My character selection screen on STO.

I've never considered myself a gamer, I never owned a dedicated gaming device, and generally only played games like the LucasArts adventures (including successors like Telltale and Double Fine's Broken Age), or Myst, but recently I came across Star Trek Online and caught the bug. Since STO is a rather large game, it took me a while to get into the jargon and understand it. So I thought I'd present my findings here for others who would like to try out this game.

For the TL;DR crowd, the short blurb is that STO is a massively multiplayer online RPG, but with enough story and single-player missions (some very moody and scary) that even story-puzzle-adventure nerds like me can enjoy it without feeling that the grinding is too much of an err... grind. It is set in the classic Star Trek universe of the TV series, so is a nice Sci-fi spaceship setting. The major downside is that STO's system requirements are rather narrow, and not easy to find, and the game will just randomly crash if you don't meet them instead of alerting you to the mismatch beforehand.

How do I get it?

STO is a free download at The STO product page at ARC games, or from Steam. Note that, while the game is not even a 60MB download, that's not all. Once you've started that app and created a new STO account, it will download about 8GB of "patches" containing the actual game data. These "patches" are a common occurrence, but subsequent ones aren't generally as huge as the initial one.

I've got it, how do I play?

Create new Character button

In STO you have a main character, who is the only playable character, plus in the process of the game, you get Bridge Officers, which are the NPCs that make up your crew that accompany you on ground and space missions and that support you. Your main character belongs to one of 3 factions: Federation, Klingon, or Romulan.

Character selection screen

You have to pick a gender and race for your character. Available races are:

Federation Humans, Vulcans, Andorians etc.
Klingon Klingons, Orions, Gorn, Nausicaan etc.
Romulan Romulans.

All races also have a general "Alien" race that gives you a lot of freedom in designing your character. You start from a general human build, but can add brow ridges, hair, crazy skin colors, patterns, and take the proportions of the character to slightly more non-human levels (think more Dr. Phlox, you can't really build an overweight or flat-chested person in this game).

You also pick a career ("class") for your character: engineering, science or tactical., The career affects the extra abilities your character will have beyond being able to run/fly around and shoot. Scientist is a "healer" character supporting other characters, while Engineering means that you build little drones and force field shields and other more defensive or indirect attack mechanisms to support yourself, while tactical means that you're the front-line person to throw grenades and lunge and kick at the enemies.

Among the factions you can pick, Romulans are a special one, because after the destruction of their homeworld (the only reference to an event from the new movies), each Romulan can choose for themselves whether they want to side with the Federation or the Klingons. The advantage of this is that you get cool Vulcan-looking aliens (or alien-looking ones), plus cool Romulan spaceships, but you also get missions, uniforms and items of one of the other factions. Sadly, you don't get all of them. While Klingon-allied Romulans get cool Klingon uniforms, the Federation-allied ones get a horrible Federation/Romulan mashup costume.

If you're following along, you may have noticed that I left out a few races. You see, STO is a free-to-play game. The way they make their money, is by selling you certain things beyond the core game. Among these things are additional races for your player character, and other extra items like clothes or cooler ships. You can tell those by a little coin icon with a "Z" in it, as in "ZEN".

ZENs are roughly equivalent to Euro-cents in value, and can be bought on their web site. Once you have ZENs, you can go to the "C-Store" (the little coin-icon-and-"store" in the lower left of your onscreen mini-map) and buy stuff there, but note that especially costumes seem to be mostly available for Federation characters. There are a few more for Klingon characters, and for Romulans of either faction it seems you're way more limited. Also, each faction has its own ships, and usually there are more paid ships for Federation characters than for Klingons, and again more Klingon ships than Romulan ones.

Advanced customization of character outfit

Note that picking a character's race, class and gender (and later faction, if applicable) are the only permanent things about your character. You can, at almost any point in the game, fly back to base and go to a "taylor" to change your outfit, picking from the free items that you see when you create your character (plus a few more you get as you choose a faction or get promoted, and of course any you decide to buy). This outfit, oddly, includes your skin color, head shape, height etc. For the "alien" race, that means you can pretty much completely change the way your character looks, and later you can have a "uniform" and a "costume" outfit slot which offers different possibilities, and some new costume parts appear as your character's rank increases.

