Friday, March 30, 2012

Impressions of Star Wars: The Old Republic

BioWare recently held a free weekend trial event for Star Wars: The Old Republic, the new Star Wars MMORPG with an emphasis on single-player story-telling. As a fan of the original Knights of the Old Republic games (especially the one BioWare didn't make), I was fairly excited to see something new in the KOTOR line. I hopped on board and gave it a whirl, trying three different classes and leveling two of them up close to the limits of the free trial.

To put it simply, my experience with SWTOR was a repeating pattern of excitement followed by boredom. The problem, near as I can tell, is that it tries to be two different things -- a single-player role-playing game and a massively multiplayer online game -- without being especially good in either category. It's a novel mixture that can be very compelling at times, but the two elements sort of clash and trivialize each other. Consequently, I wasn't convinced to take the plunge and subscribe. Continue reading for the rest of my more-detailed thoughts and impressions.

Before I could even get into the game, I had to jump through all kinds of hoops as I encountered one technical problem after another. I installed the game launcher and started downloading the game files, but at some point the files (apparently) got corrupted, because the launcher kept stalling out at the same place and making my entire system unresponsive. The official tech support FAQ was telling me to troubleshoot my hardware (or maybe even replace it). I had no reason to suspect the problem was with my hardware, so I followed their only other piece of advice and ran the "FixLauncher.exe," which didn't solve my problem. Eventually, I had to delete all the files and reinstall it to get everything working properly.

With everything finally downloaded, I went to log in, and a message popped up telling me I needed a security key to continue. I wasn't sure what that was, but when I did a google search, it pointed me to the official site, which was telling me to buy a physical key generator (it costs money and would have me waiting for shipping) or download an app for Android and iPhone devices (which I have neither of), so I was completely stumped. After a while I figured out that it was really asking me to set up security questions in my account settings, and once I set up at least three of those I was able to log in to the game client.

So then I went to click "Play Game" and an error box popped up telling me that "this account does not have an active subscription to the game," or something to that effect. I sat there thinking "but that's the point -- I'm not going to pay for a subscription to do a free trial." Anyway, it turns out I needed to fill out my contact information (which I had elected not to do, because the description suggested it was only necessary to "make it easier to verify your identity when contacting customer support" with no indication that it was required for the free trial), and then I was finally able to play the damn game.

The registration process was a convoluted mess with all of the BioWare stuff giving me straight-up false information (telling me I need a security key when I needed to set up security questions, telling me I need a subscription when I needed to fill out contact information, telling me it was a hardware problem when it was obviously a software problem, etc). Maybe it's my fault that it was such a pain, but BioWare's design of everything was neither clear nor coherent. Ideally, this stuff should be designed so that people can't do things out of order, so that these problems don't pop up in the first place. But even if problems do occur, they should at least be easily identifiable and therefore solvable. I can't tell you how frustrating it was to encounter problems and then receive consistently wrong diagnoses at every turn.

When it came time to pick a server, all of them were filtered by "standard" and "light" population levels. I went with a lightly-populated PVP server, since I wanted to be able to PVP, but didn't want to be griefed by high-level players. It turns out picking a "light" server was a mistake, because the starting planets were only very sparsely populated and I never ran into any PVP at all. Makes me think BioWare should consider merging some servers, since there's been some decline in population and they don't really need that many servers anymore; they're really just spreading out the remaining playerbase kind of thin.

The three cinematic intro videos for The Old Republic

As for my very first impressions: I was impressed with the quality of the cutscenes and elated at how authentic everything felt. I watched the cutscenes thinking "this is so cool," and "this looks better than most of the action scenes from the prequel trilogy." I literally got chills when I saw the opening text crawl. It was great hearing classic John Williams compositions (like Duel of the Fates and the Imperial March) with whole new orchestrations, and the visual design of everything is modeled closely after the films. As a Star Wars fan, it was a real treat.

Once I got into the gameplay, I was pretty excited. Not many MMOs feature full-fledged cutscenes, interactive dialogue sequences, or a central plot that pushes the gameplay forward, which had me feeling invigorated to go on this bold new journey. After having burned myself out from MMOs with the Korean grindfest Lineage 2, I was always wary of starting a new MMO, but SWTOR had me feeling optimistic that its greater emphasis on single-player story-telling (and gameplay similarities to the KOTOR series) would give me the intrinsic motivation to continue playing.

I quickly realized, however, that SWTOR still suffers quite heavily from the same design elements that turned me off of MMOs in the first place. Because the game is using a monthly subscription model ($15/month), the longevity of their revenue depends on people taking as long as possible to "finish" the game. As nice as the cutscenes, dialogue, and story elements may be, everything about it is deliberately designed to be a timesink.

