on Nov 21, 2011
Now, I know I said I’d have a Shogun 2 post for you guys today, but on Friday, Bioware finally stopped actively trying to prevent people from talking about their latest game and dropped the Old Republic’s NDA. Given I’ve been waiting to do a post on this game for what seems like forever, you’ll have to forgive me putting off Shogun 2 for a little while longer.
Back around mid-August, I received a welcome surprise in my inbox – a beta invite to the Old Republic. Ever since then, I’ve been itching to tell people about my experiences with the game. Some of you may also remember how I played it back at PAX 2010 and raised some concerns about the budget and direction for the game. I’ve long been waiting to see if I would have to eat those words. And I think just about everyone has been waiting to see if what is probably the most hyped MMO – perhaps, the most hyped videogame – in history will actually live up to all it promises.
So why don’t we get down right to that? Does BioWare’s first MMO live up to its enormous hype?
Is Star Wars: The Old Repubic any good?
And if I were to put all of my thoughts and experiences about the game into a single-word answer to that question, it would really just have to be:
On the surface, that answer seems absurd, doesn’t it? I mean, it’s BioWare! Sure, I may have been a rather vocal critic of their last few titles, but that doesn’t mean they can’t make a good game anymore. And it’s Star Wars! Probably the most well-recognized fiction franchise in human history! Just think about the money that LucasArts and EA could – and did – throw into a project like this. How could it possibly be bad?!
Well, that’s not an easy question to answer. While I would never say the Old Republic is a good game, I don’t think I’d qualify it as a bad game either. It’s certainly not an obviously bad game – the game does good things, but they don’t seem to come together to form a coherent, interesting whole. MMOs are such complex creatures, and it can be difficult to get to the heart of why you don’t like one on a whole. But I think one of the most important elements to understanding my answer lies with the very core of the game’s design.
Put simply, Star Wars: The Old Republic is a game with an overarching design that seems to be very confused with itself. On the one hand, you have many of the elements that go into any given BioWare game you can name from the past nine years. Cinematic cutscenes, voiced dialogue, interesting side characters, clever humor. Everything you’d expect from a BioWare game. On the other hand, you have a cheap World of Warcraft knockoff with clunky combat, utterly dull encounters, very little customization, few community features, and pitifully little player-choice – even for a linear themepark game. While I’m convinced that there are ways that you could skilfully and seamlessly blend traditional MMO mechanics with BioWare’s signiature storytelling style, the way the two come together in this game is anything but.
On the BioWare side of things – the elements that are almost exclusively contained within BioWare’s monolithic “fourth pillar” of story – you have, as I said before, just about every element you would expect from a BioWare game. More or less every BioWare cliche you can name can be found somewhere in this game, from “you are the chosen one” elements, to plucky, humorous sidekicks, to incredibly restrictive morality meters. Good and bad, it’s all here, and if all you ever wanted was “BioWare puts BioWare cliches into an MMO” and don’t care at all about how it fits together or how the rest of the game plays, then this is your game.
The story is “good,” in as much as that the same quality of writing would make for a mediocre novel – which is just about par for most BioWare games. That said, there weren’t very many plot elements that really snuck up on me, and it was pretty easy to predict what was going to happen next, from my Smuggler’s ship being stolen in the opening quest to my Imperial Agent being tasked to kill the obvious-sympathetic-NPC guy that just last quest was talking about how I should meet his sons when they arrived. Maybe I’ve just been playing BioWare games for too long. The voicework in this game is superb, though, on par with – if not better than – Mass Effect, and none of this is to say that playing out the story and dialogue sections of the game aren’t enjoyable. Far from it, in fact; the “fourth pillar” is by far the bright spot of this game. It’s refreshing to see BioWare-style cutscenes in an MMO environment, and the venerable RPG company has soundly succeeded at beating out every other MMO story in history – at the very least in presentation, if not in writing quality.
The problem is that while BioWare’s first three pillars of Progression, Exploration, and Combat are all holding up the roof of their MMO, the fourth pillar is in another building altogether on the opposite side of town. There is a very clear disconnect between TOR’s storytelling elements and everything else in the game – and the story suffers for it. The game feels much less like an MMO built around storytelling and much more like an MMO with storytelling elements strapped on. While the story-related cutscenes succeed at garnering feelings of attachment and interest in the characters and plot as I’m told someone I’ve been working with is in trouble and I need to go help them, or that the person I’ve been chasing since the beginning of the game has finally shown himself, as I’m dropped back into the MMO part of the world and the quest marker pops up in my log with “kill dudes that are standing around idly in a field and take their stuff until you find x of y,” I’m reminded that I’m playing a themepark MMO again, and I’m doing the same damn quests I’ve been doing for the last eight years and no, they’re still not interesting – and everything that the story has propped up for me shatters in an instant. The gameplay completely fails to support the story.
