In Light of Recent News: A look at Star Wars the Old Republic
During the past month, I found myself writing about the plight of EA a lot. From losing their CEO and their tumbling stock prices, to the SimCity disaster, there’s not a lot going right for the American titan of video games. One bright piece of news for them, however, is the recent deal they made with Disney to become the exclusive third party of all of the upcoming Star Wars games for the foreseeable future after LucasArts closed down.
Being a huge Star Wars fan, I realized I had never played Star Wars the Old Republic (abbrivated as SWTOR by most). I was a huge fan of Bioware’s outings in Knights of the Old Republic 1 and 2, as well as the expanded universe comic book and novel series based around that era in the Star Wars timeline. It’s really something that most of my friends thought I would have been a part of since launch, but even with the cool multiplayer dialog mechanic and touted voice acting quality found in other Bioware games like Mass Effect that did make it seem rather appealing, something just didn’t sit right with me.
Since launch, the game went from a standard subscription model to free to play in record time. The reasoning behind this was a desperate attempt to make The Old Republic profitable. Being one of the most expensive video game projects of all time, EA had bet the farm on the game becoming a true World of Warcraft killer and rolled snake eyes. Despite the abysmal Mass Effect 3 ending and the SimCity disaster, including all of the damage those events did to the EA brand, most industry insiders cite SWTOR as the real nexus of EA’s problems. I set out to discover why.
The first thing I noticed was how amazing the opening cutscenes were. They were absolutely gorgeous and well directed; if the game felt half as awesome as these vignettes it wouldn’t have been the massive flop it became. Seriously, whoever made these needs to be in charge of the next Star Wars trilogy, they are everything we wanted to see in the prequels that we didn’t get.
The second thing I noticed was that EA/Bioware’s strategy for killing World of Warcraft was apparently just to rip it straight off. Well, that’s not totally fair. SWOTOR, from a gameplay perspective, is every major MMORPG’s mechanics, mainly from EverQuest, World of Warcraft, and Warhammer Online, rolled into one system and polished to the extreme. If you have never played any of those games, then you’ll get the best variation of those systems with SWTOR. Too bad that applies to right about ten of you. The rest of the world has already played all of those games, and, even though it is incredibly polished, it is exactly the same game you’ve been playing for the better part of a decade, just with Star Wars window dressing.
That’s not really the big draw here though. Most of the emphasis was put on the story, and how you were really playing a Bioware RPG like KOTOR or Mass Effect online with friends. And that’s not a lie, it is what you get. Every class has a unique story that you get to control through the radial dialog choice system found in the Mass Effect games. The problem is that this part of the game, the thing that really sells it and makes it unique, is severely hampered by being shoved into the structure of a WoW like MMO.
Let me explain, though there are some early story spoilers. I’m a huge Star Wars nerd, and I know the lore inside and out, so the Jedi Consular, who’s story deals mainly in finding ancient artifacts, sounds like exactly my cup of tea. An interview with Blain Christie, SWTOR’s Senior Producer, stated that the class was based a bit off of the journey of Obi-Wan Kenobi, and I was all about that. You get dropped off at Tython, the new home of the Jedi Council after the sack of Coruscant and where the Jedi Counsel was first convened. You immediately get the hint that you are super special with the force, and get your first set of fetch quest involving slaughtering thousands of the indigenous population.
And right away the standard MMO gameplay and the story don’t match each other. You are playing a Jedi Consular, advertised as the chief diplomat of the Jedi, and given various quests and dialog options living up to that role , yet you spend most of your time on Tython not resolving an equitable peace between the newly intelligent Flesh Raiders, but committing a Flesh Raider genocide to earn XPs and loot. Sure, the cutscenes and dialog tree can paint a story that you started the process to peace, but your in-game actions are filled with nothing but Flesh Raider blood being spilled by the star destroyer full.
Then, we really get the story going and start delving into the history of the first Jedi Council. It’s interesting, moderately well acted, and broken up horribly by fetch and collection quests. We get to see the story of the first fallen Jedi, the precursor to the Sith who were exiled and then found the actual race and culture on Korriban. And then you work all the way to building your very first lightsaber. It’s not only the moment every would be Jedi has waited for their whole life, but in this case its extra special because you are making it out of the hilt of the first lightsaber ever constructed! It’s that cool?
And then the game ruins that moment in three distinct ways almost immediately. Let’s say you are like me and wanted the total Obi-Wan experience. Single bladed lightsaber and strong force abilities in tow, you think you are set to spout witty words of wisdom as you cut through battle droids and force push fools like old Ben does in the Clone Wars cartoon, so you pick the Sage secondary class. You just made the wrong choice, and there is no going back. You see, having played both KOTOR 1 and 2, as well as spending a lot of time with the pen and paper Star Wars d20 system both of those games were based on, I was expecting to have the option to play the Jedi equivalent of a cleric, a hybrid magical and melee class, in Dungeons and Dragons. You could do that in all of those systems, and two of those were made by the same team that made this game, so why not?
Because the game designers couldn’t figure out how to balance unique and interesting character classes, that’s why. Your lightsaber, one of the most iconic things about the Jedi, is now essentially a glowy wand. It is now useless in combat, you will now either be the dedicated team healer, or you will throw rocks at the bad guys. Oh, it’ll boost your stats, but you never want to get in anyone’s face to wave it around as you are essentially the wizard, glass cannon, from D&D. In fact, that is what the class was originally called, if I could further illustrate that the designers had no idea what feeling like a Jedi was all about. Oh, and even if you wanted to hold on to the lightsaber , too bad you’ll find a new shiny one off of some random dude’s corpse that outshines your old one in every way in about ten minutes
Ok, so what about your other choice, the Jedi Shadow? Well, not only does that not make any sense from a lore perspective, you immediately throw away that special lightsaber you earned for some cheap double bladed one the skill vendor hands you.
