Sunday, January 8, 2012

The Old Republic

As you may already know, I got a chance to participate in the beta of Star Wars: the Old Republic, the blockbuster new MMO by Bioware. This is probably the most anticipated MMO since World of Warcraft. It's made by a superstar company riding high on the success on the Mass Effect franchise. They clearly know their way around the Old Republic era, having previously made Knights of the Old Republic, which is considered one of the best RPGs of all time. Bioware aren't just a sci-fi powerhouse: they are also well known for Baldur's Gate, Neverwinter Nights, and the more recent Dragon Age. The one kind of RPG that Bioware has never attempted before is an MMO*. So did they succeed?
Paprika, the Smuggler, was the first character we created
Bioware may never have created an MMO before, but they didn't need to reinvent the wheel.To put it simply, they borrowed heavily from World of Warcraft. This is hardly new, since just about every other MMO that has come out recently has done the same. If it ain't broke, don't fix it. Also, using familiar World of Warcraft tropes like flying taxis between set locations or skill bars displaying cooldown times allows gamers familiar with the most popular MMO to quickly jump into The Old Rebublic and already know what they are doing. And, like all RPGs, the player character gains experience and levels up, improves his or her gear, and picks up new abilities along the way.

Jakkath, the Bounty Hunter and the most badass of our characters
On top of that MMO framework, Bioware has crafted a rich game centered around the player character's progression through his or her own story. Essentially, Bioware has attached a single player experience to its MMO. Periodically, player characters enter private areas of the map where they interact with NPCs and advance the plotline of the character. This was a novel experience for me, and my favorite thing about The Old Republic. Each class has its own story arc. For instance, the Smuggler has his/her ship stolen when supplying a Rebel base, and the Sith Inquisitor is a recently freed slave who has been forced to learn the Dark Side of the Force and must now prove his worth among the Sith Tombs on Korriban.

The starting worlds are appropriate to the race you play. The Jedi start on lush, idyllic Tython, while the Sith start on the desert planet of Korriban. I hope you like the color brown and tombs if you're planning on playing a Sith character. I don't remember much about the starting world for the Bounty Hunter/Infiltrator or the Smuggler/Trooper. They both looked pretty average. The Bounty Hunter's world had some swamps, so I guess that was cool.
Akeril, the polite and mild-mannered Jedi Knight
Both the Sith Empire and the Republic have four classes, broken up into two Force using classes and two non-Force using classes. The classes always have a corresponding class on the other side, so the Republic Trooper on the Republic side corresponds to the Bounty Hunter on the Sith Empire side, both being heavily armored, long range classes who do not use the Force. The Force using classes on the same team always share a starting world, and the same goes for the non-Force using classes. I played one Force using class and one non-Force using class on both sides. This meant that I ended up playing a Republic Smuggler, a Bounty Hunter, a Jedi Knight, and a Sith Inquisitor. I also played the Republic Trooper, even though it duplicated the play style of the Bounty Hunter. My reasons for playing the Republic Trooper will become obvious later in this post.

Like in Mass Effect, interactions with NPCs are handled through a series of dialog options. You choose the gist of what you want to say, and your character says an appropriate line of dialog. That said, sometimes I would choose dialog choices that made my characters sound a bit bipolar. For instance, when my Bounty Hunter met with her Hutt employer for the first time, I started off by calling him "mighty lord," since you don't want to make a Hutt mad. But later, when I decided to show off by picking a badass dialog choice, my character called the Hutt a "fat slug" and lost any Brownie points she had earned earlier. Depending on your choices, you may end up getting Dark Side points or Light Side points. Interestingly, playing on the Republic or Sith Empire sides does not limit you to Light or Dark side points.

The game advises you that you can use the Escape key to leave a conversation at any time, then talk to the NPC again to start the conversation over from the beginning. I realized that this means that you only need to take Dark Side points or Light Side points if  you want to. If you accidentally pick up the type of point you don't want, just leave the conversation before it ends and start over. Of course, some players may prefer to play it straight and take what they originally  get, but I found some of the decisions so arbitrary that I was glad for the ability to adjust my choices.

Tengezhda, a Sith Inquisitor and a nasty little piece of work
For instance, while doing the Sith Inquisitor's storyline, I had the option to either help a Sith scientist who is researching the hounds that live in Sith tombs, or I could follow the advice of his frustrated assistant who thinks he's a hack and sabotage his work. On top of that, she offers me extra money on top of what the scientist is already paying me. So I decided that, nasty punk that I am, I would take both their money and sabotage the scientist's work. Seems like a jerk thing to do, right? Nope. I gained light side points, probably for helping to sabotage the despicable work of the scientist.

This was before I realized I could undo the dialog with the Escape key, and I was irked that my character, who had not yet had many opportunities to gain Dark Side points, was now on his way down the path of bunnies and bumblebees. Afterward, I remarked that, ironically, the fact that my character had gained a Light Side point had driven me further down the path of anger than anything I had done up to that point!
Rakari, the tough-as-nails Republic Trooper
Also like Mass Effect, the game is fully voice acted, both for the NPCs and, uniquely, for the player character himself or herself. And the female Republic Trooper is voiced by none other than the legendary Jennifer Hale, better known as the female Commander Shepard in Mass Effect. I strongly suspect that, in a bid to win Mass Effect fans to The Old Republic, Bioware had Hale do her FemShep voice for the most FemShep-like class in the game. Hale also voices Satele Shan, the descendant of Bastila Shan, a character Hale voiced in Knights of the Old Republic.

Though technically every NPC in the game is voice acted, Bioware recycles a trick they used in Knights of the Old Republic. Several alien NPCs talk in their alien language instead of English (er, Basic). This allows Bioware to give the alien a couple of phrases of gibberish, which they then reuse for all their dialog depending on the mood of the alien. Fortunately, this was not nearly as prevalent in The Old Republic as it was in Knights of the Old Republic, in the parts of the game I played at least.