This problem could have been remedied had the MMO parts of TOR been good – I’m not sure I’ll ever accept kill ten rats quests as a ‘good platform for RPG storytelling’ but I would have been less bothered by them at any rate – but the truth of the matter is that the forth pillar is by far the best one, and the MMO elements in TOR are some sad combination of outdated, poorly designed, and badly implimented.
Aside from the fact that every quest is some variation of a “kill ten rats” quest or a “Fed-ex” delivery quest, the first thing I noticed was that, despite the game’s heavy use of instancing, there is absolutely no phasing in this game. Your actions in the story cannot affect the world around you because, without phasing, they’d affect the world for everyone – something that is antithetical to the very idea of a themepark MMO. And all interactable objects and nodes in the world exist for everyone – which means that for the half of the quests that deal with interactable consoles, switches, and machines, you’ll be fighting with everyone else in the zone to turn them on, lest you be left waiting for them to “respawn” and become interactable again. This caused some significant problems in the beta when the respawn timers for interactable objects were broken, leaving switches that would take eight hours to respawn, and while those bugs were fixed, you’d better hope that a bug like that never crops up again, or you could suddenly find your character stonewalled from advancing because they can’t complete a class quest.
Combat itself would best be described as “clunky.” Hopefully things will be better at launch, because throughout my beta experiences, it felt as if there was almost always a half-second of latency between my pushing a key and my character actually firing off an ability. And aside from the technical problems, combat just isn’t all that deep or interesting. The optimal way to play any class in the game is to find a combination of two or three high-damage, low-recharge abilities and use them in rotation over and over and over again until whatever you’re hitting is dead. For those of you of the more support-oriented persuasion, there are no target-of-target mechanics in the game – so good luck doing anything other than stare at the group window and constantly flipping targets using the game’s frustrating targeting UI to heal whoever is taking damage at any given moment. Sounds like fun to me!
Encounters through most of the game are incredibly dull affairs. From level one, you will be going out into the world and fighting groups of three mobs at a time. Over and over again. At level 25, you’ll still be fighting the same groups of three mobs. Three is the number here, like some sad Monty Python reference that’s spiraled out of control. Let me stress, this is not hyperbole – literally, the Old Republic consists of a series of planets filled to the brim with groups of three guys standing around doing nothing. I can’t even recall a lucid example of fighting a battle against more than three guys outside of flashpoints, unless I accidentally aggro’d two groups at once. And it isn’t as if the three-mob-encounters are all that varied either; I guess you might run into a group that has a healer that might get off two or three heals occasionally, but that’s about it. Maybe you’ll run into the occasional group of two or even a lone mob, but four guys, man? That’s ridiculous.
The real sad thing is that this combat pillar is probably the most fully featured of the three MMO pillars. The “exploration” pillar is a laughable excuse for a misshapen pet-rock; I haven’t seen more closed-in environments, box-canyons, and long, linear corridors since Guild Wars, and that game was instanced! This game is open world! Well, not quite, anyhow – the game makes judicous use of instancing to make certain the population on a given planet isn’t so high or concentrated that it will make it impossible to complete a quest in the phasing-void world of the Old Republic; which means that, yes, there will be multiple instances of Coruscant on the same server. Didn’t Champions Online prove that breaking up community centers like that was a terrible idea? Compound that with the game’s rigid linearity – there’s no such thing as alternative leveling zones in this game – and you’ve got a grade-A recipe for monotony.
The progression pillar doesn’t really stand up on its own either. Each class has two advanced classes that alter the way the class plays, and each of those have two unique talent trees and one that’s shared between both advanced classes, but since most of the good parts of a given advanced class are concentrated towards the top of that class’s talent trees, dabblers will find themselves at a significant disadvantage. The game compounds this problem with a complete lack of any sort of dual-speccing system, meaning you’re just out of luck if you want to play a healer and can’t find a reliable group. You can’t currently respec to a different advanced class at all, either. Beyond that, not very many of the abilities I played with were terribly interesting either, and with the exception of the addition of stealth mechanics to some of the classes, they didn’t seem to really change the way I played much.
