When creating a video game, the only true limit is the developer’s imagination. This is especially true in the case of BioWare, an independent studio acquired by industry giant Electronic Arts in 2007. BioWare’s phenomenal creativity thus gained the financial resources of EA, allowing it to create its biggest game yet in Star Wars: The Old Republic.
Yet, it appears that while the money came through, the imagination was left on the cutting floor.
Star Wars: The Old Republic (TOR) is what is known as a Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Game, or MMORPG. If that term is alien to you, the biggest game of the genre is probably not: World of Warcraft (WoW), launched in 2004, has dominated the industry ever since. Just about every new MMORPG is influenced by and compared against the giant; TOR is no exception, and the comparison if accurate. BioWare has built upon the successful formula of its competitor and has added its own twist, but did not dare stray too far.
Indeed, at first, TOR brings to mind BioWare’s trademark single-player Role-Playing Games (RPG), offering the player dialogue options and moral choices by the handful in its multitude of quests on which the player is sent; the quests allow the player to gain experience and to become more powerful, as well as permitting her to explore the game world further. However, the system has fallen victim to normalisation; there are only ever three dialogue responses to choose from and the moral choices always come in pairs to reflect the Light side and Dark side of the Star Wars universe.
Upon extended gameplay, it becomes apparent that the quests are also uniform. Every planet has its own scientist character with a device the player is given to test on unsuspecting opponents. There is always the officer whose whole squadron was exterminated, but who knows that the player can accomplish the task on her own. Just about every quest-giver has a duty to perform, but cannot perform it adequately, and that duty becomes the player’s quests.
On the bright side, most of the quests carry BioWare’s brilliant writing and every line of dialogue is spoken. Along with the cinematic conversation system, the voice-over is BioWare’s contribution to the MMORPG genre. The Electronic Arts division has made it clear before the game’s launch that it will finally bring story to the forefront of the genre and that player immersion is paramount. When players create a character, they can choose one of eight classes divided into two factions, the Republic and the Empire, and each of these classes has a different overarching story.
If that sounds too good to be true, that is because it is. While each class does indeed possess its unique class quests, these are few and far between when compared to the world quests available to all four classes of a given faction. This means that although the Imperial Agent and the Bounty Hunter, two of the classes available to Empire players, will reach each planet with different goals, their experience of Hutta, Dromund Kaas and Balmorra will be nearly identical. The only real diversity lies in creating a character in the other faction, but, once again, the novelty wears off after the first trip through the Republic planets.
This is a problem, because TOR’s player-retention system relies heavily on the creation of new characters, as shown by the Legacy system. Players will create their legacy, choosing a last name for all of their characters on a given server, and, as each character advances, the others will get bonuses. However, the game’s linearity means that players will experience the same events over and over again. This also happens in other games, but they usually feature a number of different paths a player can take to advance. Industry leader WoW is one such example, an example TOR might want to examine more thoroughly if it hopes to keep a large player-base. Fortunately, the player can choose to skip lines of dialogue by using the space bar, which will most likely be used in excess by the time the player has created a second character in the same faction. One can only listen to the same dragging conversations so many times.
One reason the replay other BioWare games, such as Dragon Age: Origins, is to see how events unfold differently based on the player’s decisions. The same appears to be true in TOR until the player experiences the same events with a different character. Decisions do not carry the weight they should, and they rarely affect anything other than the quest’s immediate resolution. For example, if the Imperial Agent decides to help a Sith Lord take control of the Dark Council, the Empire’s controlling body, instead of imprisoning him, she will see said Lord on a couple of occasions later, before he takes a mysterious leave of absence towards the end of the storyline. In essence, the player’s decision, which should have affected the entire workings of the Sith Empire, has very little impact and is rendered nearly meaningless.
Another element typical of BioWare games are player companions. These characters accompany the hero on her journey, have a personality and generally affect the game’s story. The developer has brought its companions to TOR, but, much like the story, their influence suffers. Players of the genre will recognize The Old Republic’s companions as pets of other games, such as World of Warcraft, but with more abilities and the added capacity to talk on occasion. The player may only use one companion at a time, which means that the player will get to know the others companions very little, as she will choose the one that best complements her play-style. She can treat it as horribly as she wants in conversation, because she can buy all of her companions’ affection through gifts. They will also never leave her or die in the course of the story. Once again, decisions have very little importance here.
Companions are one of the main tools that serve to break player immersion. Each class gets different companions, but there are still many clones about. The player can also dismiss them or send them on missions, at which points they simply vanish. They also disappear if the player joins a full group. It can also be hard to be fully immersed in a Jedi character when she keeps trading in her lightsaber for a new and improved version at the corner market.
