on Jul 16, 2012
People have been heaping shame on Star Wars: The Old Republic for months now. I can’t hope to add anything new, so the best I can manage is to just say everything again, only longer and with more digressions. You know how we do things around here.
The art, like everything else in SWTOR, is never truly awful. It’s just bland. Ordinary. Safe. Unremarkable. There are little flashes of brilliance in there if you’re willing to sift for them, but this game does not deliver an experience in keeping with the standards set by BioWare or the reported two hundred million that was spent on it. There is something unbearably sterile about The Old Republic.
Now, I am not an artist, as I’ve proven many times in the past. I don’t have an eye for it and so I don’t know how to really dig down and explain things when things go wrong. But I ask that you humor me while I try to grope around and figure this out. This is a really important failing of the game, and it’s worth dissecting.
OBVIOUSLY I am not talking about graphics. This should go without saying, but art and graphics are two different things. I’m not faulting the game because I want Crysis-level graphics or whatever. World of Warcraft is a great example of a game where primitive graphics and stellar art design makes for a world that is visually rich, varied, and filled with atmosphere. There are places in WoW that I look forward to, simply because of the mood they project. The creepy dread of Darkshire. The storybook warmth of Elwynn Forest. The quiet serenity of Ashenvale. I haven’t run into anywhere in SWTOR that feels like anything in particular. The world is just polygons under your feet.
BioWare generally does fantastic art, and for me one of the big things I love about their games is running around the world and looking at the sights. Jade Empire is an exquisitely crafted world, a visual feast. Mass Effect and Dragon Age managed to show off some really impressive set-piece areas. Remember the time on Eden Prime when you reached the top of the hill and saw Sovereign taking off in the distance? The contrast between the temple and the surrounding countryside in Dantooine? This is something they’re usually good at.
Here is the very start of the game as a Bounty Hunter:
Orange, brown, beige, tan, and taupe. That is a very narrow band of hues. Note how there aren’t even any rich, deep colors or any whites. There’s very little variance in saturation. Topping off the blandness is the complete lack of contrast. The light sources don’t seem to shed light, the dark corners of the room aren’t very dark. Heck, even the player character blends in with this soup of earth tones. Welcome to the game! Feast your eyes on our galactic meh!
This is supposedly from the area of the game ruled by the Hutts, and I’m sure the art team took their direction from Jabba’s palace in Return of the Jedi, with a bit of Tatooine slums thrown in. But if you watch Return of the Jedi, you’ll notice that Jabba’s palace was more than just a cavalcade of orange. It had tight, focused lights that provided a lot of contrast. A lot of the lights were very blue. The characters usually stood out from the background. This game doesn’t have any of that. Someone saw that the building was brown, and so they issued the decree to the art team: Thou shalt make it brown, yea, even unto the ends of the world.
Lest you accuse me of cherry-picking, here is a shot from a totally different planet.
That’s the big reveal of your ship at the start of the game when you play as a smuggler. This is supposed to be a “Golly-wow!” moment, and it looks like a 30 year old Polaroid or something. The entire image is so muted and everything blends together that nothing really stands out. Here is the exact same shot, after I fiddled with some color and contrast controls in Photoshop.
Again, I Am Not An Artist (IANAA) but you can see that with even my rudimentary understanding of image and color theory that we have a massive improvement here. You’ve still got the same distant, dreamy horizon, and you’ve still got blue light shining on the scene. But now the environment stands out from the background and the ship stands out from the environment. We’ve got contrasting oranges and blues instead of all pale blue, everywhere.
Just imagine how much of an improvement a REAL artist could make if they were messing with the in-game assets and not just fiddling with a screenshot.
And no, this problem is not limited to just one planet. In fact, the previous example might be one of the least horrible examples of this problem. The person responsible for the MAXIMUM ORANGE color filter on Hutta should be arrested and tried as an art criminal.
That’s an unaltered screenshot. It’s actually a magnificent arrangement of elements, but everything is about the same hue and occupies the same narrow range of the brightness spectrum. There’s so little contrast that nothing “pops”. I understand that this area of the world is supposed to be “polluted” but you shouldn’t need to kill the visuals for the entire zone to make that point. In general, your expensive set-piece assets should not blend with the backdrop.
On the other hand, I can point to a couple of other one-color areas in previous BioWare games that seemed to work really well. Plus, some of the tombs on Korriban have ultra-saturated lighting of reds, purples, and greens, and those areas still seemed sort of monotonous. Heck, games like Limbo have no color at all and can still evoke a powerful atmosphere. So while the narrow hue focus is problematic, I don’t think it’s the root of the artistic malaise.
On top of the homogeneous colors, a lot of areas in the game also have homogeneous architecture. It can be agonizing running around the Sith Academy where you’re charging down one long, techno-lit corridor after another. Everything looks the same and it’s easy to get turned around because the place feels like it’s made from prefab copy & pasted bits. The above corridor isn’t bad looking, but once you run down this long corridor, turn a corner, and run down another corridor just like it, you will begin to feel the boredom in your spine.