There's also a "save outfit" button with which you can save and load outfits into these slots, giving you a near-infinite number of saved outfits, but it seems those are cleared after a while and are saved locally on your Mac.

One warning: The switcher at the bottom of the initial character creation page looks like you could switch from Appearance back to Species and Career. Don't. You will lose any customizations you've done to the character's appearance if you do so. The same happens when you toggle a character's gender when customizing head/body/uniform of your character.

On the last screen, you name your character and your first(!) ship. Then it's off to the tutorial.

A ground mission in Federation space dock

The tutorials and gameplay at this point are pretty self-explanatory (that's the point, after all). Just like later in the game, you'll get windows popping up that offer you missions, and you can choose to accept or decline them. Sometimes you'll get additional missions while you're on another. It's fine to click those away, you can always go back to the Missions window later and pick a mission you've been offered under "episodes". One thing to know: There are two kinds of gameplay. Space, and Ground. Space means you're controlling a ship (tip for users of Mac keyboards without a num pad: You can set a secondary key combination for navigating in space battles. Set that to the arrow keys, that way you can use both hands. The default has the number keys as triggers, which places your hands on top of each other when using WASD for steering. You can now control your ship the same way you steer your character during ground battles).

The tray with weapons arranged by what way weapons face.

Also, you can right-click-and-drag items in the little tray at the bottom to change their order (and thus which num key they're triggered by). That way you can e.g. move the melee attack (pushing away an enemy when you're in tight quarters with a punch or the end of your weapon) on 1, where your left pinky finger is, and your weapon and its secondary fire mode on 2 and 3, and then your favorite other special action on 4.

Similarly, I arrange my weapons so that the ones that mainly face front (see the thick part of the circle in the icon) are at the left, the one that have a big radius in the middle, and the one that face backwards on the right, so I can fluidly transfer firepower as the ship turns. (You can even add rows to the tray using the button in its lower right -- The C1 row triggers on Ctrl-1 etc., the A1 row on Alt-1 etc.)

Now you can get playing, have fun!

Space Travel

The Galaxy Map

To travel through space, you can bring up a larger main map. This map has 3 sections. A pretty graphical map that shows you (in a slightly compacted form) which sectors of space lie near which, so you can plan long-distance trips. The idea here is that each sector is a separate location containing several star systems and space stations. Once you're at the edge of a star system, you are offered to warp to the next sector. Note that a few "blocks" (groups of sectors) are actually farther apart, but have been moved near each other and connected with lines. So e.g. going west from Eta Eridani block will not take you to Gamma Orionis Block. Rather, it will take you to Drellis Block. Also note that the blocks' different colors indicate what faction they belong to. Some blocks can be traveled to by whoever you are, but e.g. a Klingon-affiliated Romulan can not just go into Sirius Block where Earth is.

Then there's the Area Map, which is the classic game map that shows you where your character/ship is right now. This is the nice interactive map of your current location, where you can click stuff to fly there. You can also click little triangles at the edges here to plot a course to the edge of a particular adjacent block so you can warp there. This may seem a bit silly if you're just playing missions ("PvE", player vs. enemy), like I do so far, but in multiplayer games ("PvP or player vs. player), that means that the enemy can't just warp in additional troops arbitrarily, they have to have been prepared and waiting nearby.

Third, there's the system list. When you're in sector space (i.e. not in a solar system where space fights happen, or on a planet/inside a station/inside a ship where ground combat occurs), you can see a list of all the systems/stations and adjoining sectors here, to more easily find them. Note also, that the little summary of mission objectives at the right of your screen usually only mentions the name of the system. So pay attention to what sector they mention in the dialog. You can also call up the mission objectives window (behind the "Hail Starfleet" button) and that will actually mention the sector and block.

Shiiips iiiin Spaaaaaaace!

One final tip about space travel: Auto-navigation using the map is not perfect. Often you have to manually fly towards an object in space to get close enough to actually be offered to beam down onto the planet. E.g. near Earth, you can immediately beam to the academy, but have to fly close to the space station to be offered to beam over to the Dock. Also, sometimes auto-navigation will leave you right below a star system in space, and you'll have to fly up to be offered to enter the system. Also, sometimes when the ship turns during auto-navigation, it will cross the edge of the sector, and will offer to warp into that sector instead of finishing its turn and flying to where you actually told it to go. So check what sector it wants to warp to, and if it's the wrong one just close the window asking you to warp to continue on the mapped course.

