Traditionally, MMOs have scaled well to even the slowest PC platforms. They have to, since this type of game depends on subscribers. If you want to pay employees to generate new content for the game, you need a large subscription base. And to accommodate a large user base, you need low system requirements. This is why the art directors at Blizzard were smart enough to create World of Warcraft with a larger-than-life cartoon-like style that just happens to be incredibly easy to render on slower and older PCs.
The Star Trek IP doesn't translate well into an easy-to-render art style, so the developers at Cryptic had to do the best they could with a look that has been cemented by over 40 years of television shows and movies. They made it work with a graphics engine that can scale down low enough to accommodate any machine, but if you have the hardware to push the fidelity, things can look very nice. Specifically, the space arenas have the potential to look absolutely gorgeous. The ground areas can look great, too, but they aren't as breathtaking.
So, just exactly how much hardware does a person need to run Star Trek Online? With an ultra-budget Athlon II X2 250 paired with integrated 785G graphics, we were able to run the game smoothly at 1280x1024 at the maximum detail level, as long as we selected the Half Resolution option in the detail settings. Yes, the half resolution setting makes things a lot less attractive, but it works. If nobody's PC gets left behind, the MMO is viable.
However, if you want to push STO's fidelity to maximum at full resolution, you're going to need some decent graphics hardware. At 1280x1024, you'll want a GeForce 9600 GT, at minimum. For 1680x1050, a Radeon HD 4850 will do the trick. At 1920x1200, a GeForce GTS 250, GTX 260, Radeon HD 4890, Radeon HD 5750, or better should be on your shopping list. At 2560x1600, consider lowering the detail a bit, because none of the cards we've tested here could hit a solid 30 FPS at maximum settings.
Remember, too, that the low performance we benchmarked occurred in space arenas with dense asteroid fields at the end of the open beta. We don't expect the public release to be all that different, considering that the full game opens to pre-order buyers only three days after the open beta closes. However, Cryptic might decide to put some development resources into optimizing these areas. If that happens, the situation will improve, as other space and ground areas are a lot easier on the graphics subsystem.
As things stand, STO requires a formidable graphics subsystem in order to enjoy the highest detail settings in all areas of the game. At the same time, visual details can be scaled down to accommodate smooth performance on even low-performance PCs. If you're curious about whether or not the game is worth upgrading for, finding out by spending $15 on a month's worth of play time isn't an unreasonable price to pay. The game went live on February 2, 2010 in North America and three days after that in Europe.