The game is also sorely lacking in community features. There are no looking for group functions, the auction house barely qualifies as a store, the group size limit is four, and companions take up group slots, character customization is so laughably inconsequential that I don’t even know where to begin, and you can’t invite people onto your ship. Oh yes, you didn’t misread that last part; you cannot invite people onto your own ship! Don’t even ask me about the thought process that went into that last decision, I don’t want to understand it.
But after all this, I still haven’t gotten to the core of my problem with TOR, and I haven’t answered the question I posed at the beginning of this preview. Because for all of my complaints about the game’s mechanics, they’re all really ancillary to the problem. This game could have been good – not great – but good, had it been a tightly-focused BioWare story with poor MMO mechanics propping it up. After all, KotOR’s combat was rather bland and inconsequential, and to many people, including myself, it is still the best BioWare game. But that’s the real problem with the Old Republic: the story isn’t tightly focused, and its not the dominant feature of the game.
This is an MMO first, and a BioWare RPG as a distant second.
Allow me to illustrate this more succinctly. The ratio of main-to-side-quests in this game is, generously, ten to one. Normally, this would be a good figure for an RPG, implying a massive world with lots of room to explore and lots of activities to complete. But this is an MMO, and I’m increasingly coming to the opinion that there is no such thing as a side-quest in an MMO. That is to say, that to progress in this game – to keep up with the level required to complete the story quests – you need to complete nearly all of the so called “side-quests.” Since the side quests are all unashamedly variations of Fed-Ex and Kill-Ten-Rats quests, concealed only under the thin veneer of voiced dialogue which, while novel, does little to distract from the fact that you’re doing another kill-ten-dudes-in-a-field quest, this becomes much more than a mere chore. And combine that with the fact that you’re playing out these “side-quests” with outdated MMO mechanics and a philosophy of design from 2005, and all of the goodwill, interest, and meaning that the story has built up for you will come crashing down under a typhoon of monotony. If there is a such thing as a true “grind” in an MMO, then this is it, and the story is the carrot.
And that’s the heart of the problem. The so-touted, so-hyped “story” of the Old Republic is a side-activity! Little more than an entertaining diversion from the monotony that is the rest of the game. In KotOR, you could play out the story at your own pace – things could happen as fast or as slow as you wanted them to. In The Old Republic, that story is permanently stuck in first gear, and with the levelling curve the way it is, it actually gets slower as you progress, rather than ramping up.
The Old Republic feels as if someone took a mediocre WoW clone and added a few well-written and presented story quests to it. If you could progress solely through the story then everything would be fine, but you can’t – you can’t even come close. Every part of BioWare’s fourth pillar suffers from this, even the flashpoints, the one part of the game where every pillar comes together to create an experience that made me exclaim, “Yes, yes! This is it! This is what I wanted! This is multiplayer KotOR – we’re making decisions as a group, fighting interesting battles, and there’s an overarching narrative that gives meaning to everything we’re doing!” So naturally, there are only about eight of them in the entire game.
There might be a silver lining, I suppose. I’m sure there will be people quick to point out that the game is still in beta, and that even after launch, the game will constantly be changing as BioWare adds content and patches bugs, but that is of little comfort to me. My problem with the game runs far deeper than simple bugs or content gaps. It’s endemic to the game’s very design. The core game – the four pillars – each one of them sounding so good on its own, have been patched together into something that better resembles Frankenstein’s monster than it does the Six Million Dollar Man.
As I continued to play, I found myself asking the same questions, over and over. Why aren’t there more flashpoints? Hell, why isn’t the entire game made up of flashpoints linked together by hubs? Why is the story so needlessly strung out by these mandatory side-quests – a decision that seems to exist solely because the game is an MMO and for no other reason. Why isn’t this game better? There are hundreds of millions of dollars in this product! Why does it feel like such a chore to play? Eventually, I lost the motivation to even play the game anymore, even knowing I wanted to have as much experience as I could solely so that I could write this post. The irony was poignant – I was in a beta I’m sure people would pay hundreds of dollars for the mere chance to get into – and I didn’t even have the motivation to play it. This was the magnum opus, the dream game of myself and millions of other fans who played KotOR, and all I could think about was how I kept coming back to one question.
Why isn’t this game better?
Because that’s the real tragedy of Star Wars: The Old Republic. Not that it’s a mediocre game – though that is a tragedy in itself – but that it could have been so very much more.
And it isn’t.