Friday, August 24, 2012

Discussing MMOs: Star Wars: The Old Republic

As a profoundly geeky person, I have been a fan of Star Wars for a long, long time. I have also been a long-time fan of almost every game the game studio Bioware ever made. Thus, when the two combined to create a Star Wars MMO in the (slightly advance) timeline of the hit game Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, I figured that things couldn't possibly go wrong. In some ways, I was right, but in other ways, I was terribly wrong.

Character creation is one of the areas where the game is very much like early WoW. There are two sides, Republic and Sith. Each side has its own classes (though each class is mirrored by the other side), and while the species of human, cyborg, Twi'lek, and Zabrak are available to both sides, the Miraluka and Mirialans are Republic-only, while Chiss, Rattataki, and Sith Purebloods are Sith only. Yes, you read that right; no Wookiees. Also no Devaronians, Duros, Bothans, Gamorreans, Gungans, Jawas, Rodians, or any of the other popular Star Wars species. While you can meet most of these other races, you can't play as them, which I found disappointing. Each class (bounty hunters, Imperial agents, Sith Warriors and Inquisitors for the Sith, Troopers, Smugglers, Jedi Consulars and Knights for the Republic) has two advanced classes that you can choose from once you reach a certain level, which can cause some serious divergence among class types.

Each class has its own storyline, and they are one of the best parts of the game. You start your storyline as soon as you finish creating your character, and it will go through the rest of the game with you. There is always a portion of your storyline to be followed on each planet, and they range from the somewhat mediocre (the Jedi Consular, from what I've heard) to the very thematic, cool, and fun (Bounty Hunter, Imperial Agent, and Smuggler). Though your story, you will meet a variety of characters who will choose (or be forced) to accompany you on your way through the galaxy; these will be your companions, computer-controlled NPCs who accompany you on quests for an extra bit of firepower, guarding, or healing ability, as well as some amusing dialogue. At least one of your companions will be a possible love interest (well, if you're straight - if you're gay, then while Bioware has said they will add gay-friendly companions for love interests, they hadn't gotten around to it when I quit playing). Every time you speak to a character, either on your storyline or just for a regular quest, it will start a full cutscene, where you get to choose from a variety of dialogue choices and the NPC will respond accordingly. Each character is fully voiced, often by a voice actor who is fairly well-known for such work, with a lot of cameos from other more well-known actors and actresses. This is possible one of the most immersive things I have seen in an MMO, and it was worth playing for this, at least.

Each character will also, eventually, get their own starship. This is determined by class, sadly; you don't get a choice of ships. While they are fun to see in a docking bay, your primary interaction with a ship will be as a resting place and the means by which you travel between planets; each ship looks different, and your companions will wait there while not on missions. Sadly, there is no customization available for your ship; every Smuggler's ship will look the same. Ships are also used for space missions, where you stop playing your character and instead pilot your craft on a space-going mission, shooting enemy fighters, avoiding meteorites, and generally being destructive. You follow a specific path for each mission, sadly, so while you can move around the screen a bit, it's basically a rail-shooter.

Being a Star Wars game, you can, of course, be a Light Side or Dark Side character. This is not restricted to your Republic or Sith affiliation; I played as my main character a Light Side Bounty Hunter, and I know a few people who played Dark Side Jedi. While some of the choices that affect your Light/Dark Side meters are fun, some can be head-scratching; in one mission, after retrieving medical supplies at the behest of an embattled field medic running out of battleground supplies, you are accosted by a civilian who demands the medical supplies for a group of refugees. This sounds like a difficult choice, but in the game, it is simple - giving the supplies to the refugees is the Light Side choice, and giving them to the medic who asked for them is the Dark Side choice. Also, of the two, only Dark Side choices seem to have a visible effect on your character; the more Dark Side you go, the paler, veinier, and generally scarier you look. Light Side choices don't have any visible effect. Also, if you want to be essentially neutral, good luck; there are some items - some of which are cosmetic, but others of which are important - which depend on you choosing Light or Dark.

Speaking of cosmetic, The Old Republic (or TOR) decided to go in the same direction as WoW with regards to outward appearance. So the armor you have equipped is the armor you see, and there are no easy ways to change that. There are certain items, both armor and weapons, which can be improved gradually as you play, so that you can keep a coherent look without wearing outdated and useless armor, but these items, especially the ones that look good, aren't often easy to find. Also, each class only has a single weapon style available to them; Bounty hunters only use blaster pistols, Troopers use either blaster rifles or assault cannons (depending on their advance class), and Jedi/Sith only use lightsabers - Knights/Wariors either use one or two, while Consulars/Inquisitors use either a single lightsaber or a double-bladed lightsaber. This means that most members of a class will be easily recognizable, because they will be wearing very similar armor and using very similar weapons.

TOR also made the decision to have groups that require the Holy Trinity of WoW - if you want to do instances (which can be quite fun), you need a tank, a healer, and 2 damage-dealers (groups in TOR are only 4 people). Occasionally a member can be substituted for by an NPC companion, bu the computer isn't very good at controlling companions in instances. I found this design decision particularly disappointing. I wanted to play a Bounty Hunter who could, for instance, jump into combat, use a flamethrower at close range, then use my jetpack to fly off to a distance and snipe. This was, however, not an option; while the Bounty Hunter does indeed have a jetpack, it can only be used in one or two abilities; no fancy jetpack-assisted out-of-combat jumps. Some of the mechanics TOR implemented for classes also didn't work well in the settings they were designed for; instanced 'dungeons' (more often than not starships, space stations, or abandoned archaeological digs) often had boss fights that required being mobile, while both the Smuggler and Imperial Agent classes had a number of abilities only available while they were in cover - which necessitated staying in one location.

As for exploration, there were quite a variety of planets to travel to. Korriban, with the ancient temples of the Sith; Nar Shaddaa, playground of the Hutts; Coruscant, jewel of the Republic; Alderaan, the planet of royalty. Each planet was designed for a certain level range, and to play through your storyline, you had to go to each planet in an order determined by Bioware. On most planets, even the ones that were hotly contested by both sides, you rarely saw players from the opposing faction - there were computer-controlled enemies of that faction, but the players were often in areas you never saw or had a reason to go to. Open PvP only really became available on the 'final' planet or two, and even then it was rare to see people engaging in large-scale PvP; most people simply queued up for instanced PvP battlegrounds. So there was a lot of ground to cover, but each planet was very monothematic; one part of Alderaan was very much like the next.

Overall, I thought the storylines and companions were fun, but it seemed that the game had been intended, essentially, as a massive single-player game, and then had MMO elements added into it later; this meant, for the most part, that the most fun parts of the game were not shared experiences, but the storyline cutscenes that, even if they were present, your fellow party members could not take part in. It would have been great fun as a single-player successor to the original Knights of the Old Republic, but I think TOR went too close to the formula of WoW with its MMO elements, and as such failed to truly distinguish itself from the leader of the pack in all the ways that make a difference in an MMO. It also didn't help that, when I began to become disillusioned with TOR, I also had massive problems with the ending of Mass Effect 3- also a Bioware game - and so, not feeling particularly generous, decided to quit both.

Next up: A Secret World

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