru

Star Trek Online was introduced for the PlayStation console in September, and since then, it has been my absolutely favorite distraction for an afternoon, an evening, a weekend – basically, any time I need/want a distraction.  For a free-to-play game, it’s tough to beat – and has helped my wallet while destroying my productivity, as I’ve only purchased a few classic arcade games (a bundle with Galaga and PacMan) since downloading STO.  (I did also buy an avatar and theme bundle, so my interface is completely Star Trek – I don’t believe in paying to get ahead by buying Zen, the currency which would let me get cool stuff, but I do believe in supporting the developers and the franchise for providing the game at no cost.)

That doesn’t mean I give it a ringing endorsement.  My overall experience – tested by scores of hours of gameplay – is that STO offers three pretty amazing (though occasionally overlapping and repetitive) storylines, but marred by uneven gameplay.

My guess is that you’ll start by playing Starfleet – I started with a Starfleet tactical officer.  My choice of tactical officer might as well have been random, for all the difference it makes in gameplay; whether you choose tactical, science, or engineering officer, you will end up captain of your ship by the end of your tutorial mission – and you will play exactly the same story, with only some side mission changing based on your chosen career path.  While Starfleet’s mission is to explore, you do a whole lot of fighting in your exploration.

The game allows you to have five characters without buying additional character slots, so my next character was a member of the Klingon Empire, based on the theory that it can be a lot of fun to be the bad guy.  And it is.  Your choices are more limited – there have been several instances, especially when the story started, where your choices of tactics/problem solving eventually are whittled down to, “Blow the crap out of them!”  Still, as you play the story, you find that while there’s a lot more direct aggression in the Klingon Empire, much of the story also boils down to honor – and you spend more time protecting the Empire from those inside who would destroy the Empire’s honor than you do fighting Starfleet.

My favorite storyline, however, is the Romulan Republic story.  Star Trek Online, while new to the console, has been around on PC since 2009 – coincidentally, when the movies rebooted with the J.J. Abrams film.  No matter which affiliation you choose – Starfleet, Klingon, or Romulan – the destruction of the Romulan homeworld is a fact in the game’s roleplay.  As a Romulan character, you start out on a Romulan colony, but the Romulans as a race are still looking for a new planet to establish as their home.  Like 21st century world politics, this is no easy proposition, and the Romulans are split among the Romulan Star Empire (the officially “recognized” government), the Romulan Republic (branded a terrorist organization by the Star Empire), and the Tal Shier (an actual terrorist-style organization, kind of working with the Star Empire, but not really).  Your character will be a member of the Republic, and at the beginning, your main battles are with the Star Empire and the Tal Shier.  Eventually, you get to chose whether you wish to ally with Starfleet or the Klingon Empire in furtherance of your goal to establish a free Romulan Republic.  (I chose to ally with the Klingons; my “roleplay” reason was that their methods would be more effective in dealing with the threats the fledgling Republic would face from the Tal Shier and the Star Empire, but my more practical reason was that I had a Starfleet character of each discipline, so my final character would ally with the Klingons to help the balance.)

The storylines are classic Star Trek, and should be enough that the game could turn online gamers into franchise fans, and draw in existing fans of the franchise who may be casual gamers.  I fall into more the “casual gamer” category, though I have found that playing STO has made me more a devotee of Trek.  To get started, the game is great for casual gamers: the tutorial is easy to understand, and advancement through the ranks is pretty steady.  Every ten levels, you can get a new ship, based on something you’ve seen in the several series, and some of the missions will bring you in contact with characters from TOS through the many spin-offs.

Unfortunately, after the initial tutorial, your further education is often guesswork (at least if you’re a casual gamer).  This makes the game tough to get frustrated at, but it can be tough to have fun.  You’ll cruise through the first wave or two of starship combat, but then find yourself annihilated by the next round – and when your hull health goes from, say, 87% to 13% in a matter of seconds, you don’t get some idea of, “If only I had done ______”; you get the idea that you have to wait 15 seconds to respawn.  I am currently stuck on a level where I think, “Do I need a bathroom break?  Heck, I’ll be dead (“defeated”) again in 30 seconds, I’ll go then.”  Yesterday, I decided to make a sandwich while waiting to respawn, played for less then a minute, then ate my sandwich.  Sometimes, I think the game feels sorry for me, and after I respawn 7-8 times making no progress, suddenly I’ll break through – like it’s throwing a bone to the casual gamer.  The game has no love, however, for the casual gamer playing a Romulan.

(On a related note on the anti-Romulan bias of the game, at level 30 you can get a D’deridex-type Warbird, one of the coolest looking ships in all of Trek.  Great ship, lots of room for weapons – and the ship takes up about 2/3 of the screen, so you have no idea where you’re going or what you’re shooting – the only ship in the game I’ve seen do that.  My Romulan shuttle, on the other hand, is so tiny on any screen that I can only guess where it may be – particularly frustrating since you have to be facing your target to use torpedoes; the first use of the shuttle was a particularly annoying story which consisted of wave after wave of just firing, getting defeated, respawning, firing, getting defeated . . . you may be getting defeated just thinking about it.)

Back to the ship frustration – it is more of a frustration with the gameplay itself, as you have no idea what you just got hit with, or how to counter it (at least, if you’re a casual gamer).  And it doesn’t feel like a challenge – which would come from getting close, and trying to figure out how to make that next push to overcome; it just feels “not fun,” like, “hey, I don’t know why this happened.”

My only guess is that it’s the game’s version of the Kobayashi Maru – which is great if you’re Kirk, and try to figure out how to beat the program because you refuse to accept a no-win scenario, but when a game stops being fun, you tend to look for new sources of entertainment.

That’s not saying I’ll be abandoning Star Trek Online any time soon – I’ll play my other characters, and come back to my Romulan in a few days, and probably magically move forward when the system feels sorry for me.  Since all you have to invest is your time and a modest portion of your hard drive, you can’t beat it – the graphics are pretty decent, and as I’ve pointed out, the story is gripping, and it feels like you’re in the world of Trek.  Just try not to get feeling “defeated” when the game throws a few Kobayashi Maru your way.