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The game is divided into two types of gameplay which mirror what you'd see in a typical TV episode. The first part gives you space combat and lets you control your own ship against various enemies while the other part requires you to beam yourself and a handful of crewmembers down to a planet or into a base or a ship. The space combat reminds me a lot of the one we saw in the Starfleet Command games while the crew-based missions feel like a standard MMO.
What immediately impressed me was how much Cryptic has learned from Champions Online. The beta was rock solid, ran at a good frame rate and seemed well-populated with missions. Even more fascinating is the fact that Star Trek Online is integrated with Champions Online thus the games' share the same friends list and you can even communicate with players in the other game.
The current beta offered space and ground PvP instances to queue into from the sector map, which is essentially the game's world map where you warp around in real time. PvP can be entered by approaching a planetary system on this map, or simply via a menu on the UI. Unfortunately, I wasn't able to try out the open PvP Warzone maps, although I'm not entirely sure Cryptic has them in for beta testing right now.
Anyhow, after finishing the short-yet-informative tutorial, it's time to warp off into the real stuff. Klingon ships come equipped with disruptor banks that sport a smaller firing arc, making the front of your ship far more deadly than the typical Federation vessel. The trade-off is that you can't circle around enemy ships, doubling up on on a target with front and back weapons arrays, which ultimately offer more laser oomf than a single bank of phasers or distruptors. This is one of many interchangeable parts (indeed, much about ships can be altered as if they were characters all to themselves) but it's a wonderful example of the tactical decisions that need to be made both in and out of combat.
The experience curve for players is one of the hardest things for a company to tune and likely one of the major focuses of Star Trek Online's Beta, so I hesitate to go into too much detail on it as I am sure plenty will change between today and February 2nd, 2010.
The first thing I noticed is that the very structure of the system makes "levels" feel less important and as such you don't really seem to notice. Most experience-driven MMOs have a kind of emotional peak and valley to them. You grind, grind, grind and then get a reward. As STO doles out bridge and character skill points with each and every kill and mission, you're constantly gaining nuggets. It makes the actual ding a far less important experience. Half the time I had no idea what "level" I was and I don't mean that in a bad way.