Star Trek Online Season 3 – Part 1

Star Trek Online Season 3 has now officially launched on Holodeck (the live server).

For those that don’t know, in Star Trek Online “Seasons” are the descriptions of the large content update patches that all MMOs wheel out from time to time in order to spruce up the game, add new features, and squash some bugs.  In Star Trek Online though, they work a little differently, serving as a banner for a portion of the game’s lifespan.  So while Season 3 may have started with the large update that hit yesterday, it continues until the launch of Season 4, as there’s more content to come as part of season 3, that’s still undergoing some final testing and tweaking.

Unlike a lot of these large updates MMOs see (and indeed seasons 1 and 2 of STO), new content was not a big part of the Season 3 release.   Usually you might expect to see new zones open up in the game, and new missions available to be played, but here the developers had been pretty up front that instead for Season 3, the focus was going to be on polish.

Its no secret that Star Trek Online had a bumpy launch.  A lot of people suspect it was rushed out of the door early, with some content lacking, and other aspects of the game lacking proper attention.  Its a launch that dogged the game for some time, and over the course of seasons 1 and 2, these issues were slowly addressed, bringing in some Klingon PvE content, rolling out difficulty options and a death penalty, and introducing a load of new missions, including the recent, highly successful weekly missions.   So despite that rough launch, the game has come on in leaps and bounds.

However there will still aspects of the game that were obviously bugging the developers, and with that in mind, and the game looking much healthier in terms of its content, they obviously felt it was time to sort those aspects out.  And with season 3, while there may be no new missions (unless you’re playing a Klingon), its clear the love that’s gone into the changes.

For me, there’s several main areas of focus.  One is immediately clear to all players, and that’s Sector Space.  Sector Space is the view of the game where you fly from space sector to space sector, travelling to systems within those sectors in order to complete missions.  The original version of sector space (see left) came under a lot of criticism.  Its graphics had a grid transposed over space, with markers coming up from the “floor” to each planet.  I didn’t mind it too much (I rationalised it as an Astrometrics view), however a lot of players felt it detracted from the immersion in the game.  The new version of sector space however, brings a very noticeable revamp.

Firstly, all of sector space has been darkened.  The over-lit view used previously is now absent, with most of the lighting now coming from any stars you pass on your travels.  There’s now a toggle switch as well for switching Astrometrics on or off.  Switching it on provides a similar view to before.  While still darkened, a grid becomes visible.  Switching it off, and those grids and markers are hidden.  The end result gives you much more a feeling of flying through the vastness of space.   As you approach systems, stars start as small dots, before getting larger and eventually you can view the planets surrounding them, and an info box pops up to give you information about the system, as well as any previous options to enter the system or continue a mission.  Another nice visual tweak is when moving through this revamped sector space, you see stars streak past, like the familiar effect seen in the series whenever the Enterprise (or Defiant or Voyager) was travelling at warp.

Previously, where stations such as Deep Space Nine were shown in a highlighted, translucent way, again they’ve been changed, so they’re now rendered as complete objects in sector space.  So as you approach the station, there’s a feeling that you’re genuinely flying up to it, again as opposed to some kind of astrometric or tactical view from a computer terminal.  Specific areas of sector space, such as the Mutara Nebula, Great Bloom or Badlands have had effects added to them.  Before these were normal systems you approached and entered.  Now as you approach, the view of sector space shifts to reflect the environment of the stellar anomaly.    The changes are all geared to shift the feeling from some impersonal computer display to give you more of a feeling of directly controlling your ship as it travels through space, and its superbly done.

The next major change that’s really grabbed me has been crafting.  Crafting has always been something many ignored in STO.  Its based around anomalies that are scanned in space and on planet surfaces.  Gathering up these anomalies meant they could be spent in Memory Alpha upgrading basic pieces of equipment.  All sounds good on the surface, however the types of equipment that could be upgraded were quite limited, and generally you found yourself creating loads of things you didn’t need, in order to gain the crafting experience required to produce something you did genuinely want.  For me, and a lot of players, crafting became resigned to being end game content.  Something new to try and max out at Vice Admiral purely for fun, unlike other MMOs where crafting is a key part of your character’s development.

Season 3 aims to address these issues directly.  The previous distinctions between “Physical Sciences”, “Technology” etc tiers are removed, with items moved into the more logical groupings of “Personal Weapons, Ship Weapons, Ship Devices and the like.   The number of items available has also been drastically increased.  Now almost any combination of weapon or device type you can want appears.  This is the first part to making crafting relevant.  For example, previously when I hit maximum level, the weapons I could craft were no use.  The only beam arrays available were Polaron, and I use Phasers.  Now, whether you use phasers, polaron or tetryon arrays the option is there.  Likewise for the different types of consoles, shields, torpedoes, kits.  Whatever you could need.  Purple “very rare” gear is also now available (previously it was only the rare, blue gear you could craft up to), making use of the rare particle traces introduced into the game in season 2.

The only restrictions I’ve noticed seem to come with the Mark XI gear.  There, for example, only normal shields are available, as opposed to covariant (my shield of choice), regenerative or any of the others).  However I think this is still reasonable, as players need to have some high end gear that is only available through playing the wider game (in this case, to get emblems to be exchanged for the highest end equipment).  Aside from that, the developers have restricted phasers and disruptors to Federation and Klingons respectively, presumably to add a bit of distinctiveness to the two factions’ crafting.

The other major improvement was the removal of needing a base item to upgrade.  Seen as a money-sink, it was another way that crafting only became possible properly at higher levels, as you needed the cash to outlay on something to craft, and unless you’re a pretty clued up player, energy credits can be scarce at lower levels.

Instead, now the basic anomalies (of which, most players amass a huge amount of) are used to create schematics.  So if you want to create a new ship phaser, you’ll need so many anomalies, plus a ship weapon schematic in order to create it.   Again, I think this is definitely a change for the better.  Now lower level characters who’ve managed to build up a supply of anomalies can craft some better equipment for their ships without worrying about their dwindling energy credits.

I’ve been a massive fan of this revamp.  Its really turned crafting into something exciting and relevant to characters as they level up throughout the game.  And the hints of future improvements, tying in with the crew system being designed for season 4 sound like something to really look forward to.

Klingons as well, continue to benefit from each knew season release.  In this season, Klingon tricorders have finally been upgraded to detect destructible mission objectives, that are common in their PvE content.  Previously it was only objects that could be interacted with (scanned etc) that they would detect, like the Federation tricorders.  This is a great quality of life change for making Klingon missions a bit easier.

Klingons also now have access to crafting, like the Federation only more disruptor-focussed.  And they’ve also got several new daily “sortie” missions opened up to them which they can play to raid Federation transports and outposts for more data samples for use in crafting.  All these kinds of changes we’ve seen over the last few releases really make me want to get back to my Klingon and start levelling him up again, and take advantage of the fact I can now upgrade my ship through crafting.

But these are only some of the initial changes introduced with the launch of Season 3.  And so, since this has gotten really quite long, I’ll take a break, and talk about the upcoming content currently being trialled on the public test server, including the much-anticipated Foundry for user-generated missions.

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