Star Trek has been a part of PC gaming since its inception. In 1971, decades before the PC became commonplace in the home and six years before anyone had heard of a movie called Star Wars, Mike Mayfield wrote a text-based Star Trek game in BASIC. Since then, there have been some 50 Star Trek computer games released over the past 35+ years.
As with every major game franchise, for every hit title there are a lot of misses. Some of the better games that involve Star Trek-style space combat are the Starfleet Command series, Klingon Academy, and Bridge Commander. The only laudable Star Trek-themed first-person shooter is the Elite Force series. Unfortunately, the most recently-released games I've mentioned here debuted about seven years ago.
Since then, it seems Paramount has put the brakes on Star Trek game development (probably a reaction to a decline in popularity). Now, in 2010, with a new movie reinvigorating the franchise, we will see the first-ever massively-multiplayer online (MMO) game in the Star Trek universe: Star Trek Online (STO).
Developed by Cryptic Studios (the folks responsible for the popular City of Heroes and City of Villains MMOs), STO takes place in the traditional Star Trek universe about 30 years after the events in the feature film Star Trek: Nemesis. For the sake of making things more interesting, the galaxy is a much more volatile place. The Klingon Empire has declared war against the Federation, the Borg have returned, and new enemies have entered into the fray. In short, there is a lot of combat to go around. This really sets the stage for the new MMO, and that's probably a good thing. Let's face it--if the game was limited to discovering ways to communicate with peaceful alien species, it probably wouldn't be a good time.
STO is combat-centric, like any decent MMO realistically has to be. That's not to say exploration is unheard of. In fact, it's a mainstay of the game. Just don't expect to do much exploring without getting shot at.
I've played a few MMOs, and STO stands out among the crowd, as it does a few things differently. To begin with, there are really two distinct games here: a space game, where you control your starship in battles against enemy vessels, and a ground combat game, where you control your character and crew. Many missions will require a mix of space and ground engagements. But some will play out only in space, while others are only planet-side.
The space game is best described as a cross between Starfleet Command and Bridge Commander, and the final result is arguably better than both. For folks not familiar with those PC game titles, STO's space-combat arena might be best described as a third-person naval combat game. Every ship has four shields (front, back, left, and right), and the idea is to bring down an enemy's shields with energy weapons and then send some torpedoes to do some real damage. All the while, you try to preserve your own shields, manage energy resources, and bring multiple weapon arcs to bear in a big starship that was never intended to be nimble.
The interface is fairly accessible and functional, and as with any MMO, there are a lot of special abilities that come into play here. But what makes this really different is that there is twitch-play involved. A player cannot rely solely on earned equipment and skills to win space battles, as a crafty opponent can use maneuverability and timing to gain an advantage over a stronger foe. To my taste, the space game is more than I had hoped for, but for folks who prefer traditional MMO ground combat, the space arena might not be as appealing.
On the ground, though, the game follows the standard MMO-combat model. There are weapons, stats, and special abilities. Anyone who has played a major MMO in the past 10 years will feel right at home. Compared to space combat, the lack of innovation is noticeable, although the game does have one major twist: away teams. When you beam down, you are required to pick the crew members whom you want to bring along on your mission. Essentially, you're always accompanied by a group of non-player character (NPC) pets who you can outfit, train, and level up.
The point is that this game really does offer two very unique and separate arenas. Players spend the majority of their time in one or the other based on the types of missions they accept, but I don't think it would be possible to avoid either one entirely. The variety does keep things interesting.