The Force is strong in Star Wars: The Old Republic [Preview]
I don’t play MMOs; I half-play them. I sit down, stretch out, put on a DVD, and then log in. My concentration is usually divided: unless there’s a difficult dungeon to conquer or a fun-looking quest that demands I sit up and pay attention, I generally prefer to do two things at once when I’m massively multiplaying (online). MMOs are almost defined by a lot of grinding and a lot of repetition, and those are two things that do not require my full brain.
If there’s one hugely encouraging thing I can say about Star Wars: The Old Republic, it’s that I haven’t wished for a DVD box set while I’ve been playing.
Expectations are unfairly high for this game. Even my most sober, non-MMO playing friends have been intrigued, and some of the rhetoric being thrown around borders on the absurd. How can any game possibly live up to this level of anticipation?
Um… quite well, as it turns out.
But one thing first: in terms of straight gameplay mechanics, SWTOR is more evolution than revolution. That’s not to sell it short – there’s a lot of clever, clever stuff here, and a lot of streamlining that removes a huge amount of the chaff and grunt work that marks other MMOs – but it’s certainly (and unsurprisingly) borrowed a lot from World of Warcraft, amongst other things. The interface, the combat style, the emphasis on questing, the use of green/blue/purple colours for uncommon/rare/epic items… SWTOR isn’t reinventing the wheel. It’s just patching it up, giving it a clean, and attaching it to something fit, lean, and powerful.
The rest of it, though? Ah. Now there, we have something special.
Even in this not-quite-finished form, SWTOR has bags more atmosphere than any other MMO I’ve ever played. The addition of full voice acting for every line of dialogue, and a degree of character choice in conversation, adds a surprising amount of depth to the experience. Your character is your character, not just Warrior #4,527,937, and – more than that – your character is actually a character, complete with a personality, who is interacting with other interesting personalities in every single quest.
My character, naturally, is the most sarcastic person to ever sneer her way around the galaxy. Did you expect otherwise?
This emphasis on choice and personality leads to some “interesting” moral dilemmas, particularly if you’re playing as an Imperial character (whose moral code is rather significantly different to what one might consider standard). One early quest, for example, has you dealing with a slave rebellion by poisoning the water supply.
No, no; that’s not the moral dilemma. The moral dilemma is how much poison to use. Do you use a huge amount that’ll kill them all quickly, or do you use a lesser amount that will leave them writhing in agony for a few weeks before expiring? Do you favour brutal efficiency, or do you revel in inflicting torture? That’s right: for once, “kill everyone as fast as possible” is the good option.
I can’t really remember any other MMO that’s ever given an option like this. As far as I can tell it’s not a decision with huge, far-reaching implications – it’s a simple one-off that will have a slight impact on your Morality Gauge(TM) – but it’s still the sort of thing that, every now and then, will make you think. (Assuming you’re not just trying to hit one end of the Morality Gauge as fast as possible, anyway.)
One of the most surprisingly enjoyable aspects of this bizarre and never-before-seen “player choice” thing actually comes in the Flashpoints (SWTOR’s instanced dungeons). As has been much publicised there are also decisions to be made when in groups, whether it’s a choice between sparing or killing an errant captain, or simply picking a line of dialogue that – in the long run – doesn’t really matter.
Each player picks the option they want, and the game “rolls” a number for each player. Whoever rolls highest wins. This might not sound particularly fascinating, but there’s a childish joy at seeing your character spouting a line of dialogue and getting a response from the NPC, and knowing that everyone else is seeing it too. I had to physically restrain myself from opening the chat window and shouting “Look, guys! Look! That’s me being sarcastic at the big man who could kill us all with a wave of his hand!”
Tying into this is the other thing the game is really good at, and that’s making you feel like an unstoppable badass from the word go. Enemies are divided up into a number of categories – Weak, Standard, Strong, Champion, and Boss, if memory serves. Weak and Standard enemies are fodder; Strong enemies are tougher, and more than one can provide are serious challenge; Champions tend to be mini-bosses of a sort; and Bosses are… well, good luck.
But – even at the beginning – you don’t encounter enemies solo. Your first encounter will almost certainly be against a group of three or four enemies, which in most MMOs is a death sentence. Your first reaction is to panic. You fight, desperately, and… somehow, they’re all dead, and you’ve taken hardly any damage. Panic fades; realisation dawns. You’re a badass. You’re level one, yes, but you’re still a badass, and nothing like those wimps who barely scrape through against rats, one-on-one.
You stride into the next group – robots, maybe, armed to the teeth with blaster rifles – with confidence. You unleash lightning from the fingertips of one hand, frying one’s circuits into useless slag. You swing your weapon at a second, cutting it down in two quick strikes. The third and fourth get shots off, grazing you, but within seconds you’re standing on their fizzing husks. And now you’re level two.
The ability to stride into groups of enemies your level and fry/crush/slice/hack/blast them all to bits without fearing for your life is a wonderful touch. It helps that combat itself is fast-paced, that you quickly get access to fun powers, and that the animations and visuals look great. A Smuggler ducking behind cover and popping out to take a shot, while the enemies fire once every few seconds, is dull and rote. A Smuggler popping out of cover to unleash a flurry of blaster bolts – some of which hit, some of which miss – while the foes return fire with equal ferocity? That is cool.
But the badassery goes beyond the combat. Your class quest is the thing that drives you throughout the game, taking you from planet to planet, and – again – it feels important. It also feels personal; each of the areas in which you do things relevant to this tend to be mini-instances, unique to you. You might simply be walking into a temple to get advice from a wizened Jedi master, but you’ll be the only one in there. You won’t be standing around next to thirty other level 15 Jedi knights. It’s your quest. You’re saving the galaxy. You’re important. You.
MMOs usually make you feel like a faceless drone in the masses of other faceless drones, and BioWare noticed this. In fact, I daresay that BioWare’s chief emphasis appears to have been on making you feel like a special, unique individual, in a world with thousands of other players who also need to feel like special, unique individuals – and it bloody works. Black magic, clearly.
So yes, I’m utterly enamoured of SWTOR. There are certainly still bugs to fix, issues to work out, a few disappointments in terms of mechanics, and some gameplay aspects that don’t work quite as well as they should do, but saying that it’s shaping up well is an understatement. I do, however, fear that SWTOR’s true magic, the thing that makes it feel special – the illusion of you having genuine importance – could be shattered by the inevitable crush of players at launch. For that, though, we’ll have to wait and see. Let’s hope BioWare has something up its collective sleeve.
Oh, and I realise that I haven’t delved too much into specifics, but… well, this is a preview of an MMO, and discussing absolutely everything would crush your monitor beneath the weight of the text. So, instead, I’m planning on discussing a few elements in greater detail later this week. Eyes peeled, and all that.