The typical pattern for gameplay is as follows: you arrive on a new planet and pick up the main quest, as well as numerous side-quests. The main quest sends you to the opposite end of a vast section of the map filled with infinitely respawning clusters of enemies, where you basically just have the exact same fight 20-50 times in a row before reaching your destination. If you're doing the side-quests, too, then you have to sort of zigzag back-and-forth within this huge area and the respawn will really slow you down. Once you've finished everything in a given area, you teleport back to town (or, if the 30 minute cooldown on your teleport spell hasn't finished, you run all the way back, encountering every single enemy you already fought) and pick up a new quest that sends you into a vast, new section of the map to do it all over again.

The classic staple, force lightning

The cooldown for the teleport spell was especially annoying. If I reached the opposite end of a map and finished my objectives with 10-15 minutes of cooldown left on it, I just exited the game and did something else until it was ready again, because I thought it was a complete waste of my time to run all the way back to town. The only things the 30 minute cooldown accomplished was to make me quit playing the game and to eat up more of my hypothetical month's subscription time. 

Questing and exploration is further exacerbated by the lower server populations, because the physical space and quantity of enemies is designed to accommodate dozens of players in the exact same game space. Suppose you enter a warehouse filled with a dozen clusters of enemies on a quest to get items from six different containers. Under normal circumstances, other players would also be in there working on the same quest or passing through to a different area. A lot of enemies would be dead or already engaged in combat with another player, so you'd only have to fight a small portion of enemies. But when you're playing on a lightly-populated server, there's often no one else in that warehouse and you end up having to fight every single cluster of enemies that gets in your way.

The questing pattern was particularly wearisome with my Jedi Consular. I arrived on Coruscant seeking a way to cure my master's bizarre illness, and so I set out searching for a Noetikon, a sort of holocron containing the wisdom of a few Jedi spirits. After slogging through one giant territory of gangland, I found the Noetikon, and the Jedi pulled the "your princess is in another castle" trick on me, and sent me into a different gang's territory to search for a second Noetikon. Once I found that one, they told me my answers rested with a third Noetikon in a third hostile gang's territory, and I said "No thanks, I'm done with this character's quests."

Welcome to Hutta, vacation hot-spot of the galaxy.

Bored and fed up with my Consular (who was also near the end-point for free trial characters), I rolled an imperial cyborg Bounty Hunter named Rickdeckard. I only made it to level 5 with this character before getting bored. Bounty Hunters start on the planet Hutta, which is basically like a cross between a swamp, a junkyard, and a sewer -- three of the least glamorous locales in existence. It's just not an appealing place to be, and I grew weary of everything being the color of toxic smog.

What really bothered me about the Bounty Hunter, though, was the main quest. You're supposed to be some accomplished bounty hunter setting out to compete in "The Great Hunt," which isn't really elaborated on in the beginning and only seems like a flimsy pretense to give the bounty hunter class something to do. Then, very early in the questline, one of your competitors kills your boss, and you set out to find the murderer. I was already pretty apathetic about the whole Great Hunt business, but I felt absolutely zero attachment to this boss character and I felt no incentive to track down the killer and quickly lost interest.

So I re-rolled an Imperial Agent and found it far more interesting. I found his combat a little more tactical and enjoyable than the Bounty Hunter, and I felt a lot more motivation to pursue the main quest considering I was directly involved with Imperial politics -- the central premise of the Republic v Empire conflict. Unfortunately, the Imperial Agent also starts out on Hutta, and I was a little disappointed to find that all of the side-quests were the exact same between the two classes, including the writing for dialogue options. But I enjoyed that class, and got that character close to the limits of the free trial before getting bored with the quest progression.

Have you noticed the pattern? Start a new character, get real excited, play it for a while, get bored with tedious quests and repetitive combat, take a break, trudge through the boring bits, get excited upon reaching a new planet, get bored again, make a new character, rinse and repeat.

Mass Effect-style Dialogue Wheels

As a single-player experience, the game just doesn't live up to its contemporaries (or its predecessors), largely because the MMO design conflicts with the pacing and content quality you'd expect from a single-player game. The subscription model turns everything into a timesink that doesn't always provide timely feedback and rewards, or a compelling narrative thrust. And because the game space persists in real-time and other players share the same worlds as you, none of your decisions can affect your environment in any significant way, which makes most of you decisions feel trivial and pointless.

The main things your decisions influence is your karma meter (Light Side and Dark Side alignments) and the affection ratings of your companion NPCs, but I was never able to gain any kind of benefit from either of these with any of my trial characters. You gain light side / dark side "points" for every decision you make, and whenever you reach a new threshold (one way or the other) you gain access to stronger gear, and that's it -- as of right now, there are no rewards or incentives to remain neutral in SWTOR, and, for the most part, the options only exist as an arbitrarily-forced way to role-play your character into pre-determined, restrictive roles.

For that matter, the moral choices you encounter are often counter-intuitive or incongruous. In one quest, a Padawan asked my Jedi Consular for assistance with his trial of levitating a large boulder. I thought to myself "this is supposed to be your test of merit, I don't think it's right for me to help you," and so I went to decline, thinking it was the right thing to do, and my character said some selfish bit like "why should I help you, what's in it for me?" I stood there going "um, that's not what I meant," and then it became apparent that refusing to help him wouldn't complete the quest and I wouldn't gain any experience points from it. So I kind of grumbled and said "Ok, I'll help you."