Skills and Ranks

As you execute missions, you will earn skill points. At certain amounts of skill points, you automatically advance to the next level. The rank and level for your character are displayed in the upper left. You can click that box to see what ranks you can still achieve, and what benefits go along with it:

The Rewards Window

One of the benefits, for example, is that you occasionally get a new (additional!) ship. So don't spend money on ships right away. Wait until you hit final rank and have all the free ships, then decide if you want another ship.

Skill points are also the "currency" you use to buy abilities for your character, your ship and the bridge crew. You can simply use the little arrows to "spend" skill points to make yourself better at a certain ability. There are mouse-over popups that tell you all the details.

The Skills window

Note that different skills cost different skill points for different increments. So if one character's skills window doesn't let you increase a particular skill anymore (the arrows are disabled), check another character. Chances are, they can still gain a few more points. That's especially true for your character vs. your bridge officers, which seem to come from different pools, so look around where you can spend more points once you've clicked "Accept" once.

Bridge officers have a narrower skill selection (about one new skill for each rank), but they are another class than you, and can thus use special abilities your player character can't. E.g. if you're an engineer, you can build a support drone that fights alongside your tactical bridge officers while they throw grenades at the enemy. Or if your tactical, your science officer will come up to you and heal you, and set up little generators, or your engineering officer will set up a force field dome around you. While bridge officers have a limited number of skills, you can re-train them in exchange for energy credits to get one with your ideal combination of abilities. Again, this is something you will want to do once you have reached rank 50 and tried out a few bridge officers and their abilities. Some work better to balance out your character's flaws than others.

Managing Inventory

Finally, during the game you'll pick up lots of items, which will end up in your inventory, From there, you can drag them into the Status section of the same window that shows your skills. Depending on whether you're on a character page or the ship's, different items in your inventory will be greyed out, so you don't put an engine into a bridge officer's weapons slot.

The Inventory window

If your inventory is full, you have to empty it somehow, or you won't be able to pick up new items. Apart from spending ZEN on buying more slots, I've found 3 options:

  1. You can click the "replicator" button in the lower right of the inventory and then pick items to recycle (you will get "energy points" with which to buy items again from the Replicator, but the selection is limited to standard, non-fancy items, while some of the stuff you pick up during the game is much nicer).
  2. You can go to the bank on the base (the flotilla/New Romulus, the space dock, or Q'o'nos), which is a little computer in which you can dump a limited number of items.
  3. You can go to the "exchange" terminal on one of the bases (and many space stations), and offer them for sale to other players. Not all items can be sold (who would want a common Mark I phaser when they're already at Level 10 and get Mark X stuff during missions). The prices o the exchange are sometimes higher than what you see printed on the items. I sometimes put up items I don't really want to sell, but can't have in the inventory right now. Then I later withdraw them from sale. Of course, someone might still buy it, but at least then I get some energy credits from it.

Comparing inventory

Also, when you get new inventory items, you may want to immediately use them. But what if you get a "Personal Shield Mk II [Pha] [Pla]" and a "Personal Shield Mk II [Dis]"? What's the difference? Well, one will probably be in your character's/ship's corresponding slot. Make sure you can see your character's status page, then mouse over the new item in your inventory. It will now show you a popup describing this item, plus one for each equivalent item your character/ship has. And now you can compare their stats. I don't claim I understand their stats fully, but I guess if the Shield Capacity is bigger, the shield is better.

BTW -- items are classified into different classes: Common, Uncommon, and Rare. So if they're all Mk II shields, but one is Rare, it's often the better one. I've even had cases where a Mk IV Rare was better than a Mk V Common one. Also, some items are "bound" to your character, or to your account. That means you can't sell them on the exchange or e-mail them off in-game to another person (or even can't e-mail them to another character you created on your account). Some are only "bound on equip", which means if you just pick them up but don't actually use give them to one of your characters or ships, you can still sell them. So if you get something you don't need, it's sometimes handy to not try out that item right away, so you can maybe later sell it.