Jedi Knight was drawing from the exact same architectural palette and it took a lot longer to become wearisome. Heck, Oblivion and Skyrim use prefab bits, but they still manage to have a lot of variety. Sure, you get bored after a dozen or so hours of tombs, but in SWTOR I was visually bored almost as soon as I arrived.
I think the difference here is that the spaces in SWTOR are too large by a factor of four. In Jedi Knight and Force Unleashed, you could move at ridiculous speeds and fought entire armies of guys at once, and once you cleared an area you never saw it again. You used that huge space and you had the means to cross it quickly. In SWTOR you’re usually traversing the same couple of corridors dozens of times as you go between the quest zone and the quest givers. There’s no gameplay here, and there’s nothing that demands all this space.
Rooms are immense. Hallways are long. Open areas feel empty. I can think of a few places in KOTOR that felt like this, but almost everything in SWTOR suffers from this overabundance of empty space. Maybe they need to keep the floor wide and open because this is an MMO, but I can point to any inn they have in World of Warcraft. Those places are much, much smaller, are far more crowded, and seem to work just fine. Even if crowd control was a concern, that doesn’t explain why we have these huge, bare walls. Hang up some tapestries. Suspend some techno lights from the ceiling. Hang some quasi-fascist flags around the place. Stencil stuff on the walls. Add some decorative alcoves. You know, whatever. Just break up these bare walls. (To be fair, they do all of the above in various places, but the places where they don’t are an eyesore.)
This world seems too “clean”. One of the big surprises of Star Wars: A New Hope was this version of a high-tech world where everything looked used and lived-in. There was clutter and dirt around the edges. Machines showed signs of wear and tear. Most of the buildings and machinery in this game are too pristine. Even the slums seem to be fastidiously cleaned.
The art in this game is aimed at a really strange spot on the realism spectrum. The shapes are simple and clean, as if this was a stylized world like Fable, Beyond Good & Evil, or World of Warcraft. But SWTOR doesn’t seem to evoke the kind of whimsy you would expect from that sort of style. The textures are colored with an eye towards realism, not vibrancy. What we end up with is the worst of both worlds. It’s not detailed enough to give you the grit of photo-realism, but it’s not vibrant and colorful enough to create a sense of wonder.
What’s the deal with this room? The room feels much too big for the furniture, and the furniture feels to big for the people. You could excuse this as “alien” furniture, but since the room is inhabited exclusively by humanoids I don’t think that excuse works. This was a space made by someone who knew how to use their tools but hasn’t yet honed their craft. It’s big, empty, bland, flat, and everything feels a little off because the lack of a cohesive art style.
It doesn’t help that the game has almost nothing in the way of a soundscape. The swamps aren’t alive with croaking, chirping, droning wildlife. We don’t hear a chorus birds in the jungles. We don’t hear the roar of busy machinery in industrial areas. The echo of moving air in a cavernous tomb. The howling wind over desolate, sand-blasted ruins. The trickle of flowing water. Nothing. The only sound of note is the pervasive white-noise murmur of starship-type stuff, which shows up a lot and always sounds the same. Even the music in the cantinas feels like it’s coming out of your personal MP3 player, not like it’s booming out of the space-speakers and bouncing around inside a spacious room.
Compare this to World of Warcraft, where every zone seems to have its own voice. SWTOR feels mute in comparison.
Above: Just to be fair, here’s a shot of one of the more visually interesting starting areas. They’re still using the color filter like a crutch, and it would be better with more saturation and contrast, but at least we have variety of colors and structures that stand out from the background.
I think this lackluster art is a big part of what people mean when they say that SWTOR feels like a free-to-play online game. The visuals lack the polish and splendor that you’d expect from a big-name studio. It all comes off as dull or amateurish. I suspect this is what happens when you try to solve a production problem by throwing money at it. Yes, you can hire out of the pool of artistic clone troopers that Game Developer Colleges are pumping out these days. Yes, you can pay those people $butt to work seventy hour weeks in order to to mass-produce game assets. But you aren’t going to have a lovingly crafted work of art when you’re done. You need people with both skill and experience, and then you need to give them time to do their jobs. If you don’t, then you’re going to have a sterile world with no heart.
World of Warcraft is more than just a giant skinner box of well-tuned mechanics. It’s a vibrant playground where the music, the architecture, the soundscape, and the lighting all combine to create an atmosphere and set a tone.
And don’t tell me SWTOR isn’t “trying to beat WoW”. They spent 200 million on this thing. It actually doesn’t matter if they want to beat WoW or not. They did not use their assets wisely, and we got a game that was much less than it could have been.
Shamus Young is an old-school OpenGL programmer, author, and composer. He runs this site and if anything is broken you should probably blame him.