“What has SWTOR done differently from WoW?”
”… The companions?”
“Oh yeah yeah, that’s true.”
“And space combat.”
“Oh yeah, space combat. I remember what daily quests used to be like. I’ll grant you the companions and the space combat are two things SWTOR does differently.”
“And the lightsabers.”
“Obviously the lightsabers. I mean the lightsabers go without saying, obviously. But apart from the companions and the space combat and the lightsabers -”
“Voice acting? Moral choices? Facial animation? Flashpoints?”
Which isn’t to say that the World of Warcraft copycat accusations are meritless. The Old Republic has lifted its formula wholesale from Blizzard’s game, and you can still see the cigar burns from Azeroth in every Jedi’s robe.
For instance, there are mailboxes. You have to walk to one to retrieve your mail. Which is fine in a medieval setting or even the modern day. But in a universe with flying cars, space transport, and (most importantly) real-time handheld holographic communicators, I still have to jog to the community post office box whenever I get new news from across the galaxy. You’ll encounter robot couriers delivering routine political documents. Why? Does encrypted e-mail not exist? There’s clearly a pervasive computer network on Coruscant, hasn’t someone invented TCP/IP? Princess Leia used a droid to transport highly sensitive military schematics, not her Twitter ramblings.
Vendor trash looks really out of place in this galaxy far, far away. But instead of picking up fractured spider legs or crisp basilisk urethras, you’re looting droid parts, vibroblade hilts and backpacks. This is great stuff! In any other game it would be crafting materials or usable items. In The Old Republic it’s junk. Sure, it makes more sense for vendors to buy these goodies than random animal parts, but why is it necessary? I’m trying to role play a Jedi like Obi-Wan Kenobi, a stoic and honest defender of the Republic. But when I kill bad guys and take their stuff I feel like some kind of vigilante mugger. Imagine killing three muggers and walking out of the alley with an iPhone case, some tennis shoes and a Knicks hat. Am I a Jedi Sage or Jedi Vulture?
You can tick off the rest of the SWTOR/WoW checklist yourself. Get quests from NPCs and objects in the environment, kill X number of Y monsters and return. Choose only a few of many crafting options and make weapons, armor and stims (potions). Every level you get a talent point to spend on an upgrade in one of three talent trees. On and on and on. It’s fundamentally the same game, a theme park MMO with no phasing and an endgame of raiding and gear grinding. Take note: this is where World of Warcraft was one year ago. Blizzard has since moved on (a bit), and while Bioware didn’t functionally update the state of the art, they did bolt on something compelling.
It’s Knights of the Old Republic 3. Search your feelings. You know it to be true.
I almost feel bad for Bioware after setting the bar so high with Mass Effect. Can you imagine them making a game without full voice acting nowadays? Star Wars: The Old Republic has that in spades. Every character talks, even yours, in the gender of your choosing. The facial animation is really good so long as you’re a human (or have a human face). For the exotic aliens, results may vary.
As a Jedi Consular I have this bipedal lizard following me around. The textures on his face are blurry and his jaw creaks like a Chuck-E-Cheese robot. You’ll speak to bugs with globs of metal in their face, things that look like brain devils with steampunk sunglasses, and dudes with giant snail heads. They move their mouth areas and wiggle their suspiciously human hands and call it a day. Given how every normal person looks like a perfect render from the Clone Wars CG movie it’s noticeable and disappointing. Remember early in Mass Effect 1 where you saw a Turian “gasp” by venting his cheek flaps? Or how Wrex’s entire jaw would mimic his precise enunciation? That’s not something you’ll find in The Old Republic.
Mouth movements aside, the quality of the voice acting is remarkable. Hearing your MMO character speak is an entirely new experience, like watching Pinocchio come to life. My Jedi master laments that her carefully laid plans are wasted because the Force is apparently guiding my training. I tell her that - even so - she is still my master and she says “I, uh… thank you,” touched by my statement. Hearing her voice break, I’m moved. I want to give her a hug. That’s so hard to do through text.
A big change from other Bioware RPGs is that your conversations only flow in one direction. In Mass Effect or Dragon Age you could sometimes loop around on a dialog tree and explore multiple options. Or there was an “Investigate” prompt on the left side for digging out backstory. Or you could just talk to the same person again and see what they say. In The Old Republic there’s none of that. Like your moral choices, your conversations with NPCs expire immediately. I couldn’t find a log of what’s been said, so listen well and speak with conviction. There are no second chances.
