BioWare and Electronic Arts have lifted the non-disclosure agreements from the beta of their massively multiplayer online world, and the news is starting to flow about what the latest venture into the Star Wars galaxy is like. Sitting down for a day of gaming, I found myself sucked into George Lucas’ brainchild, and playing the adventure as just one more character in the persistent world that has been presented to me; the question is, how does the game look?
BioWare is a big name in the industry, and with Star Wars in particular since Knights of the Old Republic first launched on the original XBox, so an opportunity to see their first attempts at a persistent world such as this is interesting, to say the least. Players will quickly see much of the influence from past titles as they begin a character: quests are given through dialogue options similar to old titles, rather than quest text in a World of Warcraft type delivery. While it is a nice touch (and it really helps create a sense of immersion), I can see a lot of players simply not enjoying it. You can include subtitles, which makes reading through quest dialogue faster easier for many, but there’s no options to click and skip to the next line of dialogue. Some conversations involve awkward pauses between sentences, so getting an entire quest can sometimes drag on.
Speaking of the quests, more than once I came across a strange feeling that I wasn’t so much playing online as I was playing a single player game. More than once I found myself looking for a save button before going on a quest, just in case I did something that made people angry at me. On one hand, I enjoyed this since it felt more like the BioWare games I liked previously, but there was not much in the early game that made it necessary to acknowledge the existence of other players. There were a few “heroic” areas where grouping was more needed, but much of the story doesn’t ever seem to require such things.
There is a story, by the way: depending on your class, you set about on different adventures. For instance, as a Bounty Hunter, I found myself preparing for The Great Hunt, while my Sith Inquisitor was a slave, sent to the academy to become a Sith force user or die in the attempt. The story is, naturally, filled with Deus Ex mechanics to move you along, but I found myself chuckling more and more that I was referred to as “the one great (whatever)” as I thought “just like every other player of your class.” You’re made to feel epic, unbeatable, and ridiculously powerful, right up until you realize that every other player is being built up as the source of all badass in a galaxy far, far away.
BioWare did include some nice mechanics in Old Republic, however: to begin, regardless of your choice of Sith vs. Republic, every player has the option of whether they will gravitate towards Light or Dark behavior. As you make these choices more and more, you begin to amass a large amount of points and begin gaining light and dark levels. As your alignment level rises, players may choose to spend credits on special equipment and mounts to further their own cause; choosing a different alignment may result in equipment that works better towards a certain play style, though the difference can be minimal. The progression is not, however, fast: alignment must rise or fall by 1,000 before reaching light/dark level one, and it only takes longer from there. Still, the inclusion of karma means that quests have multiple endings, and possibly multiple rewards based on your actions. Will you kill someone, or let them go?
There is a criticism though, in that your actions are only judge on the right/wrong scale, and there is no middle ground (thus, there is no “neutrality” rating). It’s a bit odd, since you seem to have two options: make your character a mighty angel, or devolve into an unrepentant jerk in every quest. It can be fun to role play one or the other, especially as a Jedi or Sith, but there’s an odd gap between “the right thing to do” and “kill his family while you make them watch” that shows up in a number of the choices. There never seems to be a “calmly making the dark choice” option as opposed to the one where I do everything possible to make someone suffer like some maladjusted psychopath. That said, in retrospect, I suppose a Sith Inquisitor might apply as a maladjusted psychopath in many situations.
Alongside the game system are, of course, the cosmetic features; BioWare has proven before that there is a certain level of expertise in the design structure, and Old Republic is no different. The landscapes in many areas feel richly populated, and there is always plenty to do, though earlier on in the game I felt far more constricted than I have in past MMORPG titles. For instance, playing World of Warcraft or Rift, players would easily see the difference between the open landscapes, and the “closed set” feel of Old Republic. While there is plenty to do, and leveling was never really hard, many of the zones were rather small for what I was doing there.
As an example, in any given World of Warcraft zone, I would expect dozens of quests that would send me all over the map, some leading into other quests to advance me eventually to the next area of the world. I would explore most, if not all of the zone in doing these quests, if I decided to do every one of them every time. Old Republic has quests that lead you from area to area, however many times I got the feeling that I had stumbled through part of a zone (never to return) and had barely explored the area. More than once, I did every quest I could find, and realized that a good chunk of the map was there merely for flavor, and maybe the occasional player grinding mobs for experience and credits.