Sure enough, I lifted the boulder no problem, and the guy's master shows up in time to chastise him: "This was supposed to be your test and you failed to complete it. You're too weak-willed to be a Jedi, your training ends here." Which was exactly what I was concerned about in the first place, but I had no choice but to lift the damn boulder or just not do the quest altogether. But then I thought "this guy's being awfully harsh. Shouldn't you give him a second chance?" You remember that scene from Empire Strikes Back, when Luke fails to lift his X-Wing out of the swamp saying "it's too big," slumping down in exhausted defeat? Yoda didn't just cut him loose, he used that as an opportunity to show Luke the boundless strength of the force, and Luke learned from the experience.

Luke and Yoda training in Empire Strikes Back

So then the Padawan is panicking and I'm presented with a choice: tell the Jedi master that the Padawan asked me to lift the boulder (thus guaranteeing his discontinued Jedi training), or lie and say I volunteered to lift it (so that he can continue his training). Given my recollection of that scene from ESB where Yoda gave Luke a second chance, and a general philosophy that untrained, wayward Jedi are more likely to succumb to the dark side, I thought it was best he continue his training, so I lied. And I got Dark Side points for it. And then I lobbed a long stream of verbal profanity at my monitor.

(I later found out that there's an option buried in the settings menu to display alignment shifts in the dialogue box. I turned them on so that I wouldn't inadvertently make the wrong choice again, but that proved to be a double-edged sword, because it wound up making the moral situations into a mindless matter of just picking Light Side options whenever they showed up instead of having to actually think about it.)

Meanwhile, the MMO elements don't seem especially good, either, since a lot of the game focuses on the single-player storytelling. Most of the content is balanced so that it can be completed by just a single player, with only occasional opportunities for real grouping ("heroic quests" or "flashpoints" that generally require 2-4 players to complete, that you can do once per day). I was obviously unable to experience the end-game content with my trial time, but from what I've read, the end-game content is pretty boring and, for the most part, when players hit level 50 and finish their main quests, they just roll and alt character or stop playing, because there isn't much incentive to stick around on their end-game characters.

I'm just not sure whom SWTOR is supposed to appeal to. Anyone looking for an innovative single-player experience won't find anything all that remarkable, here, and anyone looking for a new MMO to occupy their time will likely find it difficult to stick around. It's a novel hybrid that I could see myself really enjoying if I played it with some close friends, but I don't find the game particularly appealing just based on its own merits.

Nem'ro the Hutt with obligatory bikini-clad slave dancers.

Besides that, though, as a Star Wars fan I find myself annoyed at how a lot of SWTOR's presentation is so derivative of the films. The planet Hutta, for example, is the capital world the Hutts, and so nearly everything about it is taken directly from the depiction of Jabba the Hutt in Return of the Jedi. Just because Jabba had a pet rancor, they say in SWTOR that "every Hutt strives to acquire a pet rancor as a sign of prestige and power." Just because Jabba had a Twi'lek as his slave dancer, every female Twi'lek in SWTOR is a skilled parlor dancer. Just because Jabba had Han Solo frozen in carbonite and mounted on his wall, the Hutts in SWTOR also have people frozen in carbonite and mounted on their walls.

That last one makes even less sense, because when Darth Vader did that in ESB, they didn't even know if a human could survive the freezing process, as if it was an uncommon thing that had never been tried before. Apparently, people have been freezing other people in carbonite for thousands of years, and it's actually a very popular process. I'd always thought Jabba had his own unique quirks and characteristics, but apparently he's just a prototypical clone of every other Hutt in existence. I'm surprised the SWTOR Hutts didn't also have little Salacious B Crumbs in their employ.

And how is it that my characters can understand what every alien species is saying? Some of these species talk with such strange, foreign noises that the human ear simply cannot differentiate the sounds to pick out words or phrases. That's pure science. You remember how in the films, people needed a protocol droid to translate between certain really complex / foreign languages? What happened to that? Couldn't they have some kind of lore-friendly way for me to understand alien languages, like a babel fish or a pocket protocol droid or something like that? 

Finally, how is it that like 75% of the explorable terrain on Coruscant is occupied by hostile thugs? This is the center of the galaxy and the capital of the Republic; I understand that there's always going to be a criminal underground in high-profile places like this, but the key word is underground. These gangs are just occupying the streets in broad daylight and the Republic is completely powerless to do anything about it. Maybe they have better things to worry about with the war going on, but surely they could scrape enough manpower together to clear out the criminal activity in the districts immediately surrounding the all-important Senate Tower. 

And those are my thoughts on Star Wars: The Old Republic. Kind of wish they'd just made a Knights of the Old Republic 3, since I'm not a big fan of MMOs in general, but even this one's alluring promise of a better single-player experience wasn't enough to convert me. 

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