The linearity of the dialog isn’t just stressful; it can make your character look like an idiot. When a Senator’s aide asks me to retrieve stolen “high tech microchips,” I don’t buy his explanation for why he didn’t go to the police. I can’t press him on the topic, and I certainly can’t make him expound on exactly what “new industry” these chips will facilitate (or why he didn’t use Space UPS). So when Policeman Joe tells me that these microchips are for slave collars, I roll my eyes. Surprise, surprise.
Since this is an MMO and everything is voiced and looks great, the light/dark choices feel significant. Usually.
An early scenario: two padawans are in love, an emotion forbidden in the Jedi order. Their teacher suspects as much and asks me to verify. When I confront them, the girl is defensive but the boy is resigned. We have a small debate about the Jedi code and how love leads to the loss of impartiality. But I’m unconvinced. Looks like I’ll be ratting them out.
Then the girl offers me a lightsaber crystal to keep my mouth shut.
She has to wait five minutes while my character did nothing and I stare at the prompt options. It’s definitely a dark side choice if I take the bribe, and I can’t reload and choose another option if I don’t like the crystal. Or I could take the crystal and then still rat them out. In the end, this good Jedi refused the crystal and told the teacher on them.
The online nature of the game makes these choices tough. It’s not Skyrim, where you can experiment with your moral failings using the quicksave key. A guild member could walk up to you in a cantina and slap you in the face for ratting out those kids. For all the challenge and grind stripped out of the early game, your moral choices are permanent.
I said “usually” with a reason. If you’re going light side or dark side - and you should choose, there’s no exclusive items for being a bipolar Jedi - watch which dialog prompts you pick. Another scenario: a villager asks me to locate his father, gone missing in the Flesh Raider-infested wilds. I cut my way through the hordes and find a holoprojector from his dead dad. When I return to the man and tell him the news, he asks me if I’ve killed those evil monsters that took his father. My response options are “It was not about vengeance” or “Yep, they’re all dead.” I choose the second one without thinking about it and a sinister red light flashes, signaling +50 dark side points.
What the hell, game? I didn’t kill a named monster, those were all inconsequential goons I cut down. AND as a Jedi Consular there’s no way to sneak past them. AND you threw up a bonus goal as I killed them that read “12⁄15 Flesh Raiders killed.” AND the dude was really happy after I said I killed them. I know it’s not the Jedi way to seek revenge, but I’m not convincing this villager of anything. I’m just telling him that I had to kill some people to find his father’s body. Which is a fact.
There’s even a little “ripped from the headlines” questing to make a fool out of all of us. A woman stands outside the Senate building and begs for my help to restore the “True Republic” and defend it against a sleazy senator. He’s going to sell out the (current, non-true) Republic to the Sith Empire! Quelle horreur!
Uh, no. Hold on, lady. Please define the moral, social, and economic attributes of the current Republic and how it contrasts with your supposed “True Republic.” Then explain, in detail, who this senator is and what it means to “sell out” a Republic. Or point me to his Wookiepedia page. I’m not picky!
But no, I can’t ask any of these reasonable questions. She’s offering a quest that I find despicable: interfere with a courier droid and steal the message it’s carrying. In America that’s a federal crime! I don’t want to help her, I want to sock her in the jaw and call the cops. That’s not an option (unless you count refusing the quest entirely). Eventually you get to make a moral choice by either deceiving this crazy lady with a fake canister (that’s the “good” option) or helping her thwart genuine efforts at peace with the Sith Empire (here you’re being “evil”). No third choice exists to report her to the authorities for attempted mail fraud.
Is your head spinning yet? I think it’s great that the dialog supports this kind of analysis, but when The Old Republic’s story pillar falls, it crushes believability.
In ground combat the game is watching its feet to avoid tripping. I can’t claim systematic expertise with all classes, but the Jedi Consular feels okay. Not great, like my beloved WoW mage, but combat is functional and bug free. Animations are smooth and the sound effects are faithful to the movies. Don’t expect accurate fencing maneuvers: your saber just flails wildly at your opponents. Enemies are ranged or melee, normal grunts or elites, and do their job adequately if not spectacularly. I found a world boss in Coruscant, a battle droid the size of a bulldozer pacing around a little platform. No chance you’d stumble into its lair accidentally. Maybe that’s better than Warcraft’s wandering world destroyers, but I have no clue what it was doing there.