The other big innovation in The Old Republic is the inclusion of companions who join your character near the end of your starter world. At first you only have one companion, who is assigned to you, but later on you can pick additional companions as well. Like in other Bioware games, these companions not only help you in battle, but they actually have conversations with you, complete with their own plotlines and quests.

Akahige, my attempt at creating a Jedi Knight who looks like Toshiro Mifune. Hearing the mild voice of the Jedi Knight coming out of someone who looks even a little like Mifune did not work at all, though.
Companions are the basis of the resource gathering in The Old Republic. You can teach them resource gathering skills, and then send them out. When they return, they bring along materials you can use to craft items. Pretty neat.

I was actually a pretty big fan of the companions I earned in the game so far. The Republic Trooper's was the most interesting, for reasons that tie into the Trooper's storyline and are therefore spoilery. I also appreciated that the Jedi Knight has a droid companion. Having a living sentient following you around all the time feels a little uncomfortable, and having a droid buddy is much more my style. That said, I really dug the relationship between my Sith Inquisitor and his companion, an ancient brute creature who enjoys devouring Force users (and long walks on the beach... probably).

In all honesty, the Sith Inquisitor was the biggest reason for how much I enjoyed the game. As awesome as it was to play the Republic Trooper and have Femshep in the Star Wars universe (geek out!), the best moments of the beta all came from the Sith Inquisitor's storyline. He is such a vicious, ego-maniacal punk that you can't help but love him. His smooth voice and good looks meant that it took me a while to realize that his personality is essentially the same as Invader Zim's. I came to this conclusion at one point where he is (as usual) late to a meeting with his overseer. When the overseer (again) chews him out for this, he casually remarks (truthfully) that the reason that he is late is because he was talking to a Sith Lord who was telling him about how amazing he is.

The Old Republic strives to give MMO players something they have never seen before: it gives them a chance to feel special. Though there are countless other players in the game, the player gets a chance to have his or her character star in his or her own storyline. This is a welcome change from the usual MMO trope of having the players be another soldier in an ongoing conflict, but it bumps up against some edges of the MMO formula. For one thing, when players can have companions join them, and every member of a certain class starts with the same companion, soon you see everyone being followed around by the identical minions, as though the Henchman's Guild just had a sale on siblings. Another problem is that, though the game assures you that you are making a difference, it has to quickly hustle you away from a location before you notice that the situation will always remain the same. For instance, when my Jedi Knight helped put an end to the Flesh Reaver incursion on Tarsis, the game shuffled me off to a different part of the planet to cover up the fact that those starter mobs of Flesh Reavers were still wandering around in the first area, still capturing padawans.

Bioware has never steered me wrong yet. That said, I do wish that The Old Republic were a single player game instead of a massively mutliplayer one. I do want to know what happens in the storylines, but I'm not such a huge fan of paying a monthly fee. We'll see if Penny Arcade's prediction of the game going free-to-play comes to pass.

* Though Bioware's website does list MMOs like Dark Age of Camelot and Warhammer Online, these were originally developed by Mythic, which then merged with Bioware when EA took over. I don't know the details.


  1. I agree with you about the Sith Inquisitor. I had a bit of a different experience, though, since I played the girl. I played a Rattataki, and the actress did a great mix of sounding sinister and dangerous.

    I agree that my favorite part was the story. (I gotta say, though, that while other people got to hang out with cool badasses, getting a robot was kind of a let-down as a Jedi. On the other hand, a robot is the kind of quiet companion that follows you around and doesn't have a proper conversation with you, so it did feel more RIGHT than some of the other companions.) I really liked the way they merged being able to have your own stuff happening with the MMO experience.

    Some of my biggest gripes are just starting-world stuff. Too many people, not enough enemies, a broken sense of immersion when you go into a place that's supposed to be dangerous, run through the rooms the evil enemies were supposed to be in, and backtrack when you realize the dozen other people there just killed them all and you have to wait for your turn to do a life-and-death struggle.

    I didn't even realize about hitting escape to restart a conversation. That does take some of the drama out of it....

    My biggest complaint was the combat system. It didn't feel like a Star Wars game. Part of it is that if you shoot someone with a blaster or hit him with a lightsaber, he really should go down. Having to shoot someone ten times is just silly, but I suppose it's necessary for PVP balance and for the whole MMO system to work right. On the other hand, why not do things a new way, a Star Warsy way rather than what's established? I did like that there isn't a proper auto-attack, which made the classes feel significantly different in combat. On the other hand, it really does boil down to standing there trading abilities until one person goes down. That makes for a lot of very one-sided fights that don't have much excitement. For that matter, even close fights don't have much excitement: it's not skill, it's just whoever's numbers do more numbers to the other person's numbers.

    Really, it seems like the kind of game you play with friends. I didn't play with any other players, but I hear that sometimes it lets everyone make choices in a story, with different people getting to make decisions at crucial points. This seems like a really cool way to do interactive storytelling, and creates a rich environment where you all contribute and have something at stake, and also where you can argue and get deeper into what to do, really getting into character. Maybe the Jedi Knight suggests harsh frontier justice, but the Jedi Consular wants to use more diplomatic means? And maybe the Bounty Hunter wants to bring the target in alive, while the Inquisitor wants to end things with no loose ends?

    You know I'm in if you're in. You can play the Sith badass. I know you want to.

  2. If this were a single player game I would definitely give it a go.

    "Another problem is that, though the game assures you that you are making a difference, it has to quickly hustle you away from a location before you notice that the situation will always remain the same."

    I would like to see this problem solved for a lot of games. It irked me that enemies respawned in Fallout 3.