Rise and Shiny recap: Star Trek Online

I'm not a tough guy, but the first thing I want to do when someone wishes ill on one of my first impressions is to reach through the screen and punch his lights out. There were at least a few people who did this to me when I said I would be visiting Star Trek Online. It was as though they were warning me to stay away from that scary old house on the hill. "Don't go up there, see? That's Old Man Cryptic's house! If you do, don't say I didn't warn ya!" Duly noted, oddball.

I long ago made a rule to revisit games, even if I hated them when I first played them. MMORPGs change -- they have to. They have to adjust to a growing (or shrinking) playerbase, adapt to a questioning (or screaming) audience, or react to market influences (or games that do it better). Despite understanding all of this, I was worried that the five bucks I spent on the STO special edition from Amazon would be wasted.

I found something I did not expect, that's for sure. Join me after the cut to find out more.

When I had first logged in the game way back in beta, I could not stand the fact that it seemed as if Cryptic had used the same graphics engine as it did for Champions Online. CO wasn't really ugly, but it had identity issues: Was it a cheesy '50s style romp or a more serious graphic novel type of adventure? My first time in STO and CO had my PC moving like molasses, as well. As I patched up the STO game client, I patted my computer on the side reassuringly.

Holy moly.

I forgot how amazing the character creation was. Suddenly I felt a wave of panic; I was being overwhelmed by choice. OK, OK, I told myself, calm down. Just hit random until you find something you like. So I did. Within a few minutes, I found a thin-looking alien who reminded me of a pale, more effeminate green giant. I started to stretch him out and played around with skin tones. What was happening? Normally I play a "shorter" race, or at least I make a character that is minimal-looking, but here I was making the tallest thing possible. I decided to try it out. Maybe there were other freakishly tall, purple-skinned monsters who would be my friend?

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The game has obviously been improved and tweaked since I last saw it. It ran better, even at higher settings. It actually looked really damn good. I did have to turn it down to a more comfortable level, though, but even on medium or high settings the game felt great. What about the ships, though?

Oh no, not again.

I found myself overwhelmed again, this time due to the sheer variety and customization options for ships. One second there was a perfect copy of the original Enterprise floating nearby, followed shortly by that ship from Voyager -- you know, Voyager. I have played EVE Online for years and years and never felt the same sense of nerdy happiness that I felt when looking at a playable Enterprise. Where EVE ships are brown, dingy, dark and (I imagine) smelly-looking, STO ships are colorful, fantastical, detailed and powerful-looking. If anyone thinks that colorful or fantastical means silly or goofy, try again. It only takes a few sessions in a group with one of the larger ships to see real destruction.

Flying the ships during combat felt a little silly at first. You literally steer the things, using either WASD or mouse movement. It was truly odd to experience space-flight in a massive ship that held 200 crew members while steering it like some twitch-based shooter. My time in EVE taught me that even the tiniest of craft were not steered at all but automated. I shook off my past experiences and ended up truly enjoying the combat. I even began to use the WASD movement keys and found my fingers tapping shortcuts all over the keyboard. I felt like, I don't know, someone who actually knew what he was doing.

The enemies and missions were a little too easy, though. I found myself attempting to ram ships or taking on massive groups just to bring the excitement up some. Then I remembered the difficulty slider that was available for missions -- should I try it? Shortly after having this inner debate, I was almost murdered by a pack of Gorn. I decided to leave the slider where it was. Occasionally I would stumble into a random encounter and find myself surrounded by waves of Romulan or Klingon enemies, but luckily I was automatically grouped with fellow players. I loved watching some of the higher-level players sling walls of torpedoes or phaser fire at the mobs, taking them down in moments. It only made me drool for the upcoming craft that I might be able to captain one day.