Devices and Kits

A lot of stuff you'll find will be called "Devices", and will look like food, or hypo-sprays (I.e. health bonuses) etc. You can put this in a character's device slot on the Status page, and your bridge officers will use them up when they're being attacked. If your player character has a device, you can drag it to the little tray at the bottom and trigger it. There's even a bunch of Tribble devices. I guess they relax you and thus make you more resilient to certain kinds of attacks (like, "ice tribble" makes you less susceptible to Breen ice attacks, etc.).

The main difference in your character's status page and that of the bridge officers is that you have a "kit" slot. At some points in the game, you come across a kit. Most will not match your character's chosen profession, but those that do will give you bonuses and skills if you drag them to that slot, where they'll kick the previous kit back into your inventory. There's also a little bracket or three to the left of the kit slot that can hold one or more "kit modules" with additional abilities, like additional combat skills. Note that when you remove a kit and put it in your inventory, it will take along your kit modules, so if you want to use those in a new kit, take them out first.

Dilithium and Duty Officers

The Duty Officers Window
At some point, you will get a bunch of Duty Officers. Duty Officers are not Bridge Officers, they are more like bonus cards that you can draw. There are duty officers that can make your shields restore faster, duty officers that you can call for help on a ground mission to get an extra rifle against the enemy, and similar stuff.

There's a whole separate window for duty officers that is basically covered in the tutorials. But there are 2 things you can do with duty officers: You can put them on Active Space/Ground Duty
(which means you will benefit from their abilities), or you can send them off on assignments.

Refining Dilithium

The latter is essentially a gamble where you are not able to use a Duty Officer's abilities for a specified time (I've seen durations from 45 minutes to 72 hours, real time, but you don't have to be logged in). In exchange, if the random number generator isn't against you, you get small items, skill points (meaning you can increase your rank this way), additional duty officers ("refugees" or "prisoners"), or other kinds of currency. In particular, you can get Dilithium and Lobi Crystals, both of which you can use to buy stuff at certain in-game stores. You can also get some of these items as occasional drops from missions, but getting them and not really having to do anything sounds kinda preferable.

That said, most missions give you about 5 Dilithium or so, and items in the Dilithium store cost somewhere in the 5-figures range. Also, once you have Dilithium, you have to refine it on the "Assets" tab of the window that has your inventory, and you can at most refine 8000 Dilithium per day. So even if you find more than 8000, it'll take 3 days to get enough "refined" for one of the smaller items. And you can't get it all from the few Duty Officers (assignments are limited, as are DOffs), so you'd have to also take on some of the repeatable missions where you mine or earn Dilithium.

Special Events

Star Trek Online often runs special seasonal or promotional events where stuff you would have to pay for is free for a little while. You can then buy those items in the store for 0 ZEN. Some events also include a temporary ceasefire, where e.g. even Klingon characters can fly to Risa in federation space and play some of the missions there. So keep an eye out for news on special events, particularly if you don't plan to spend money. There is also a live stream on Twitch every week where they give away stuff, but currently you can't redeem those temporary rebate codes in the Mac version of STO.

Fleets and other Players

Whenever you're in one of the bigger areas with other players, it can happen that you get a little pop-up window requesting you join a fleet. Fleets are groups of players. I.e. actual humans banding together and playing as a team on-line. There's an NPC in the game that can give you more info, but you don't have to join any fleets right away. Wait a little, get to know the game, then investigate what fleets are good for and which one you want to join later.

The Foundry

Vacation in your own engine room
The Foundry is the name of the user-generated missions on STO. Once you've completed the tutorial, you can play additional missions there (they have their own tab in the Missions window). I've found some quite well-written and fun episodes there, and before you start them you can even see a rating whether they're ground or space missions (or a bit of both) or have story etc. I quite enjoyed The Mayns of Balnar Moon.

PS - Sometimes, there are balloons in the game. And why don't you try visiting your own ship's bridge and walk around the corridors and check out the engine room? Hint: You get there somehow using the mini-map window.

Update: Now that I'm past Level 40, I've corrected some of my conclusions. In particular, Romulan turns out to not quite be as cool as it originally sounded, and I added mention of the Exchange and arranging your tray.

Update: Now that I'm at Level 50, and have also created a few additional characters and leveled them up a bit, I've added more info on character classes and things outside the game, bridge officer skills, bound items, and accidental warping during auto-travel in space.