Actually, it was accomplishing a meaningful service in The Old Republic: taking up space. Any non-combat environment in this game is absolutely massive. Bigger than the biggest thing ever and then some. Gigantic multiplied by colossal multiplied by staggeringly huge is the sort of concept I’m trying to get across here.
Ahem. While the game’s texture work and modeling is outstanding, cities like Coruscant and social settings like the Republic Fleet are way too big for your character’s walk speed. Shops are roomy, there are tons of chairs in the cantina, and entire wings are intentionally left empty. It’s probably an accurate reproduction of what these spaces would look like in real life, but in a video game that bills you by the month it’s maddening. Did you read about the nutjob who sued Blizzard because the run speed in World of Warcraft was too slow? There’s almost a case to make against The Old Republic, considering you can buy a collector’s edition that comes with a free mount. Much of your early quest-gathering time will be spent listening to your footsteps click clack on the cold metal. Oh, and burning with a passion to turn your companion into a pair of leather boots.
Remember how other Bioware games give you a colorful cast of characters to accompany you on your travels, with unique personalities and cutting-edge facial animation? The Old Republic stuck me with a blurry lizard.
His name is Qyzen (kuh-why-zen) Fess, a Trandoshan hunter, which means he looks like Shaquille O’Neal in a cheap T-Rex suit. An old friend of my Jedi master, his religion is based on accumulating “points” by hunting worthy creatures and having said points recognized by a goddess known as the “Scorekeeper.” If this were an original universe I’d accuse Bioware of using Qyzen as a commentary on our obsession with Microsoft’s Gamerscore.
I hate Qyzen. I hate him so much I’d pay EA real money for a premium in-game item that converts him into stylish Trandoshan leather boots. I’d seal the boots in a box and toss the box into a river and hurl the river into space. Why?
- You know how Wookies growl and coo, how Ewoks chirp and chitter, how droid beep and boop? Qyzen sounds like a frog gargling coal. In a game with extensive voice acting, my first companion has a grating voice. Terrific.
- Try getting Qyzen to talk about something other than points, hunting, or the Scorekeeper. Impossible. He’s the most single-minded religious fanatic you’ll ever meet. I have a Jehova’s Witness as a friend, and after experiencing Qyzen’s rhetoric I’m considering nominating him for sainthood. Then again, my JW friend doesn’t think I’m the reincarnation of Jesus.
- Oh, didn’t I mention that? Qyzen tags along with you because he’s convinced himself that you’re the “herald” of his goddess. It’s clear your character doesn’t really believe in this hokey religion, but still allows a violent deluded alien to accompany him. I’m all for tolerance and multiculturalism, but this is a bad situation. I can’t talk Qyzen out of his conviction that I’m the herald. What happens when he comes to his senses, realizes I’ve been fooling him all this time and tries to kill me? Sure, this is a MMO, it’ll never happen, but my brain was screaming at the insanity of it all.
- While not specific to Qyzen, companion pathfinding is poorly implemented. As I’m running around Coruscant in third person Qyzen is usually running right behind me, blocking my view of my character. When I’m trying to click on an NPC to start a conversation he’s in my way, gargling unhelpfully and forcing me to rotate the camera. I’m sure Bioware will fix this eventually, but outside of combat this guy is just a nuisance.
Instead of instanced dungeons, The Old Republic has Flashpoints, which are instanced dungeons. Uh, wait. No, that’s right. Any combination of four players and companions go through a scripted sequence with group moral choices, bosses, and the usual drama of rolling for loot. Fighting as a group is invigorating. The game synchronizes Jedi lightsaber drawing and sheathing, so you sound as cool as you look. Popping force powers and having blaster fire and grenades exploding all around you is what Star Wars is all about. On the other hand, while the dialog will probably get dull in repeat sessions, it’s fun to snark to each other in the chat window. As a light side Jedi, watching my teammates callously toss crewmen out the airlock is quite the guilty pleasure.
There’s still more I haven’t found yet. My own spaceship. Crafting. Guilds. A companion who doesn’t inspire incoherent rage. It’s all waiting for me a long, long time ago in a galaxy far, far away.
Waiting until my trial month expires.