My fellow players were mostly helpful, peppered occasionally with some "your mum" kids who seemed to have stumbled in from a World of Warcraft trade channel discussion on Chuck Norris. Most players I asked questions of were more than helpful. I recieved several in-game mails wishing me good luck or offering help. One in particular was a three-parter, literally giving me more information than I knew what to do with. The player also attached three "very rare" ship parts to his letters. Yes, it helped that I had let the forum readers know that I would be playing their game this week (I tell most communities), but it was sort of touching. Kindness exists in the future!

When I started ground missions I found an entirely new layer of depth to the game. Missions weren't just one activity followed by another but rather a linked series of experiences. Some missions felt almost like television episodes shrunk into 20 minutes. Gone was the cheese of the original series, though, replaced instead by the sleek plastic of the modern movies. Yes, I was attacking many monsters and aliens from the original series, but they felt deadly and sinister.

The combat, both ship and ground, was not without its issues, though. I found myself pounding enemies who might be stuck on an asteroid or simply dumber than rocks. While I had only achieved Lieutenent six or seven, I still felt as though the default setting should have spawned me some truly epic boss enemies to challenge me. It was really too easy, but even still sometimes it took too much time. I have to say that once I followed more friendly player advice, though, I burned through enemies faster.

Ground combat is where most of the issues came up for me. NPCs can be just plain stupid sometimes, and NPC away members can act as though they had never handled a weapon before. I selected one of my team members and told her to lay down some protective mines, but she decided to run off in some odd direction, placing them in an area that was pretty much useless. Graphical glitches are the norm during most of my missions; textures might flicker or twitch, and interactions or abilities sometimes took two or three button smashes before they activated. Needless to say, combat was smooth about 80 percent of the time. The bugs were not game-stopping, but they were still frustrating.

In fact, my main issue with STO is the fact that the game still has many tiny-yet-annoying bugs that need to be addressed. Why, for example, do NPCs randomly fall off of ledges while I am walking around my ship? Why is it a challenge to sit? Why is it so hard finding certain NPCs, even though you have their mission highlighted? These should be Cryptic's first priority, yet I know that there will be comments down below that say, "Those bugs have been around since the beginning."

Still, there is much more good than bad in this game. Ship interiors are a dream for roleplayers. While the gargantuan corridors and ship lounges feel a little bit silly and out of place, they do come in handy for fleet (guild) meetings. If you think about it, try walking or hosting 25 fellow players in a ship with much smaller hallways and mess halls, and you would probably complain about feeling cramped. I forgot all that once I started enjoying the fact that I had a truly mobile home.

There's so much more to cover from my week with STO. The community is mostly top-notch, and not surprisingly, very intelligent. Whoever thought that this game was dead needs to go back to school. There were people everywhere, glorious shades and sizes of people. The variety of ships was equally awesome.

While combat was everything from bland to on-the-edge-of-my-seat exciting, it still needs a lot of love. Ground combat in particular can feel very clumsy and unsatisfying. I imagine that, as it is most of the time, group combat is a lot more engaging. Missions were a blast most of the time but could use more variety. One of the most common complaints I have heard or read about the game is the lack of variety, so I imagine I would start seeing that more once I leveled. As usual, I did not experience much crafting at all, so I cannot comment on that.

In the end I am going to say that I truly had a blast this week. I have a feeling that many of the issues I saw with the game have been around for a while, which is a shame. If those few items could be adjusted and fixed, there would be no stopping this game. It is challenging, relaxing, immersive, impressive, awe-inspiring and a perfect place for creative people. Roleplay would shine in this game, and the community is open to it.

Remind me again why I didn't look into the game sooner?

Next week we are going to be playing Uncharted Waters Online. I am not sure why I didn't get to this one earlier, either, but better late than never, right? My name in game is Beau! Be sure to follow my Twitter so you can see when I am playing and what I am doing. Now, go log in!

Each week, Rise and Shiny asks you to download and try a different free-to-play, indie or unusual game, chosen by me, Beau Hindman. We meet each Tuesday night at 9 p.m. EST; the column runs the following Sunday. I welcome any suggestions for games -- drop me a note in the comments or email, or follow me on Twitter, Facebook, or Raptr!

This article was originally published on Massively.