Thursday, January 14, 2010

Going Where No Grind Has Gone Before

I've been playing the Star Trek Online open beta. Well, trying to mostly. The lag is intense, and I frequently crash out or suffer hitching or "server not responding" errors. But that's the point of beta. Hopefully they're gathering some good information from my playtime. I suffered a few issues, such as zoning into an instance without my party (I was supposed to zone into an open instance with another group, but I ended up alone, facing 15 Orions on my own. The battle did not go well.)

And sometimes I end up beaming back to my shop, only to somehow end up BECOMING my ship. Because of some strange quantum entanglement due to diapose leakage in the arlithiation chambers of course. Here's me, zooming around outer space:

But I have been able to play it enough to say: I'm liking the game. It's exactly what I thought it would be. There are a lot of people who seem to hate it. It seems to me a lot of people don't like the instanced nature of the game. You know what, guys: get over it. Not every game can suck like Vanguard. I don't think an open world sandbox would really work with the Star Trek IP anyway.

The game really resembles Pirates of the Burning Sea in many ways. It is incredibly instanced, which some people criticized POTBS for as well. When you are flying around in sector space, you are in a different scale than in the battle zones, similar to how your boat was scaled differently when travelling between ports in Pirates of the Burning Sea.

Just like Pirates of the Burning Sea, ships fly around in two scales: sector space and system space. In sector space you fly much faster given the distances because you are technically going around at warp speed. You are also as bad as the planets on the map. In system space, you appear more closely to scale. It's fine, it's just an abstraction, and works better in this context than it did in Pirates of the Burning Sea where everyone turned into a speedboat half the size of a city upon leaving port until they got too close to a pirate.

Ship combat in Star Trek Online rocks. It's a lot of fun, especially with groups. Star Trek Online features an open grouping feature; while working on some of my episodes, when zoning into an instance, I would join an existing group to tackle the content. Not having to mess around with LFG is awesome.

Most missions (at least the ones I've tried so far) start out with some in space action and then transition for some ground based action. That's where this game is weakest.

Avatar combat is flaky. The animations are stiff, and when the enemies run up really close to you, the fights look funky. But, still, it's typical MMO combat: you tab over to your enemy, hit some hotbar buttons, and watch their shield and health bars go down.

One killer feature of the game is that everyone is a pet class: if you don't have a full group, the rest of your away party is made up of bridge personnel you can collect over time, or generic security officers (red shirts). This makes it really easy and accessible to solo, since you always have a full party.

But an MMO that you solo through entirely just isn't a true MMO is it? That's why it's great that Cryptic borrowed the Open Grouping concept that Mythic pioneered in Warhammer Online. When you start an episode you will automatically be grouped with other players who are working on the same quest. If there aren't anyone around, well you still have your pets or can LFG the old fashioned way. But Open Groups makes the game feel more organic. I'm playing on MY terms. I go to the system *I* want to go to. But I get to play with other people, if someone else is working on the same thing I am. All without having to sit around, twiddling my thumbs, spamming in a chat channel.

Is Star Trek Online innovative? No, not really. It's standard MMO gameplay, but it builds on the most recent innovations in MMO gameplay (open groups, public quests via Fleet Actions, etc.). Is it true to the IP? I think so. Granted, I haven't had the opportunity to use diplomacy yet (though I hear they have those missions), and the game is much more trigger happy than the series. That's probably to be expected, really, since all MMOs tend to be about groups of heroes valiantly banding together to commit genocide on the local wildlife. That's Lord of the Rings Online in a nutshell. At least in Star Trek Online, it's mostly humanoids we're slaughtering.

It would be nice if they had stolen Vanguard: Saga of Heroes diplomacy card game mechanics to provide additional non-combat avenues for playing. But the game is complete enough that I'm quite content with what it offers.

The zone chat is filled with people who aren't though. Mostly, I think, it boils down to these issues: too many instances and too much combat. Too many instances - yes, it's annoying to click on every door and watch a loading screen, but Star Trek wouldn't really work well as a open world sandbox. It's more about the episodes (e.g., the quest system) and quests just work better with instances and scripting.

As for too much combat, well, yes, Vangaurd's diplomacy system, Oblivions speechcraft system, or even Spore's dance-off contests would have been a nice addition, but you know what? As much as I'd love to dance that Klingon ambassador into accepting my terms, most video game players, especially with a group, simply enjoy combat more. So it's naturaly they would focus on that. I'm sure if we hound Cryptic long enough, they'll add some more gameplay systems as well.

But the game is quite complete already and a good foundation for much more to come. The open group instances system makes playing on my terms fun by taking out the more tedious aspects of MMO grouping while still encouraging socialization. Every MMO from now on should build in matchmaker or auto-grouping systems. Sure, it would be nice if I could explore strange new lands without having to blow everyone up, but it's REALLY FUN when we do. Ship combat, in particular, is a blast.

So, I say: Beam Me UP, Cryptic.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

New Year, New MMOs

Well, it's a new year, and time for new MMOs. Unfortunately, I haven't had too much time to play the ones I subscribe too already. :) And that will likely drive my decision making processes as I look for a new MMO lands to venture into. I'm not likely to quit EverQuest II any time soon -- it's been my home for over five years now -- but I do find myself in need of something that I can jump in and play solo when necessary, but still has a satisfying group-based game for when I do have more time to commit. And the solo game in EverQuest-like games (especially WoW) just is not that appealing. So I've been looking for a more accessible casual friendly (but still social) MMO to play on the side.

One game I'm looking forward to is Star Trek Online. The missions (story-driven quest arcs?) sound appealing, and I hear rumors of instant action like scenarios. Give me something like Warhammer's Public Quests and instant access PvP Scenarios and I will be a very happy man. Those features allowed my to play WITH OTHER PEOPLE but on my own terms and with very short time commitments required. It was beautiful. Too bad the rest of Warhammer wasn't. If Star Trek Online could just steal that feature, plus the awesome ship combat a la Pirates of the Burning Sea, I think I'll be happy with it.

I'm also looking forward to Final Fantasy XIV. Final Fantasy XI was one of my favorite games in terms of mechanics and itemization. The monsters were beautifully detailed and the game was a lot of fun - when I got to play it. Unfortunately, the time commitment it required was prohibitive, and I eventually had to quit as the responsibilities in my life ramped up. But if Final Fantasy XIV can create a game system that is as good PLUS be casual friendly, well, SOE watch out, I may have a new home.

The main feature in Final Fantasy XIV that attracts my attention is that the guildleves system they describe seems like it would scale up depending on my ability to socialize. If I have to quickly get in game and out on my own, I can solo - otherwise, I can group, and the game's equivalents of quests will accomodate. Unless I'm misinterpreting that.

So it looks like the next year might be a good year for casual MMO gaming. But we'll see. :)