The main story, while interesting, has done little to help this; in fact, it exacerbates the problem by making it even more crucial to stick to the path: by going where the main quest sends you, you find just about the only quests aside from that along the way. By not doing much to “hide” quest areas and give players a reason to explore for them, no one is given much reason to leave the beaten path on a daily basis. You can see the effect of this simply by wandering around on the map: the areas without many (or any) quests are desolate. I sat in one for several minutes waiting to see if anyone would stroll by, and remained blissfully alone the entire time.
Of course, with any Star Wars game, you are guaranteed to be spending time accompanied by the tunes of John Williams, and Old Republic is no exception: playing through, fans of the movies will recognize track after track of Williams’ work, which remains appropriate given how attached to the setting of the “universe” it is. Everything else is taken straight from the movies as well, from the telltale lightsaber hum to the ring of blasters firing, so there are little surprises. One quick note about the sound though, players receive a companion early on who will accompany them. My heart goes out to those who receive the Wookiee, since they will grow weary of the growling. The constant, incessant growling.
Consider this: your companion will get thousands, if not tens of thousands of lines of dialogue. Now, consider that this particular companion will spend every moment of those lines regaling you with witty commentary that sounds a lot like “UUUGH WAAAAAGH RAWAAGH!” Trust me, it gets old extremely fast.
On the upside, there is the flashpoint system, which has become one of my favorite features of the game. The flashpoints are, for all intents and purposes, the instanced content of the game. Each of them features more difficult elite mobs to fight, several bosses, and appropriate loot for the players, however I wasn’t sure beforehand how the game would handle “quests” with multiple characters all involved in the same conversations. Luckily, BioWare did not disappoint by including one of the most fascinating ideas I’ve seen in the game: multiplayer scripted conversations! Each time a quest milestone is gained, the entire group engages in a conversation. As each talking point is reached, a random roll is conducted to choose which player moves the conversation next; their choice will show what their character says, in detail. This means that, if a player decides it’s time to kill someone, that specific player gets to do the deed.
BioWare also made sure to consider the various play styles, however: group events with light or dark side choices will still play out randomly, but the individual selections of each player affects their light/dark ratings. Thus, a player saving dark points is not penalized if a group mate puts out a light side result to a situation.
There are also the usual side projects for every character, specifically finding items to craft with, and making them into equipment. The crafting in this one is done through your companions, and can be a bit refreshing: you send your companion away to either make items, or you can dispatch them into the world to find items for you (at a cost of some credits, and some time). There are positives and negatives to this; if you’re in the wild, and you just got the drop that will let you make the perfect upgrade, you can send your companion to make it right away, but doing so will deprive you of their help during fights. Similarly, if you’re just in town shopping (or need to run AFK), you can send your companion away to run a quick mission while you’re indisposed. Same goes during travel, while moving from place to place you may decide to have your companion make something so it’s not time wasted.
The Player vs. Player experience is an interesting one, and one that I wish I could write about more, but thus far I’ve only managed to get queued into games of Huttball. The gametype itself is interesting, combining the football premise with the ever-popular “kill that guy, that one over there” mechanic. Players compete for, surprise surprise, the Huttball; by picking it up, you are slowed down, and given a bright “I’m here” beacon of kill-me-now that follows you everywhere. You can run with the ball, or pass it away to a teammate…but it can be intercepted, so watch out. It’s an interesting play on PVP, and fun to play, but I wished more than once that I had been allowed to queue for a specific warzone, instead of all of them generically, so that I might see some of the other areas and gametypes.
Overall, the game has a lot of potential, though the beta still has plenty of rough spots to iron out before the release of the full game in December. With a current level cap of 50, there is much of the game that players have yet to experience, and thus many of my impressions could be changed rapidly throughout the beta and full release of the game. Still, a solid foundation of enjoyable gameplay and established lore is set out for enjoyment, and BioWare’s tried and true format of providing rich storytelling benefits the game itself. As we progress closer to the full release, we will get a much closer look at how the game takes shape. The full release is still scheduled for December 20th, with a pre-launch planned for those who pre-order the game.
Durandal, as a disclaimer, is nowhere near as much of a jerk as his in-game avatar…