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Captain's Log: Five basics of ground combat in Star Trek Online

Ryan Greene

It's time again for Captain's Log, where we examine the best and the worst Star Trek Online has to offer -- and everything in between -- each and every Thursday. Or at least until I replace my emotion chip with a dance champion chip. Then I'm off to conquer Dancing with the Stars.

This week, I've had a change of heart. I was in the middle of writing about grouping, loneliness and the new squad system in STO when the universe -- as the universe is wont to do -- mucked that up. As I ran around trying to take a few screenshots for the grouping column, poor Captain Gil found himself caught in a seemingly endless string of ground-combat missions. And so, if for no other reason than because I snapped a bunch of guys-shooting-each-other-with-phasers pictures, this week's Captain's Log introduces some of the basics of ground combat in STO.

Caveat phasor

If you read this column on anything approaching a regular basis, you might be aware that ground combat and I don't get along. At all. I often view away missions as exercises in soul-sucking tedium, so I try to avoid them as much as possible. As such, I'm no grand master of ground combat, but I've had more than enough experience to know some handy tips. And I promise to try to stay positive.

The following suggestions by no means constitute an exhaustive list of everything you should know when you have a phaser in hand. But they should be enough to help the newer players in the crowd, at the very least. And some of you more grizzled players can chime in with your suggestions in the comments.

1. Prepare your skills

This might seem like a no-brainer, but it took me a few levels past the tutorial to find the skills window. So it's worth mentioning. Pressing "P" opens up your Abilities menu, which lists your available space- or ground-based skills, depending on your location.

When you're on a ground map -- your bridge, another ship, a planet -- open up that Abilities menu and get to know your powers. You likely have a few skills that you didn't even know about, in part because the STO UI defaults your skill tray to a single row of hotkeys. For example, when my Science Officer was young, I didn't realize I had useful abilities such as Sonic Pulse and Triage until I decided to mess with the UI a bit.

In the default skill tray, the first six hotkeys are for skills, while the last four are reserved for on-use items, including hypos and shield cells. But you should expand the tray very early on.

To do that, click on the icon at the right end of the skill tray that looks like a stack of three tiny file folders. That brings up the numbers 1, 2 and 3, which correspond to the rows of hotkeys available. Lower-level players can make do with two rows of hotkeys, whereas advanced players likely need all three.

Once you've got another row of hotkeys available, drag and drop your extra combat abilities into the new slots. And of course, while you're at it, read up on each ability and what it does.

2. Know your basic terms

Ground and space abilities include some basic MMO terminology, as well as a few STO-specific concepts. I won't cover them all -- I hope you know, for instance, that a buff strengthens and a debuff weakens -- but this list should be useful.

  • Expose Attack: An ability that has a chance to open up an enemy to a powerful hit from an Exploit Attack.
  • Exploit Attack: An ability that can cause massive damage to an Exposed enemy (more on that in a moment).
  • AoE vs. PBAoE: Area of Effect abilities cause damage or some other effect to enemies within a certain area, usually around your target. Point Blank Area of Effect abilities, on the other hand, cause that effect in a certain area around the user.
  • Hold: One of many effects caused by abilities. The STO equivalent of rooting an enemy in place.
  • Placate: Another effect. Prevents enemies from using harmful abilities.
  • Knockback, Slow, and so on: Numerous other effects that do just what they sound like.

3. Expose and Exploit

You should get used to using Expose and Exploit attacks all the time, and in that order. A yellow label in the upper-right corner of the tooltip clearly indicates whether an ability is an Expose, an Exploit or neither. Again, Exposes open an enemy to massive damage from Exploits.

Here's how it works. Expose attacks, in addition to various effects have a 10-percent chance to successfully Expose an enemy. So my Tricorder Scan ability, for instance, always debuffs the target's damage resistance and stealth and has a chance to Expose him. (And yes, you may giggle.)

When an enemy is Exposed, a bright orange icon will flash on his torso. (There really is no way to explain these things without sounding a little pervy.) If you have that enemy targeted, the icon for your Expose attack -- defaulted to the number 2 on your skill tray -- will flash with a target-like border. Use it, because Exposes typically last only a few seconds.

Successfully blasting an Exposed enemy with an Exploit attack acts like a huge, guaranteed critical hit. Early in the game, you can wipe out most Exposed enemies with a single shot. As you progress in STO, the enemies will survive more often, naturally, but Exploits are no less important. They still cost your enemies significant chunks of health or shields. A few well-timed Exploits can mean the difference between a 30-second massacre and a 5-minute firefight.

And as an added bonus, enemies killed by an Exploit attack disintegrate in a blaze of orange light, much like Captain Terrell in The Wrath of Khan.

4. Expose wisely

Stop laughing, I'm serious! Don't just run willy-nilly into a fight and Expose and Exploit at random. I suggest popping all Exposes at the beginning of every fight. Between your abilities and those of your Bridge Officers, you have a decent chance to lead off with at least one Exposed enemy ripe for the blasting. Plus, some Exposes can affect multiple enemies, so hitting them when grouped gives you the greatest chance of success.

As the fight progresses, pay attention to cooldowns. Blasting an enemy with your Exploit attack -- which is powerful in its own right -- and then using Expose abilities a second or two later can prove wasteful. Too often I've successfully Exposed an enemy only to realize my Exploit is unavailable for a few more seconds. Nothing aggravates me more than missing an Exploit chance by a second or two, so timing is everything, especially if you use a weapon with a long Exploit cooldown. My current Disruptor Sniper Rifle's Exploit attack, for example, has an eight-second cooldown, I believe, so I miss out on plenty of Exposes if I'm not careful.

5. Use other abilities, too!

Sure, the two Exes are important, but don't neglect your other abilities. Much of your DPS will come from your basic, non-Exploit, non-Expose weapon attack, so remember to use it whenever you're not doing something more important. Various other abilities, including buffing and healing, don't Exploit or Expose, but that doesn't mean you should ignore them.

Well hey, I have a bunch more tips for you, but I'll have to save them for next time. Getting to know your abilities and mastering the two Exes is more than enough to get you started with STO's ground combat. Feel free to make some suggestions of your own in the comments, and I'll see you back here in one week with more ideas for making away missions more fun -- or less excruciating, anyway.

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