Review of Midnight: 5/5 Stars
The final episode of the Iconian War Arc, and the culmination of five years of Star Trek Online.
As a resolution to a five-year arc Midnight is both satisfying and thoughtful, and to a greater extent has realigned Star Trek Online back to the core values of Star Trek. Surprises, role reversals, and a MacGuffin – Midnight is an episode that will be remembered for a risky resolution that was highly unexpected, but entirely Star Trek in it’s character and execution.
And that’s a great thing for players of Star Trek Online, and for fans of Star Trek.
This review was a lot tougher to write than I expected. At the end of the episode I felt a sense of melancholy, as if this was something I’d never see again. I actually had to take a break from the game for the rest of the day, as I tried to make sense of everything.
Did I like it? Yes, very much. But why was I sad?
The following review is loaded with spoilers, and it’s way too long for a normal blog post. If you have yet to play this final episode of the Iconian Arc, I highly recommend you stop reading and go enjoy it.
The online discussion leading up to the release of Midnight had all of us guessing how Cryptic would wrap up a story-line not only five years in the making, but one where the very foundation of the Federation was at stake. Driven together out of necessity, former enemies are struggling to survive against the onslaught of an enemy so powerful, that the very future of the galaxy hangs in the balance.
After the disastrous frontal assault on the Iconian Sphere, the Alliance found itself running out of time. The situation is so dire that the Alliance of KDF, Romulan Republic and the Federation are preparing to use a weapon potentially powerful enough that it could rewrite the history. The very use of the device would be a violation of the Federation’s charter and the Prime Directive. Would they be willing to effectively destroy the foundation of the Federation in order to save all of the Alliance members?
To make matters more convoluted, story threads as to the origin of the ‘Other’ and Sela have been left so murky that it’s hard to imagine any other outcome than the classic reset button trope we’ve seen so many times before in Star Trek.
Throughout the history of Star Trek, time travel stories have been among the favorites of fans and actors alike. It’s a chance to explore the ‘what if’ story-lines where anything can happen, including the visual (and visceral) destruction of the things we hold most dear. While the stories differ in terms of motivations, more often than not they represent an opportunity to press a ‘Galactic Reset Button‘ and suddenly everything returns to normalcy.
Back at the release of Delta Rising, we all mused that the ‘non-appearance’ of the Krenim Imperium would be somehow connected to the finale. While the events of ‘The Year of Hell’ two-parter in Voyager never actually happened, it certainly raised player eyebrows when intelligence reports later identified that the Krenim where among the first races to be overwhelmed by the Vaadwaur. Hints and exposition scattered throughout Delta Rising, the Delta Recruit expanded missions, the ‘Tales of the War’ blog posts and the Iconian War Arc further confirmed our suspicion that time travel would be fundamental to solving this unsolvable puzzle.
As fans of the series, there was a certain conceit that we knew things our characters could not possibly have known. And Cryptic used that awareness to mislead us, while at the same time laying the groundwork for a future story-line.
A little on the backstory: The Year of Hell
Regardless of your feelings towards Voyager, ‘The Year of Hell’ 2-part represents one of the high points of the series. Caught between adding decades to their journey home, Janeway risks her ship and crew by effectively forcing her way through Krenim territory. After several costly engagements, Voyager develops a shielding strategy that allows them to reduce the damage of the Krenim Chroniton Torpedoes. That shielding had an added benefit – it protected Voyager from a series of Temporal Incursions made by the Krenim scientist Annorax using a massive ‘weapon-ship’. Over the course of two episodes, Voyager is hunted by Annorax and ultimately is sacrificed by Janeway in a suicide collision to destroy the Weapon-ship. In her final moments she orders her group of alien allies to disable their temporal shielding, hoping that the destruction of the weapon-ship would effectively restore the timeline.
Janeway: “Time’s… up!” A stunning collision, massive explosion, and the timeline is reset. The restored timeline is subtly changed, the Krenim Imperium is not that large, and Voyager goes around it’s territory to resume her voyage home.
The events leading up to Midnight seemed to be a replay of that story line. The plan was to somehow use our version of the Annorax Science Dreadnought to not only remove the Iconians as a threat, but to possibly restore Romulus as an added benefit. ‘Butterfly’ gave us the opportunity to see possible outcomes, including a not-so-subtle reminder that while we could remove one threat, others could rise to fill any vacuum we created.
Enough with the preamble…
Midnight Begins with Captain Kagran informing you that the Iconians are massing for a final push towards the key worlds of the Alliance. You will be part of the remaining forces deployed to mount a defense while we prepare the weaponship to be used in an entirely different way than originally planned.
