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I’ve been playing Star Trek Online since it added a free-play option a couple of weeks ago. I know two or three people who played it when it launched, but I never really looked into it before now.

First, the good: they don’t nickel-and-dime free players by making a random subset of core features available only if you spend real money. The features that require premium payment seem to be mostly conveniences or slight advantages, like extra crew on your ship. Several restrictions on totally free play — no broadcast messages, no private tells to non-friends, no forum posting — are temporary anti-RMT spam measures and are lifted if you simply play for twenty hours. (For an example of the opposite approach, see City of Heroes. When that game went F2P in September, its developers locked two core classes, all four advanced ones, the newest powersets, crafting, guilds, and the auction house behind the premium point paywall, and they restricted most official forums to subscribers only.)

The capital ship combat — let’s be honest, I won’t even be bothering with the game if it lacked that feature — is satisfyingly complex and paced from what I’ve seen so far.

I give a minor nod to the music. It’s above the average for MMORPGs. It sets the right tone and doesn’t grate on my ears.

And that’s about it for the things the game did unusually well. Its notable shortcomings outnumber the high points. It’s easy to see why the game wasn’t a critical success.

First is the UI. It has glaring flaws. Completing a mission prints several lines of reward text directly onto your screen, with no background or dialogue box, which makes them hard to read before they automatically vanish seconds later. It’s even worse when a congratulatory dialogue splashes up at the same spot, which happens in most missions.

Flying close to a space encounter produces a pop-up in the middle of the screen asking if you want to enter. You can collapse this window, but only partially, and you cannot dismiss or move it.

Your hotkey bar can display one row of eight buttons, two rows of eight, or three rows of…ten. Slots #9 and #0 exist at all times and can be used by pressing the 9 and 0 keys, but it takes extra effort to examine or reconfigure them if you don’t use the widest view.

The game boasts non-combat planetside missions, but the only ones I’ve found so far involve running to four or five spots and clicking an object. That’s it. Okay, I lied. It’s actually even easier. You also have a scanner that tells you the direction to the nearest clickable object.

Now, there are a couple of minor twists. For one, the scan doesn’t always direct you to a mission target. It can lock onto a crafting material deposit instead. And that deposit can be bugged and stuck too low under terrain to be retrieved, which means you can’t clear it, which means your scanner stays stuck on it. Also, sometimes an ambush spices things up, or you return to your ship to find a space fight on your hands. But this was supposed to be a non-combat mission. Cryptic essentially admits they can’t create fun content that doesn’t involve shooting.

And then there are Bridge Officers. Bridge Officers are a core component of your crew. They, along with your ship, are as important to your capabilities as your own character is. That’s cool! Star Trek is all about a crew of professionals working together against adversity. The problem is that Bridge Officers are also quite complicated, yet you find yourself in sudden possession of several in the earliest levels with minimal introduction. Worse, most of the instruction you do get is just screens of text. Plain text is horribly ineffective as a tutorial method.

During planetside missions, you lead a squad of four NPCs made up of Bridge Officers of your choice, with the remaining slots filled by Redshirts. You can control them all to an extent, either individually or as a group, by clicking tiny little buttons. For example, you can order the team to fire at will, have your Engineer set up a turret, and make your Tactician throw a grenade into the middle of a cluster of Klingons. Then all hell breaks loose as you, your four teammates, and half a dozen hostiles flip out and shoot the place up in a whirling maelstrom of AI chaos. That’s too challenging a task to expect a new player to handle so soon. I don’t know of a single pet-using class in any other MMORPG that starts off new characters will a full squad’s worth of minions. In STO, every single character gets that whether they want it or not.

The main benefit of a Bridge Officer is the special actions she can perform during combat. A Bridge Officer has two special abilities — one for space fights, one for ground — for each rank she has. Simple? Wait. There’s another restriction: in space, you must assign your crew individually to your ship’s stations. Each station has an effective rank cap. The Officer placed there can’t use abilities from above that cap. (Don’t confuse crew stations with consoles, which ships also have, and in similar numbers and types. Consoles are for holding equipment, not crew.)

Enough of that. Back to abilities. How do Bridge Officers get them? When they initially join you, they come with all their future abilities planned out. Merely promoting the Officer unlocks them in sequence. But if you can’t find a random Officer with a perfect pre-generated career plan, you can replace individual abilities by talking to a trainer NPC. Or you can acquire a different Officer later and, instead of signing him on, have him teach one of his skills to your crew, then leave. Or you can raise one of your own skills high enough that you become an eligible teacher yourself.

Did I mention that every ability comes in three tiers of strength and that trainer NPCs can only teach the first two? Or that the ones that trainers can’t teach might come only from other Officers, only from you, or from either? Or that only some of your abilities enable you to teach, and even then sometimes only if you’re in the right discipline, and that none of them teach the ability itself but, rather, a conceptually related one, because PCs and NPCs have different skill lists?

And that’s the game in a nutshell: it’s needlessly complicated and it goes out of its way to make itself even harder to learn, but it’s been fun dabbling with it so far at the price point of $0 and occupies a niche that I personally enjoy and that has little competition on the market.

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