.There you go; your immersion into the story has been totally killed off before your journey really got started. This hurt me so much that I immediately started a new Jedi Knight character to see if that was any better. After the second Flesh Raider purge of Tython, I finally get to the end of the training quests where my master basically just gives me the parts to build a lightsaber from the Star Wars equivalent of Dollar General, ruining any important sentiment this moment should have had. But at least it doesn’t lead you on to the huge disappointment in store for you if you picked Consular.
But who wants to be a sissy Jedi anyway right? I mean, you can be Han Solo. Better yet, you can be bad ass cowboy Han Solo from the opening cutscene who dual wields blasters like an old west gunfighter. Or you can soldier for the Republic, kind of like the Republic Commandos from a better game that we’ll never get the proper sequel to. Well, you’re in luck, those classes pan out pretty nicely early on, and I’d even go on to say, despite some sketchy voice acting, the opener for the soldier is definitely the best story out of all of the Republic choices.
But again, you have to fight through the framework of fetch quests to see the little of it you get. You see, this era in Star Wars history is probably the most interesting in the whole timeline. The soldier’s story immediately puts you in the heart of that, though all of the classes eventually encompass the conflict on display at some point. For the soldier, you start off on the contested world of Ord Mantel where they are fighting a separatist insurrection that is secretly being armed by the Sith Empire in a thinly veiled Vietnam/Iraq/Afghanistan analogy. It’s set up so well, and it’s such a great idea. You really get to explore what’s right and what’s wrong with the Sith, Jedi, Repbulic, Empire, and all of the players in between, and it’s not morally cut and dry. The Republic is hopelessly fragmented and corrupt, and the Empire is at least functionally organized, and on the Sith side you get to weigh the morality of “might is right”, and even do actual good within the framework of what is essentially a fascist regime.
As the soldier you have to deal directly with nasty issues like enhanced interrogation, the disorderly conduct of men and women who’ve seen far too much combat and not enough progress, and just plain corruption. At one point you come up against a group of Republic soldiers forcing refugees to run through a minefield in a contest for desperately dwindling rations, mirroring similar incidents in real life. The problem is that you never really get to take a bite out of this interesting set up, like in Mass Effect, because you have to keep moving on to the next fetch quest. It’s so infuriating because it’s so interesting, but you never really get to take any of it in and be immersed by it.
Once you get out of the low level areas, you start to see why this is one of the most expensive video games of all time. The game never stops to needlessly show off its grandeur with useless taxi rides that have you fly through totally pointless traffic in Coruscant and Nar Shaddaa, and everytime I sit through the twenty second long animation I wonder exactly how many tens of thousands of dollars this set EA back, not counting the extra server strain to keep up with everyone’s position as we zip around. To top it all off, the damn thing doesn’t even work right, with my cab blinking in and out of existence constantly as well as breaking through the environment and glitching out constantly until I finally set foot at my destination.
There’s just no point in it all. The biggest kicker is that this is supposed to be an MMORPG, a Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Game; emphasis mine. You don’t need to play with anyone, ever. Sure the multiplayer dialog system is cool, but you can run through the whole game with your companions with very little issue. It begs the question, why is it even an MMO in the first place? Everything that is wrong with this game comes back to the fact that this game is needlessly a WoW clone. This game would be a thousand times better and cost a thousand times less if it was just a solid single player experience with the option of drop in multiplayer. Seriously, the story, voice acting and model assets could all be ripped out and put into a single player game that played like KOTOR with the option of a single social lobby like Phantasy Star Online to find people to join your game if you wanted and it would have been a smash hit.
Oh, and the cash shop is pointless too. I don’t know, as a consumer maybe I’m complaining about something I shouldn’t point out, but I have no idea how EA plans on making any money out of this thing when you can essentially see all the game has to see and not pay a dime. I know, most critics (myself included) usually rate games well when this is the case, but the way it’s handled here is just asinine. The game is just consistently annoying if you don’t drop cash in the shop to expand your inventory or gain early access to the sprint function, but it isn’t debilitating. Outside of an expansion and a few quests, there’s no real reason you’d want to spend any money on the game, as the MMO part of the game all of the cash shop items enhance is what you are desperately trying to work around to get to what’s good.
This thing is just a mess, an expensive mess. I love Star Wars, and I think the story in this game and its characters are interesting and worth a better game, but this thing just doesn’t need to exist in its current form. EA could have raked in the dough if they had just sold a tight $60 single player experience like in KOTOR with the option for drop in co-op. It represents everything EA has been doing wrong for the past few years that put them into their current financial pickle. This push to put everything online, to either combat piracy or earn money from the cash shop model was a complete failure because it cost them so much money to put an inferior product out there that no one really wanted. Let this be the example of how to not build online games in the future, because even with all of the money, talent, and polish in the world, all you are doing is shining up an expensive turd and wasting millions of dollars and hours chasing the profit dragon down the trend hole. No one ever became an industry leader blindly following in the steps of those before them, but they can sure as hell crash the ship into a giant iceberg.
I hope EA heads this warning as they move to create the next generation of Star Wars games, otherwise the dark side will win, and the story of a galaxy far away will be much poorer for it.