Take your time and enjoy the NPC commentary. For me, Romulan Republic’s Captain Jarock’s comments before the final meeting says volumes about what this episode is ultimately about. Once again it’s our former enemies reminding us of our values.
The briefing is short and to the point. Earth is the Heralds next target and should it fall, the war would be lost for all. The new plan is much darker, time traveling back 200,000 years to help the invading aliens ensure the destruction of Ancient Iconia. Captain Shon protests and Kagran offers a dismal reality check:
You talk of honor.
All of these will just be words if we fail.
We can try to live up to these ideals when we survive.
A few cut scenes later, you arrive in earth orbit, ESD is once again in flames and several localized battles are already underway against a backdrop of thousands of Herald craft. You’re drawn into engagement after engagement; part defense and part rescue all in an attempt to hold them back long enough for the Krenim Science Dreadnought to arrive and ready your attempt at time travel.
The entire episode is peppered with little Easter eggs for both Star Trek fans and STO fans alike. The moment you hear ‘Kurland here… ‘ and then static brought a smile to my face for all the wrong reasons.
The Annorax arrives in orbit, and you’re ordered to defend her while they generate the portal through time. The defense is a desperate one, and at a moment when you’re about to be overwhelmed, Sela arrives with reinforcements from the Dominion and Cardassia. The benefit of these new forces is short-lived as the Heralds turn their attention to the newly opened time portal. It becomes a race against time to get through the portal. As Shon and the Enterprise attempt to distract the Herald Command Ship, Captain Koren regroups all the ships available for one final push.
Klingon, Cardassian, Romulan, Dominion and Federation forces fighting together against an unstoppable foe. If the thought of that moment wasn’t enough to pull at your geek-heartstrings, Shon’s VO of “The Charge of the Light Brigade” – a nod to DS9’s “Sacrifice of Angels” – certainly drove home the intensity of the moment.
The portal is starting to collapse. First Kagran’s command ship makes it through, followed moments later by your ship and the JemHadar Dreadnought commanded by Sela.
For an environment we only get to see in one episode, Team Cryptic really did an amazing job. Ancient Iconia is a wonder to look at, and Sela’s comments about this place representing the Iconians at the height of their power while true, greatly misrepresents what you’re about to experience as a player.
I can’t wait to see what the Foundry Community does with these maps.
You’ve arrived only ‘hours’ before the start of the Alien invasion that ‘destroys’ the Iconian homeworld, and you set out on your grim task gathering information to help you with your plan.
Shortly after arrival you meet the very Iconians you’ve been sent to kill, and they are not what you would have expected. In fact they are so far removed from the vengeance driven race you’ve come to stop, that it’s clear something is very amiss.
Captain Kagran rejoins you quickly, having arrived some time earlier before you. He tells you of his time among them and that they are peaceful people. Your interactions with the Iconians also crafts a very different story. They share many of the values of the Federation, following the same ‘non-interference’ dictum we’ve come to know as the Prime Directive. This discovery leads to some interesting arguments, as Sela tries to sway the argument to keep the mission on task.
You continue your rouse, discovering more about the pending invasion and those responsible for it. In the process you gain the trust of your hosts. At first I found this ‘acceptance’ of us by the Iconians a little hard to swallow. These Iconians were unfazed as to the danger they were in, and yet they accepted help from complete strangers. Yes they scanned us on arrival and considered our odd chroniton signatures as different, but they didn’t consider our weapons or gear as a threat.
Whether this is pure overconfidence, or an unwillingness to accept that ‘lessor’ races could be a threat, the Iconians were unprepared for the invasion to come. And YOU are in the position to take full advantage of the situation.
As the invasion unfolds the Iconians ask for your assistance to help spirit away the sum total of their knowledge – the
Heartstone World Heart. (TY to ZOBERRAZ) The goal is to keep it out of the invaders hands. Think of it as the central database of the entire culture, ironically stored in one place.
Seriously – this is a culture that has a central database in only one location.
Clearly the concept of distributed computing is something the Iconians – and the Networking team of Cryptic – have yet to act on due to budget constraints. The DDOS attacks this past week not withstanding. (Ok, Ok, I had to comment on it somewhere, without giving that turd any publicity 😉
Heartstone Worldheart reminded me immediately of the Man of Steel MacGuffin, where the sum total of the Kryptonian genetic history is stored within the DNA of Kal-El. But I digress.
In any case, you help and protect the Iconian as the knowledge is extracted and downloaded into a crystal sphere about the size of a volleyball. The ground combat phase is several waves of unidentified invaders who attack you and your away team.
