I like Star Wars as much as the next guy. I know what lightsabers, Ewoks and tie-fighters are but I’m hardly an obsessive – for example, I couldn’t tell you the theory behind midi-chlorians, what material goes into Storm Trooper’s armour or how Chewbacca manages to wipe his arse. I’ve watched the films (a number of times) and played a few of the games. I don’t read up on the lore, I don’t attend conventions and I didn’t note my religion as ‘Jedi’ on the recent government census (I said I was a Power Ranger).
And yet my thread bare knowledge of what is (apparently) a deep, rich and vibrant universe was enough to get me excited about a game rooted within a genre that I usually shy away from. Games writers are not often afforded the luxury of time required to stick with a game for long after the review has gone out the door, a state of affairs that makes it all but impossible to get any satisfaction from an MMO.
Still, this is Star Wars. I like Star Wars. Maybe I’ll get something out of The Old Republic (TOR), short play session or not. The ‘short’ play session EA/BioWare had laid on for us spanned eight straight hours – essentially, the entire working day and enough to get to grips with the TOR’s early levels as a Bounty Hunter.
While I tend to not play many MMOs anymore, they’re not exactly alien to me. World of Warcraft, Aion and City of Heroes all occupied a sizeable chunk of my time a number of years ago, so I’m very well versed in the genre’s conventions, pros and cons. TOR immediately stands out from the pack thanks of its slick presentation and cinematic flair. Dialogue is voice acted, cut-scenes are employed during lengthier sections of speech and the writing itself is as good as one can expect from a game set within a universe so caught up in convoluted jargon and in-jokes.
Then again, nothing less is to be expected from a title sporting the BioWare stamp on its cover.
In comparison with the competition, TOR feels infinitely more engaging in terms of story and character. It shuns the ‘make your own’ tact employed by the majority of its rivals, replacing it with ‘travel this story’ arc. Even during the early levels, a sense of place and character are immediately apparent; causing you to feel very much a part of the world as opposed to an optional addition.
This feeling is made greater by the dialogue tree. While hardly as exhaustive as the likes of Mass Effect, the speech options allow you to position yourself as either a good guy or bad guy along the moral compass. As is my approach to most games that employ such a mechanic, I plumped for the villainous over the righteous… c’mon, I am a bounty hunter after all.
The most memorable moment to spawn from my tendency towards evil came during a side quest in which I was tasked by a woman to convince her son into joining enrolling in a Sith academy (the Bounty Hunter class is unique to the Empire/Sith portion of the game – hence the general acceptance of a Sith academy). The father had vetoed the decision at the last moment and had hightailed it from the mother in a bid to keep his son safe.
Upon finding the father and son I could have either let them go free -and tell the mother I had no luck locating them – or convince them that the academy is a good idea. Needless to say the convincing didn’t go well and the father ended up with rather less brain between his ears than is healthy. The son, now suitably afraid of me, quickly agreed to sign up to the academy. Job done. Initiate evil grin.
Each class has both unique and shared quests, so the shooting of father in front of son may not or not appear when playing as a different profession.
The main quest line involved gaining a ticket to compete in ‘The Great Hunt’, a prestigious tournament limited to Bounty Hunters that allows them to display their skills in a bid win adulation and cash. Within the first few hours of the story thread I’d engaged in murder, theft and held numerous audiences with the local Hutt that rules over the area with a fascist diligence and control. But, I’m a bounty hunter; I like that sort of thing. Other classes will experience different primary quest threads.
Your onscreen HUD is laid out in as logical and minimalist a fashion as you could responsibly hope for in a genre synonymous with providing a smorgasbord of abilities, stats, items and other numerical info. The ever-present mini-map is extremely helpful in displaying out points of interest (quest locations, shops, important NPCs etc), allowing you to mouse-over them to bring up a pop-up box of choke-a-block with relevant data.
There’s also a nice touch during combat in that enemies you’re engaged with have their health (as well as other stats) appear alongside your own in the status bar at the foot of the screen, allowing you to observe their relative strength as battle wears on without hassle or extra clicks.
However, there’s plenty of bad to disrupt the good. Aside from a small number of examples (including the Sith academy/Hutt missions detailed above), TOR’s mission structure is fiercely traditional and quickly brought back memories of MMOs I’ve played in the past – reminding me why I don’t try all that hard to make time for them.
The bulk of my eight hours were spent hunting specific numbers of a certain creature, locating plants, passing information back and forth and slowly (very slowly) grinding my way through levels in a bid to gain enough health/strength/abilities to progress through new areas with newer, stronger enemies. After a certain point in the bounty hunter’s story you’re given the option of travelling with an AI companion who eases the pain of the grind to an extent but, in general, AI partners are hardly the charismatic type.
Despite the noise being made by EA and BioWare in promoting TOR as the next evolution for MMOs, the fact of it is that it functions just like all the rest. The cinematic presentation is nice, the acting is decent and the fact it’s Star Wars is appealing but, once the impact of those aspects have worn thin, the over-riding sensation is one of déjà vu and predictability.
It seems as though BioWare wanted to make a story-driven Star Wars game (hence the existence of unique story-arcs each class) as well as a standard MMO (hence the quest structure) but have failed to properly integrate the two into a cohesive whole. The two components fell almost completely separate, connected by extremely tenuous strings that link the core story to the extra-curricular quests. Unfortunately, this being an MMO, those extra-curricular chunks are essential for levelling up your character so concentrating just on the story is not possible.
There’s also a niggle in that your character’s story arc comes to a halt if you decide to assist another player. This is a result of each class having their own story arcs and not being able to share in completing the core missions. The result is that, unless you’ve already passed through an area by yourself, you’ll need to replay the same locations again by yourself to complete the quests relevant to your class.
Of course, I’ve only played a small portion of the game, and things may pick up after you’ve left the starting area of Hutta and explored the universe, but I can only comment on what I’ve played thus far. Good presentation, good visuals and a passable dialogue tree does not represent a new-era for the genre. More work needed.