The one element that perhaps best illustrate TOR’s dual nature as a story-focused game that does not take said story seriously is the game’s Flashpoints. Flashpoints are self-contained adventures meant to be tackled by a full group of four players. They usually last a couple of hours and feature many moral decisions for the players to make. For each dialogue option and each moral choice, the players select their individual preference, but a computerized roll of dice decides which player’s decision will be used. None of it matters, though, because Flashpoints can be experienced again and again, and different choices can be made each time around. The only difference will be which enemies the group faces within the Flashpoint, nothing else.
Most of the game’s systems are traditional to the MMORPG genre, and BioWare has stuck to them perhaps to a fault. In such a technologically-advanced universe as the one in which Star Wars is set, people apparently have to trek or swoop to the town’s lone mailbox to send each other messages. Cell-phones and other mobile devices must be a thing of the past for them. Also, despite the heavy emphasis on story, players have to seek out class trainers every level or so to learn or train abilities, which is done via a single click in the trainer’s interface.
Guilds are part of nearly every MMORPG, although they can take different names. BioWare seemed to be making a big deal of this system with its pre-launch guild implementation program, which allowed potential players to create guilds, recruit other potential players and have their guild ready on launch day, but TOR’s actual guild features are bare-boned. They have no way of measuring their exploits against the competition. They may be one of the most convenient ways to get a group together for a specific activity, but they lack purpose and have no gathering place to speak of. Capital ships for guilds seem like a no-brainer, and perhaps they will one day be allowed to take off into space as development continues after launch. In the end, the program will have worked to guarantee a certain player-base for TOR: it is not as easy to leave a game when one has made friends in a guild.
Speaking of ships, each character is awarded her own ship at a certain point in the story, and they serve to show how very little a player can do in TOR aside from questing. Ships are a player’s base of operations, where their companions rest when not in use or craft on the player’s command. They are also TOR’s version of housing, except that nothing is customizable. They are the gateway to TOR’s only mini-game, Space Combat, but there is very little reason to play through the same space mission more than once or twice. The environments are usually stunning, but each mission is the same from start to finish every single time; therefore, Space Combat is not much of a diversion from quests.
The only real alternative is player-versus-player combat (PvP), which comes in the form of three distinct Warzones. Warzones are separate areas featuring certain goals for the two competing teams to achieve. The player clicks on a button on her interface to enter a queue for Warzones, and is instantly transported to it when it spot is available, pending her confirmation. Talk about immersive. Warzones can be entertaining or frustrating affairs, as competitive endeavours are wont to be. PvP also comes into Open-World PvP flavour in two specific areas that are more open, as the name implies, and that do not reset like the aforementioned Warzones.
The player-versus-player features are slightly underwhelming, but are otherwise the only distraction from the tediousness that constant questing can become. Crafting, a feature nearly required in the MMORPG genre, is surprisingly non-engaging, as the character simply has her companions manufacture items on her ship or gather resources on intangible missions. This lack of activities, and especially alternate activities, is a disservice to TOR; the game could do much more to entertain players who need a break from clicking on conversation wheels and slaughtering enemies by the dozen.
Star Wars: The Old Republic will officially launch on December 20th, with Early Game Access starting on December 13th for customers who have pre-ordered their copy. As is typical with Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Games, development will continue even after launch, most likely in the shape of free updates and boxed expansions. It will be the chance for BioWare to focus on the weaker aspects of the game to offer a better-rounded experience.
There is little doubt that the game will be a hit at first, as shown by the enormous popularity of its Game Testing Program and Beta Testing Weekends. There is also the fact that it carries the Star Wars Intellectual Property and that the other MMORPG to bear it, Star Wars Galaxies, is shutting down forever, not coincidentally, this month. Finally, this massive enterprise is backed by the equally massive Electronic Arts.
Nevertheless, for TOR to prosper and become a really good game, BioWare will have to resist the urge to focus its efforts on creating more questing elements, such as Flashpoints and end-game Operations, and instead let its creativity shine through. Currently, it feels as though the developer has only worked half-heartedly on its behemoth: there is a massive amount of quests, but where is the magic? One need only look back at critically-acclaimed games like Dragon Age: Origins, Mass Effect 2 and Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, the single-player game that simultaneously redefined Star Wars games and Western RPGs and that, ironically, led to the creation of Star Wars: The Old Republic. KotOR gave reviewers around the world the chance to say, “The Force is strong with this one.” BioWare will need to infuse some of that Force into its newest product, and should probably throw in some Pazaak while it is at it.