In the process you encounter T’Ket – who appears to be the lone Iconian defending. Your conversation with her is enlightening, and in an odd way you encourage her to choose the path of survival so that she can in effect, take her revenge later.
Time travel. Since my first day on the job as a Starfleet captain I swore I’d never let myself get caught in one of these godforsaken paradoxes – the future is the past, the past is the future, it all gives me a headache.
After several running battles, your choice to assist the Iconians is one that seems to be evolving, much to the dislike of Sela. You’re helping them escape, and stopping the advance of the invasion forces.
Finally at the gateway, T’Ket and the 11 other surviving members open a passageway to a refuge – Dewa III – what will one day become New Romulus. It’s at this moment that Sela makes a choice that will set the course of our history and that of the Romulan people. It’s also where Captain Kagran redeems himself, and in a large measure in my opinion of Star Trek Online.
It’s at this point in the episode that for me re-established my hope that this game and the IP has a future. Star Trek is safe in Cryptic’s hands.
In an attempt to prevent the key Iconians from escaping, Sela begins shooting the defenseless Iconians and in the process forcing them to drop the World Heart. Kagran steps between her and the retreating Iconains and begs her to stop.
In essence, we’re better than this. And it took a Klingon to remind us of that. I’m at odds with the fact that it took an ally to remind us of what we stand for. I understand that the mechanics of an MMO that doesn’t account for moral choices, makes it difficult to tell a story from the players perspective, and that sometimes we need to be lead to the right conclusion.
But I’m overjoyed that the writers chose this route.
T’Ket picks up the wounded Iconian, and while backing through the gateway curses the Romulan race for their treachery. After she steps through, the sudden realization that she Sela, the result of a Paradox herself, is responsible for the ultimate destruction of Romulus.
We are the Other.
We re-emerge moments after we left at the height of the conflict. Kagran takes little time in telling the defensive fleet to stand down, and turns to you to address the Iconians.
Assuming you plan to surrender, the Iconians are stunned that not only that you posses the Heartstone, but that you are also the Other. Instantly you are portal’d onto the bridge of the Herald Command Ship.
In the end, diplomacy – or the perception that our actions were noble – saves the day, while leaving open T’Ket’s anger to allow the content to remain in the game.
In a game where in the past year DPS has become the only true quest at ‘end game’, it was a relief to see them re-embrace the foundation of what made Star Trek great. That in the exploration of those possibilities of existence, we can become better as a whole.
Two Nitpicks – one visual, the other story
Nitpick #1: The first is this cut scene of the starships reorganizing for a final push to defend the time portal. It looked rushed, with stars flying at warp speed in an odd direction (ala Manga) with no signs of the thousands of Herald ships anywhere to be seen. They were in orbit at impulse speeds; it would have been cooler had we seen them turn and regroup while in orbit.
Nitpick #2: It’s super geeky, but valid for fans die-hard of Star Trek. How the heck did T’Ket know Sela was a Romulan? Romulans would not have existed for another 100,000 years. Sure, ‘we’ were scanned on arrival. But ‘Romulans’ would not split from Vulcan for a considerable time. It’s possible Kagran described what a Romulan was to the Iconians while he was living among them.
I prefer to think that these earlier Iconians were partially psychic, and that they chose not to enter the minds of lessor species. So I offer this last bit of speculative creative writing:
In a moment of uncharacteristic rage, T’Ket allowed herself to look into the creatures mind.
“Who was this thing who dared strike at us?”
Looking into the disorganized and chaotic mind of a lessor sentient was never pleasant, and most definitely a painful process for Iconians. The creatures own state of mind, it’s emotions at that moment could color and even cloud the perceptions of it’s own thoughts.
“Such hate.” “Such RAGE”.
This creature held all in contempt. “Klingons” and “Humans” created conflicting emotions.
And then in a flash T’Ket saw the creatures home world amidst a swirling maelstrom of fear and hatred for anything Iconian. This creature was from a world she called ‘Romulus’.
She was a ‘Romulan’.
For the first time in centuries, T’Ket found a focus for her rage.
As for being melancholy at the end of this episode, it’s because it truly felt like an ending. It reminded me of what I felt like watching “All Good Things”. While the writers have laid the seeds of seasons to come – The Temporal Cold War, the Temporal Accords – they have very effectively brought STO back on course. Season XI will open the doors back to exploration, something that this game has sorely missed in the past year.
Team Cryptic knocked this out of the park. I can’t wait to see what the future holds!