How a graphics update and a controls overhaul are bringing Star Trek Online to consoles

This game is enjoying some pretty big changes in its transition to modern consoles.

Star Trek Online may be six and a half years old, but publisher Perfect World seems optimistic about its ability to find and stick to new audiences. With the help of some major graphics updates, this spacefaring MMO will hit both PS4 and Xbox One in Fall 2016. Oh, and the UI and control scheme is getting completely overhauled, too.

Controls were actually the bottleneck that developer Cryptic Studios had to conquer before letting the project start in earnest. They decided last year to try getting the control possibilities of a 72 button keyboard onto a controller, and decided that if they couldn’t make STO work well with a controller, they would abandon the port. According to Cryptic, they found a solution after about five or six weeks, and now here we are: STO is coming to consoles.

And with its transition to modern console hardware came another concern: the original game is not that visually hot anymore. Cryptic’s solution is a complete lighting overhaul. Glowing objects in the game now generate actual light; lighting in general is much more complex and makes better use of the power available in modern consoles. At my E3 press meeting, the Cryptic rep started listing off a litany of lighting techniques now present in the new version of the game. “The core technology team got HDR lightning, light probes, diffuse probes, specular probes…”

So, does the game look better? Yes, actually— it's definitely been improved! Most impressive to me was a before/after slideshow that Cryptic was showing on an iPad in their meeting-room. Now, STO for consoles doesn’t look cutting edge— I played through an episode that looked tolerable, but not anywhere close to as visually detailed or complex as a lot of the newer stuff coming out on consoles today. The new lighting only sometimes does a good job of disguising the fact that the level geometry is still quite old. But the update is pretty dang respectable, particularly when you see some of the screenshots side by side. Unfortunately (fortunately?) console players will not get this comparison opportunity-- but Cryptic should still be proud of themselves.

Since I got my hands on the game, I was also able to test out the actual UI changes coming to STO-for-gamepads. Changing the game’s input method has had big effects all over the gameplay experience— Cryptic actually sped up attack animations and cast speed to make the game feel snappier and more appropriate for the triggers and face buttons console players will use to control the game.

In both ship battle and on-the-ground missions with your character and their bridge officers, abilities can be mapped to face buttons, but holding down a face button also pulls up a wheel of abilities in the same category. You can use the ability wheels to both fire off your abilities and assign them to face buttons on the fly.

You can now also set specific abilities to automatically trigger based on status effects, cooldowns, and your current in-game state, too. So while piloting your ship around in battle, you can have certain abilities set to trigger whenever the come available. You can also have heal abilities set to trigger when your health falls to a certain value, for instance. Cryptic told me that the goal was for players to be “as involved as they want” in the activation of their powers. Some Cryptic internal players make deep use of these auto-fire settings, but others apparently don’t, preferring to control their own timing. Hopefully, there’s no reason for all players to go hard one way or the other. In general, the ability wheels are pretty easy to use without autocasting— anyone familiar with modern console RPGs like The Witcher 3 should find them familiar.

STO will launch on consoles with the the majority of content created over its six-year lifecycle. They “had to cut it off somewhere,” Cryptic told me, but console players will have access to “two expansions and 11 seasons’ worth of updates.”

If Star Trek Online can make the transition to console well, that’s very good news for publisher Perfect World— MMOs are meant to be played for a long, long time, but without substantial updates, technology eventually outpaces even the best of them. If a solid lighting overhaul and a control-scheme update can make this work on console, then this game might keep entertaining players for a lot longer than many people probably thought it would.