Season 9 of Star Trek Online is here. Building on the story setup in the previous Featured Episodes, the Undine (Species 8472 from Voyager) are the key focus following the rediscovery of the Jenolan Dyson Sphere as a gateway straight to the Alpha Quadrant.
A lot of the action plays out in the latest Featured Episode. The game came under a lot of flack when they failed to live up to the promise of the Feature Episode series in the past however, in fairness, producing 5 episode storylines like that were an obvious drain on the team, and I think what we’ve got now is probably better. A single featured episode every few months, which specifically moves the main storyline along. For the first time in a long time, it feels like the main story with the Iconians is actually progressing, rather than stalling. That said, I hope there’s still a place for the occasional stand alone mission, like Temporal Ambassador. They’ll help break things up, as long as the main focus of the other episodes is moving the story along.
There’s a heck of a lot to like about the Featured Episode. Cryptic have now got good form in giving us some great missions over the last few years, first from the featured series, and now these more focused episodes. Whether its teaming up with recognisable characters like Worf and Tuvok, or providing us with a memorable adventure, like flying across the sun in a Dyson Sphere Cryptic have been really crafting quality missions. However with season 9, they’ve really gone for it.
From a fan’s point of view, the immediate excitement comes right at the beginning of the episode. After a cool “Last time in Star Trek Online” recap that evoked the TV series, we immediately get given the setting, the Jenolan Dyson Sphere, 2410. And it was that date that first got me really excited. In game, its been 2409 since the game was launched over four years ago. So this was a real tangible sign that things were moving forward in a big way.
The rest of the mission from that point was filled with nice touches. The conference on the Sphere is a nice map with a lot of character from the various delegates. As an Enterprise fan, it was nice to see the Xindi make an appearance, and the fact the conference has slight variations depending on your faction was a great touch.
However, its halfway through when things really take off, as an Undine fleet makes a break for the Alpha quadrant, specifically attacking Earth Space Dock.
At this point, I’ll get a couple of nit picks out of the way. Unless I’m missing something, the Jenolan Sphere is linked to the Solanae one via the gateway unlocked during the previous mission. The one that’s basically sitting beside the Solanae’s sun (lets assume its a reasonable distance, unlike the station though, as the ships don’t show the affects of the solar activity, whereas your own takes a kicking getting close to the station).
So, the Ferengi’s plan to open the sphere as a tourist spot seem shakey, given you’d need to travel via Taw Dewa into Republic space, then through the Republic-controlled Solanae sphere to get to your hotel. This also ignores the risk of Voth attack, since the Sphere is heavily disputed territory.
Same for the Undine fleet. To get to ESD, they need to get through the Jenolan Sphere, which has a reasonable prescence from the various galactic powers for the conference, then through the Solanae sphere which is heavily controlled by Voth, Republic, Empire and Federation forces, then into Republic space, before fighting their way to ESD. This seems a bit of a stretch. However, its a game, and a helluva fun mission, so lets go with it.
Now, for those following the Tribble test server, or the Dev Blogs, we knew that ESD was getting a long overdue makeover. As probably the primary hub of the entire game, it had only been slightly tweaked for the (second I think) anniversary, when the cool shipyard was introduced alongside the classic exterior. The dev team decided it needed to properly reflect the polish that rest of the game was enjoying.
So with that in mind, it was nice to see the makeover had been worked into the storyline. When ESD had been originally changed, the devs had mentioned a desire to tie it to an event, however resources hadn’t allowed it, so it was nice to see it managed to happen this time.
Fighting my way to ESD through the waves of Undine, working alongside the Enterprise and Klingon and Romulan flagships felt really epic, especially with the damage to ESD growing more and more severe the closer we got. To be honest, I was actually surprised at the level of damage to the station, but to be fair, the Starfleet Corps of Engineers didn’t half fix it up quickly 😉
Having battled to ESD, the action then switches to a ground map, as you beam aboard to defeat the Undine forces. Again, this provided a great part of the mission, providing the familiar map of Earth Spacedock, however in a battle damaged state as you fight Undine infiltrators and try to save crewmen. There’s a nice in-joke to the revamped tutorial with one of the crewmen you save, and to be honest, it was fun as something the game doesn’t do often, basing missions around well established areas of the game. In the Star Trek series, a lot of the action always centred around familiar locations onboard the Enterprise/DS9/Voyager. In Star Trek Online, the tendency is for new maps and locations you’ll probably never visit once that mission is over. Being able to visit a familiar location in a new way added a lot to Surface Tension, and I hope its something we can do again.
The whole sequence climaxes in a nice boss fight, when its revealled that E’genn, the friendly R&D guy in the base forever, has actually been an Undine the whole time. It was a nice touch to take a character all the players are likely to recognise, one who’s been in the game since launch, and make this kind of big reveal. The storyline showing Tuvok’s nemesis Dr Cooper then gets nicely moved forward in a cutscene revealling the real attack is Qo’nos. Which makes a lot of sense, since the Klingons were the first to realise the threat of the Undine.
I’ll admit, the defense of Qo’nos was probably my least favourite part of the mission. It has you clearing waves of Undine ships in a very similar way to the attack on ESD earlier, and its not made any easier by Koren (Captain of the KDF flagship) whining her way throughout the whole fight about the lack of Federation ships helping out. Because the Klingons sent a fleet to ESD didn’t they? Oh wait. No they didn’t.
Needless to say, Shon turns up to make her look bad, but again there’s a niggle here, as the cutscene clearly intends Shon to show up with half the fleet and look smug. Sadly, when he says he’s brought a few friends, only a couple of low level ships warp in to help. Oops. Still a cool moment though. I like Shon and the Enterprise-E a lot.
The mission then turns a corner when the Undine planet killer turns up. They’re a new style ship, very organic and a bit demonic as its tentacle-like structure appears from the fluidic rifts. Its a great visual, and its followed by a nice sequence where Shon pilots the Aquarius (I think its the first time its been named as well – a bit of a pity they didn’t call it the Galileo I thought 🙂 ) into the maw of the planet killer with you covering him. Its a sequence on rails I know some didn’t like, but as a single part of a much larger mission its a nice change in pace and added to the epic scope of what was happening (think “trench run” and you’re pretty much there).
With the Undine defeated, the final sequence moves things to the party on Qo’nos afterwards. Again, the feeling is very much on moving the storyline along, as the Federation/Klingon war is resolved in the face of the larger threat. However, the biggest shock was surely saved for the end, with the festivities interrupted by the arrival of an actual Iconian.
This represents a pivotal moment in the game. Previously they’ve been heavily teased, either in the now-removed ending to one of the Undine-front missions, or when Empress Sela was captured. Otherwise its always been people working for the Iconians that you’ve dealt with. To have the calendar year move on, and an Iconian make a physical appearance in the game, really sells the idea that the story is moving onto the next phase.
The progression the game has made with these last few Featured Episodes feels like a major step forward. As someone who’s been playing the game for years, regularly released Featured Episodes, which are properly moving on the storyline, while accompanied by the various new events and battlezones to play in are really ticking the right boxes for me. It feels like I’ve actually got things to do regularly in game now, and have even gone back to running new alts across all three factions just to see the changes to the earlier stuff.